Haitian Vodou in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York

For a few hours people can forget that they are in a basement in Brooklyn and step into a Haitian world where they are not migrants but people” (Schmidt 69).

This video briefly introduces the Haitian Vodou religion and discusses the way it is stigmatized and frowned upon by many people in the United States. It also includes the experiences of some members on how it feels like to practice their religion outside of Haiti and in such a unique place (basement).

The quote at the top shows a clear distinction between being a migrant and being a person. Migrants are often times not perceived as people but rather as work machines, without emotions, affection or a sense of dignity while “people” are perceived as the complete opposite. The fact religion allows migrants to feel like “people” shows the importance of religion and the impact it has on the identity of a Caribbean immigrant.

Although Haitian Vodou is often misunderstood and misinterpreted amongst non-followers it is a common religion amongst Haitian immigrants and members of the second generation. It is a way for the people who are now living in New York City to reinvest in cultural practices from their homeland and form a connection with family and friends abroad who also practice the religion.This relationship is formed through the incorporation of trips to and from Haiti into the spiritual lives of the adherents in New York City. Many times followers have to go to important services or cults in Haiti so that they can make progress in their spiritual lives.

In a similar way to the Spiritual Baptist denomination, Haitian Vodou was developed during colonial times when enslaved Africans adapted Catholic rites into their native religions traditions, creating many syncretic religions (Schmidt 55). In this religion, adherents form a particularly close relationship with the priest/priestess who initiates them. They establish regular private consultations in which the follower discusses any problems that he/she might have with the priest. The conversations happen behind close doors (60). This relationship becomes so much more important to Haitian immigrants because many times they are on their own and want guidance on a particular subject. They do not feel secure to ask strangers in a position of authority. So who more than a priest/priestess who speaks the same language, has the same culture, and has probably gone through a similar situation. Other times, forming a relationship with a priest provides Haitian immigrants with assurance that they are maintaining their culture and identity intact. Although clergymen in this religion do not have that much power in the United States, they probably huge political, religious and social power in Haiti and probably play a major role in the lives of the adherents. Thus when the adherents come to New York they still want to continue having the presence of the priest in their lives.

Adherents of Haitian Voudou believe that the priestess/priest (aka Mambo) has the ability to talk to the Iwa (spiritual beings that can enter that human body and are thought to be present in all realms of nature) to obtain solutions to the problems that are faced by the members. This is very important. Believing that there are immediate and rapid solutions to problems is very important for Haitian immigrants so that they do not feel like there is no way out. Also, the fact that Haitian immigrants believe that they can talk to their god, proves the strong faith they have in the existence of an omnipotent superior being. The Iwa are not thought of as physical beings though they are also connected to Catholic saints, showing once again the effect of French colonialism on Haiti.

All religious symbology has connections with history in Africa, slavery and suffering (63). Musicians play an important role in the Haitian Vodou ceremonies because the Iwa can be called only by the playing of the drums and dancing of the female adherents. The drum playing also tells members how fast or how slow to move, dance, sing, yell. The perception of Vodou in New York City is mainly influenced by the social situation of the Haitian community in New York City and the negative image of Vodou (Bilefsky). Even amongst the Vodou communities within the city there exists a sort of jealousy and competition, not allowing outsiders to see signs that the religion is good and peaceful.

In New York City, Haitian Vodou symbolizes entering the homeland for migrants and for members of subsequent generations Haitian Vodou is a way for them to discover their lost roots in Haiti and even in Africa because Vodou represents for them their African ancestors (Bilefsky). Vodou in New York City also empowers women in particular to gain prestige by occupying religious positions, which explains the huge amount of women amongst the faithful.

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This picture shows a Haitian Vodou ceremony taking place in a basement of a building in Flatbush Brooklyn, where a woman is being possessed by an Iwa. These possessions are common in Vodou ceremonies. Surrounding people always make sure that the possessed are not harming themselves or the ones around them.

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This is another picture from a service at a ceremony taking place in a basement of a building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Smoking also has a religious significance, allowing adherents to contact the Iwa.

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A picture of  a Haitian Vodou Altar. In this picture there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus. However, the statue does not represent the Christian Messiah and his mother but rather Erzili, goddess of beauty, and her kin.

Dancing women who are wearing traditional Caribbean clothing is a common thing to observe at a Haitian Vodou ceremony. It is also a way of encouraging the Iwa to manifest themselves.

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Drum playing is essential to a Haitian Vodou service.

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