It's ten in the morning and the Little Haiti Cultural Complex is buzzing with energy. Wande Coal and DJ Tunez-Iskaba play through the speakers, and vendor tents are lined up with tables decorated with coconuts and mangos. The smell of vegan Caribbean food tingles your nose. The women serving smile brightly, their hair tightly pulled back under their Ankara head wraps.
For the people in Little Haiti, this is the energy that surrounds the bright-colored Caribbean Marketplace at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex every weekend. But for others who have never ventured into the area, it's a piece of Miami relatively undiscovered.
Many of the visitors are waiting at the entrance of the market, and improvised photo shoots are happening in front of a small bus. The words "Ti Ayiti Tap~Tap" are painted across the roof, and the body depicts a picturesque landscape of Haiti with palm trees, a map of the country, a woman with a basket atop her head, and three bolded words that shout a testament, "HAITI WITH LOVE!"
Abraham Metellus, the director of the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, has been manifesting this vision of cultural bus tours of his Little Haiti neighborhood for years.
Metellus said he was bothered by the responses he received from significant tour bus operators in South Florida when he would propose the idea, so he decided to do it himself, with the help of his community and the resources around them. Each Saturday in July, the bus tours are free and open to the public. (Tours will continue throughout the rest of the year, with a TBD ticket price attached.) The response, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I would send emails, visit in person, and even create marketing collateral to try to convince these tour operators to come to Little Haiti. I was often told that tourists aren’t interested in Little Haiti or Little Haiti isn’t as popular as Wynwood, and it would frustrate me. I had to prove that Little Haiti was worth visiting. Through a collaboration with the Community Marketing Agency, we were able to launch the Little Haiti Tap Tap Project," Metellus said.
The first tour brought out 21 people, and attendance has increased ever since, with word spreading on social media and online. Metellus says many people don't know the stories behind landmarks like the Caribbean Marketplace and Toussaint Louverture monument, or that Little Haiti has Earth N Us Farm, where visitors can rent a treehouse and see farm animals.
"Right now, what excites me is that we have proof of concept and we know that it can be done. As Haitians, we are very resilient, and we realize that if major tour operators don't come to Little Haiti, then we have to create the experience ourselves. Without the support of Sandy Dorsainvil, Libreri Mapou, City of Miami Parks, International Express Services, Dr. Alphonse G. Dufreny and the community, we wouldn’t have been able to see this vision come to life," Metellus said.
The project is an initiative to invite the community to enjoy the Caribbean Marketplace and support the local economy. It's also a way for the story and history of the neighborhood to be told with dignity and respect from the people who live in and represent Little Haiti. Metellus also enlisted the help of a HistoryMiami tour guide.
"A bus was donated for the initiative and local artists Serge Toussaint and Gilbert were able to paint it to make it look like the buses in Haiti. Once the bus was painted, everyone loved it so much that they ended up taking pictures in front of it and it became viral," he recalls. "Then I connected with Jean Cidelca, who is a current student at FIU and an expert tour guide, and I asked him if he would be willing to give free bus tours in July to help promote the culture and the community. He agreed, and we created the Eventbrite link, and within three days it was completely booked."
Somara Jacques, who attended the free tour with her friends last week, said the Tap Tap tour helped her reconnect with her Haitian roots. She was raised in the United States after her parents brought her here at the age of 2.
"We grew up in the Midwest, so my parents thought it best not to teach us our native language [of] Creole. They wanted us to fit in and blend in. They were afraid of what the consequences would be for us if we did not," Jacques said. "I learned about the history of Haiti, the mass exodus of Haitians from the island in the '80s, and about all of the rich culture of Little Haiti, formerly known as Lemon City. I am a proud Haitian, a proud naturalized American citizen, and an extremely lucky person. I thank my mom and dad every day for leaving the only home they knew and their families, to allow my brother, sister, and me the opportunity to have a better life here and also give me a culture, a heritage, and a rich tradition that I am proud of and learned a lot more about today."
Little Haiti Bus Tour. 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, July 21 and Saturday, July 28, starting at Caribbean Marketplace, 5925 NE Second Ave., Miami;littlehaiticulturalcenter.com. Admission is free via Eventbrite.