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(cover picture) Richman, Karen E.
2005 Migration and Vodou. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Notes: xxi + 356 pp. ISBN: 0813028353
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 19 Dec 2005 by:
Robert Lawless <>
Department of Anthropology, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Haitians - United States - Migrations
Haitians - United States - Social life and customs
Immigrants - United States
Migrant labor - United States
Voodooism - United States
United States Social life and customs
United States - Religious life and customs

ABSTRACT:    This intimate portrayal of Haitians in South Florida and Haiti illustrates the personal, economic, and social characteristics of Haiti’s diaspora.

In this marvelous book, Richman masterfully pilots the reader through global, national, local, and personal levels of knowledge and experience. Detailed yet absorbing, documented yet seamless, scholarly yet accessible, the book reads as a fine wine should taste. That’s not a bad analogy. Reading through the book did, indeed, give me a buzz. I laughed and I cried. How many academic works elicit such emotions?

Richman, whose 1992 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Virginia dealt with the Haitian diaspora, is well known to scholars of Haiti, especially for her fine work on Haitians as migratory farm workers in the U.S.A. This book focuses on the life and times of a Haitian man referred to as Little Caterpillar, whom Richman first met “on a wretched farm labor camp in Tasley, Virginia” (p. xvii), and much of the book revolves around Little Caterpillar’s relatives in a Haitian coastal community named Ti Rivyè. The content of the book is largely based on cassette-letters sent back and forth between those in Haiti and those in the Haitian diaspora. Indeed, as Richman states, “The portable radio-cassette player is a prominent, ‘multivocal’ symbol--a model of and for--this transnational, mobile society” (p. 213).

A multidisciplinary work engaging the literature “on migration, transnationalism, and global capitalism [as well as drawing] from anthropological perspectives on religion and society and from folklore, ethnomusicological, and sociolinguistic studies” (p. 31), this book also engagingly includes the author as a major player in its unfolding drama--in much the same way as Karen McCarthy Brown places herself in her equally marvelous 2001 ethnography of the Haitian diaspora, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. (Richman was, not coincidentally, Brown's student.) The details of the everyday life of Haitians in Haiti and in the diaspora, and of Richman’s involvement in these lives, absorbs the reader’s attention and creates a high degree of empathy that is rarely found in academic literature.

Although every page is informative and some of them are, frankly, enrapturing, I was particularly impressed with Chapter 2, in which Richman documents the history of the deleterious impact of the United States on Haiti while seamlessly maintaining the reader’s attention on the individual Haitian. As the saying goes, soil and labor have become Haiti’s chief exports while Haiti has become an importer of expensive U.S. food. The dramatic exodus of Haitians from Ti Rivyè to Florida began around 1980, but even though for the most part these migrants initially settled into the utterly degrading and substandard housing of Florida plantations, “they were simultaneously ‘living’ in Ti Rivyè” (p. 64). Chapter 3 describes how migrants kept their Haitian connections through families that “organize themselves as producers of people for export, consumers of migrants’ remittances and managers of migrants’ assets in people and things” (p. 64).

Chapter 4 chronicles the local history of Ti Rivyè and how the peasantry was changed into a proletariat. Although only 31 pages, this scholarly account is not only a welcome addition to our knowledge about Haiti, but also an engrossing account that demonstrates Richman’s ability to make the complex easily accessible.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 bring indigenous religion into focus by explaining the influence of interactions with the lwa and pwen. Too difficult to render in a brief review, one needs to read Richman’s finely textured clarifications to comprehend their meaning. In her glossary Richman defines lwa as “anthropomorphic spirits who are inherited through family lines among land-holding descent groups. Lwa have power to help or harm the heirs” (p. 302). And she defines pwen as “the essence of relations or situations... an undetermined message coded in speech, song, a name or a visual image... a magical power that makes fast money” (p. 303).

Chapter 8 returns to the life and times of Little Caterpillar, his friends, and relatives. The expectations and tensions between those in the U.S.A. and those who stayed at home are clearly drawn through generous quotations from the letters and ritual songs on the tapes. Most of the expectations of the migrants and those who stayed home are unmet, and most of the tension revolves around finances. As Richman points out, “The home kin’s protracted dependence on the migrants’ remittances symbolically elevates the migrants, who are typically younger, to a superior status. To preempt the migrant benefactor’s opportunity to feel superior, the home kin often ignore migrants by not writing them to acknowledge receipt of remittances or by avoiding them when they return home for visits” (p. 248). And, conversely, migrants “feel that they slave away in hostile, foreign countries for the sake of people who resent them for ever having left” (p. 248).

The final chapter and the Epilogue deal mostly with the death of Little Caterpillar, allegedly by sorcery. Richman’s account of Little Caterpillar’s final days will certainly bring tears to the reader’s eyes. Richman interprets his final cassette-letter from Haiti to her this way:

Little Caterpillar struggles to understand his imminent, unnatural death. How could such a cruel fate meet someone who endeavored to lead a dignified, moral life, who, as a migrant, demonstrated generosity and kindness to his home kin? At the same time, he is convinced of the etiology of his distress. He faces the standard punishment of anyone who tries to lift herself or himself out of misery. . . . a sorcerer is slowly ‘killing him for what he gained’: a house, livestock, a small plot of land. He takes some solace in his belief that the person will ultimately be punished by God. He does not name the one who did this to him. After adding up the signs of malfeasance consuming his life, he raises his voice to demand, “What does it look like to you, Karen?” I don’t think he knew for certain who it was, and he left me to wonder as well (p. 266).

The actual recording is included in a compact disc that comes with the book, along with six other tracks of cassette-letters and ritual songs, making this book, along with its many other attributes, a delight for the study of Haitian Creole. Throughout the text these cassette-letters and ritual songs are reproduced in their original Creole and also in English translations. In addition, 65 relevant black and white photographs complement the text. Eleven pages of notes, a glossary, and a 25-page bibliography round out this enchanting book.

Clearly destined to become a classic in diaspora studies, this book should also appeal to those interested in economics, electronic communication, ethnomusicology, exploitative labor systems, folklore, global politics, U.S. global hegemony, racism, and religion. On all these topics Richman’s edification is as fulgent as a million ritual candles.