In a term abounding with profane language, Donald Trump saved his most bitter remark for immigrants. You likely remember the comment. “Why are we having all these people from s–hole countries come here?” Trump asked in a closed-door 2018 meeting with mostly Republican senators, as reported by The Washington Post later that day.
He went on to identify Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as the countries in question – never mind that Africa is a continent – and he reserved special animus for Haiti. “Why do we need more Haitians?” he asked, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”
Trump would later claim he never used the s-word, but Raj Shah, then a spokesman for the White House, did not deny the slur, and when Jesse Watters, a co-host of Fox News’ “The Five,” considered Trump’s tirade, he embraced it as a populist manifesto. “I think it’s either fake news, or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar,” Watters gushed.
I had a different reaction. To me, Trump’s descriptor dehumanised several million individual lives, and it carried a troubling logic: If Haiti, El Salvador and African countries could be dismissed with an expletive, why worry about their fates as countries, or about how their problems have been caused partly by US policy?
As an travel writer, I try to regard other nations as hopeful places filled with intriguing surprises. But arguably, as an American travel writer I was a little complicit in Trump’s insolence. Though I’d visited 30-odd countries, I’d never been to Haiti or El Salvador, and my travels in Africa had been tentative, cautious. The president had denigrated places that even I deemed too broken for tourism. As he often does, he’d stirred the pot with an assertion rooted not in facts, but in something deeper: a widely held fear.
What if I responded to the president by packing my suitcase? Wasn’t it time for somebody to take the “S–hole” World Tour? I developed a plan. I’d travel to Haiti, El Salvador and an African country to gauge how Trump’s insult registered. I’d seek out, too, the complexity and the beauty that all slurs ignore – and I wouldn’t just do this to push against Trump’s worldview. I’d also do it for my own sake. Isn’t the whole point of travel to go deep into the culture of a place, and then to return home feeling that you’ve enlarged and brightened your own small world?
I’ve decided that one way to understand this country would be to focus on its cuisine, so on a steamy morning in June, I’m sitting on the porch of my hotel, awaiting Haiti’s most famous chef. David Destinoble, 38, has served as the personal chef to Haiti’s prime minister and now runs two Port-au-Prince restaurants.
A Haitian native who spent most of his childhood in Miami before moving back to the Caribbean in 2015 after working for many years in Florida restaurants, he’s starred on and co-produced a TV show, “Le Chef,” that focuses on Haitian staples: pumpkin soup, beef stew, poulet aux noix and griot, which is fried pork shoulder.
When he shows up, he’s driving a Chinese motorcycle, a Haojin dirt bike. He is tall and bald and sardonic, and at the moment he’s smirking. “Ah,” he says, “the white guy’s gonna get a little taste of Haiti.”
I climb on the back, and we inch our way into the street. We’re moving so slowly the bike barely balances, but then gradually – it’s like music finding its groove – we begin slaloming through stalled traffic. We start charging into the left lane at times, straight at oncoming cars, so that for 10 or so seconds at a stretch we’ve got our own wide-open swath of pavement and we delight in the breeze.
We’re wending skyward toward Kay Chefs, a small bistro Destinoble runs 45 minutes out of town, in a chic hillside suburb called Laboule. I’m not wearing a helmet, and I’m aware of my skull as a fragile egg. In frightening moments, my grip on Destinoble’s ribs goes extra tight. He keeps flying uphill, amused by my terror.
Destinoble did not move back to Haiti to be cautious. Weekends, he drives his Jeep – “Colonel Black Mamba,” he calls it – into Haiti’s most remote villages, so that he can treat locals to delectable meals cooked on his tailgate. When Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, he spent three months roaming the countryside, feeding the homeless and hungry.
He wasn’t alone on the mission. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has a close-knit community of young chefs who know that their nation’s woes are deeply rooted in food. In recent decades, Haiti has consistently imported more than half the food it consumes. Its agricultural sector took a severe blow in 1995, when President Bill Clinton began paying subsidies to U.S. farmers flooding the tiny country with rice grown in his home state of Arkansas. Haitian farmers couldn’t compete with the cheap import, and many fled the countryside to live in sewerless shantytowns ringing Port-au-Prince.
Meanwhile, in the grocery stores Destinoble frequents, wealthier Haitians now fill their carts with processed American food: Froot Loops, canned corn, Cheetos. “We’ve got an inferiority complex,” Destinoble says.
The new Haitian cuisine is about pride, and it was born, arguably, in September 2011, when a chef named Stephan Durrand founded the annual Haiti Food & Spirits Festival in Port-au-Prince, convinced, in his words, that Haitian dishes added up to more than “ethnic food that you get in a Styrofoam box.”
Port-au-Prince now boasts its own culinary school, and there are currently a half-dozen high-end restaurants where the draw is always a Haitian maestro doing interesting things with passionfruit or grilled conch.
As Destinoble sees it, all of Haiti’s bruised beauty can be compressed into the words “local food.” When we finally reach Kay Chefs, he tells me that, as a child, he came back to Haiti every summer for Boy Scout camp. “We did manly stuff,” he says. “We’d go into the jungle and find edible flowers and wild herbs – rosemary, chives, thyme. We killed birds with slingshots and cooked them over a fire. We set traps for rabbits.”
Destinoble serves me some goat, just slaughtered, and then he continues his stories, now reaching back to remember his most formative days growing up in a Haitian coastal city, Saint-Marc. When he was 5, he says, his mom let him join a few sinewy fishermen as they took part in a day-long ocean race. Then, out on the sea, one young fisherman, Maurice, dropped oil and a scallion into a pot on the boat’s stove. “That pot just sizzled,” Destinoble remembers, “and I was hot and tired and hungry. That scallion was the best thing I ever smelled.”
Later, Maurice added fish and grated coconut to the pot. “It was my first time ever on the ocean,” Destinoble says. “That day was a big deal for me, and the fish stew that guy made, I’ve been chasing after that taste my whole life.”
When Destinoble mentions that he saw Maurice last year, a vision of the perfect Haitian meal pops into my mind. What if Destinoble and I traveled to Saint-Marc and cooked Maurice a pot of fish stew? Destinoble loves the idea. “We’ll leave early,” he says. “We’ll find him up there. It’ll be great.”
Over the next few days I linger about Port-au-Prince, mostly waiting for Destinoble to call or text but also meeting with his nouveau-cuisine allies. One afternoon I join Stephan Durrand, 46, to get dinner up in Kenscoff, the high mountain village where he grew up. As we drive alongside a cliff overlooking the sea, he gives me a primer on Haitian food. “It’s the cuisine of slaves,” he says, “with influences from the conquerors – French, Spanish, English. We have a Mom’s cuisine, just like the Italians. Historically, there weren’t professional chefs, and men didn’t cook. They were out in the fields, working.”
In 2018, Durrand traveled with seven other Haitian chefs to the James Beard House in New York for a Haitian all-stars evening. He hopes that, with food, he can “wage diplomacy and show Haiti off to the world.” But he concedes that his efforts are but tiny drops in the stream of Haitian history.
Haiti began so hopefully, in 1804, as the world’s first independent black nation, but by 1806 the United States was already causing Haiti problems. Along with France and Spain, it refused to trade with Haiti, lest its freed blacks inspire mutiny among Americans still in bondage. America’s bitterness toward Haiti lasted until Emancipation, helping to destabilise and impoverish the smaller nation. For over a century, Haiti was led by a seemingly endless string of corrupt dictators. Between 1915 and 1934, the United States occupied Haiti.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration propped up a Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka Baby Doc, who had a penchant for torturing and killing his citizens. A decade later, the United States supported Haiti’s first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest, and even went so far as to reinstate him after a military coup.
By the late 1990s, though, Haiti had become a transfer point for Colombian cocaine en route to college campuses and suburban homes in the United States. Coke was the way to wealth for many Haitians, and accusations of drug dealing swirled around Aristide. He was never indicted, but in February 2004, a U.S. Navy SEAL team facilitated a deadly Haitian coup by escorting Aristide onto a flight bound for the Central African Republic.
Then, in 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck just outside Port-au-Prince. It killed more than 200,000 people and threw hundreds of thousands more into makeshift homeless camps that are, even today, still raging with cholera, which was brought in by U.N. peacekeepers. “This has just become a harder country since the earthquake,” Durrand says. “People aren’t as joyous. We don’t feel as safe.” Indeed, Durrand seems to have integrated the stress himself. He’s an irritable driver, cursing others on the road, shouting, “What are you doing, my friend?”
When at last we reach the Kenscoff street market, the tension slips out of his shoulders. We soon find his culinary hero, and he’s delighted. Marie Denis is “the best griot chef in the world,” he tells me. She’s a lean older woman, simply dressed and very shy as she tends to a metal pot bent and battered with age. “I bought griot from her when I was a kid coming home from soccer practice,” Durrand says. “The new Haitian cuisine starts with people like this.”
Denis smiles, demurely, and then, for $2.25, I get a couple of crispy knuckles of griot, each one blackened here and there, shiny with oil, and sour and salty as they rest on a bed of pikliz, a vinegar-rich, lime-tinged coleslaw. “What you’re tasting is the sour orange,” Durrand says.
“They kill their own pigs early in the morning. Then they bathe them in sour orange, to kill the bacteria. It’s an African tradition.” He tells me all this slowly and precisely, his tone reverent. Then, to ensure I get the undiluted street-dining experience, he orders from Denis a bottle of clairin – moonshine made from distilled sugar cane.
The clairin is syrup set on fire, and as we drink, Denis just stares at Durrand, silently, dotingly – reviling, it seems, in how he’s all grown up now. At one point, I attempt to ask her about pig butchery, just to crack the ice, but Durrand, who’s acting as my interpreter, cuts me off with a cool glare. Amid all the trials of Haitian life, he and I have arrived at a sweet island of solace, and right now it’s my job to be quiet: It is wrong to parse paradise.
I keep sending Destinoble texts about our trip to Saint-Marc. I call. No response. So one day, to kill time, I wake at dawn and ride a mototaxi, then a tap tap (a minivan bus), then another couple of mototaxis into the hills, determined to summit the highest mountain in a mountainous country. Pic la Selle, elevation 8,793 feet, is roughly 50 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince and rather elusive. There are no road signs pointing the way, no formal trails, and much of the route there is not a road, really, but rather a motorcycle path so steep and so rubbly that twice I climb off my mototaxi and walk for fear of being pitched off the back.
The air grows thin and cool. In a village, locals point me toward a walking path that curves past a small family home, then past a few alpine gardens before cutting straight up a gravelly ridge. After about half an hour on the path, I find myself on an incline so steep that I’m crabbing over the loose rock on all fours. I give up, but then, as I’m descending, I meet a Haitian boy, maybe 14, who’s loping skyward in a chamois shirt, a scarf and a ski cap, a machete dangling from his belt.
I suspect he’s herding goats. He speaks only Creole, but invoking intricate sign language, he and I broker a deal: For $3, he will lead me to the apex of Haiti. For half an hour I follow him – through a meadow dotted with daisies, then over slabs of white quartz past a few yucca bushes until, finally, we are standing atop a high, blustery peak appointed with a few spindly pine trees.
It’s taken me seven hours to get here from my hotel, but when I gaze right I discover that, in fact, I have not climbed Pic la Selle. The plateau we’re standing on slopes up, so that a few miles away it’s higher than we are. I look over at my new friend, slightly miffed. He just smiles at me, shrugging, as if to say, “C’est la vie.”
Haiti’s top chefs all know one another, so on another day, I get an invite to a new culinary school, opened last year by World Central Kitchen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The school sits on the smartly renovated top floor of a lavish private home carved into a hillside, and it has no exterior walls, so that tropical breezes can flow in, under the roof. When I arrive, seven college-age Haitian chefs are assembled around a gleaming bank of chrome stoves, dressed in white smocks and chef’s hats as they stand at attention watching a master chef, also Haitian, show them how to prepare griot.
After a while, I’m directed to a table by the balcony. Fine cutlery is set upon the white tablecloth, and there’s a goblet of freshly squeezed passionfruit juice, as well as a view of the green hills that slope down to the bay. There’s only one place setting. Could I feel more honoured?
One student brings me a small savoury portion of griot atop a crisp pale green lettuce leaf. Another replenishes my glass of juice. The building’s owner, a chef named Mi-Sol Chevalier, comes by, eventually, and tells me that her home had four levels until the earthquake ripped it apart.
“I will be 68 next month,” she says. “My husband has passed away. I wanted to see young people doing my profession. This country needs chefs.” A breeze sways the palm trees below me. Birds flit about in the canopy, and I think that, yes, maybe fine cuisine will bring Haiti back from the brink.
Haitian griot (fried pork chunks) with fried green plantains. Photo / Jeffery A. Salter, The Washington Post
The next day, I take lunch at the swank Asu Rooftop Lounge, where the chef, Melissa Francois, serves me chicken in a creamy sauce made lemony yellow and vaguely bitter by a mild citrus fruit common in Haiti, the yellowish-green, orange-size bergamot.
Francois, who’s 35, grew up in Haiti regarding Uncle Ben’s rice as a delicacy. Her parents weren’t cooks, and she knew of bergamots only because her grandmother rubbed them in clean clothes “to give them that fresh smell,” she explains. When she finally learned about Haitian cuisine as an adult, she was struck by how each part of Haiti is different, offering up its own signature dishes. “Where I grew up, in Port-au-Prince, we have a corn porridge called AK100, which is rather liquidy and cooked with allspice leaves.
In Jacmel,” she says, naming a Haitian city, “they eat their porridge as a solid, wrapped in a banana leaf and sweetened with cane. On the road to Jacmel, there’s a lady who sells coffee mixed with ginger tea. You’d never think of mixing those things, but it’s marvellous. It’s mind-blowing.” Francois is now at work with other chefs on a cookbook, “Haiti of My Belly,” that highlights the country’s regional cuisines.
On my last day in Port-au-Prince, Destinoble and I head up to Saint-Marc. We travel north in a tap tap (his wife has the car), and as we’re boarding at the Port-au-Prince bus stop, street hustlers mob us, angling to tow my suitcase and calling out Destinoble’s name – “Chef David!” – in their bid for coin. Destinoble regards them sourly. “Haiti is the last pirate stronghold,” he tells me. “Every person here is a business. I didn’t say they have a business. They are a business. They’re pirates, and they operate in a world with no paper trails, no taxes. It’s a free-for-all.”
Our tap tap starts rolling, and Destinoble shifts in his seat, pained, trying to get a smidgen more legroom, for he has recently injured his knee crashing his motorcycle onto the gravel. When one young passenger tosses a potato chip bag out the window, Destinoble goes off. “There was once a great age in Haiti,” he tells me, alluding to 1804, when Haitian slaves overthrew their French overlords, “a time when there were not males, but men. Those Haitians who fought for freedom. But we couldn’t last a day in their shoes. We’re weak-minded. We don’t care about nation-building. We care about self-building.”
Since he’s slamming Haiti, I ask him how he reckons with Trump’s vulgar snipe. “Look,” he says, “Mr. Trump has First Amendment rights. He can say what he wants, but when you say that the place where my father was born, and where my mother was born, is a ‘s–hole’ – that’s hard to swallow.” Destinoble shakes his head. “Don’t you understand?” he asks. “We’re just like the hard-working people Mr. Trump talks about at his rallies. We have the same priorities: a safe country, a good life for our children. Yeah, I want to make Haiti great again. Of course I do.”
We do not find Maurice. We meet with fishermen by the bay in Saint-Marc and discover that no one has seen Maurice in months – that he may even have died. As we eat a dismal lunch at a fast-food restaurant, Destinoble is glum and largely silent. We don’t cook anything at all. Around 2 p.m., along with one of his cousins, he guides me to the Saint-Marc bus station for the six-hour journey toward a beachside city called Cap-Haitien, where I’ll catch my flight out.
First, I ride a tap tap north of Saint-Marc for a little over an hour to Gonaives. It’s a bigger city, so I figure I can get an air-conditioned bus from there. No such luck. The market is a scrum, a sweltering, busy, unshaded place. Two or three entrepreneurs stalk me. Meanwhile, several street vendors regard me with watchful concern, shouting out travel tips, trying to make my layover painless and smooth.
When I find an idling pickup truck poised to transport passengers to Cap, I climb in the back – and soon learn that I’ve picked a popular vehicle. As we wind up into the mountains on sinuous, switchbacking gravel roads, a plume of dust rising from the rear tires, there are 17 other people in the pickup bed with me. We are so intertwined that we are dripping sweat onto one another. We’re in for a four-hour journey, and no one here seems to speak English. Or Spanish or French. I try to absent myself by reading a Philip Roth novel on my phone.
But the small dramas around me win my attention. There’s a young man, 20-ish, riding on the bumper, clutching a side rail for balance, a bandanna over his mouth against the dust. When we come to a solitary backcountry house, moving 20 mph, he lets go of the rail. He floats over the road a second before smacking down onto the dirt. Then, nonchalant, he stumbles into the house.
Passengers come and go. A mother gets on with a baby, and, as there is no single space big enough for her and the child, she entrusts him to a stranger and then sits serenely atop a bag of rice, watching as other strangers coo at the child. When a teenager gets on, he body surfs his way into the vehicle before settling, back first, onto his fellow passengers. Everyone laughs. Night falls.
I think of what Destinoble said about “hard-working people.” There’s a perseverance, a fortitude, at work here in the back of this pickup. Public transit shouldn’t look like this in the 21st century, not on an island that sits only a few hundred miles from the United States, and yet the passengers around me are able, at times, to revel in joy. It’s a hard-earned joy, and I’m feeling now what I tasted in the food that I ate, grown out of the ashes of Haiti’s hard history. It was there at the market in Kenscoff when Stephan Durrand signalled me to stop asking questions, and also in Destinoble’s longing for that fish soup. We roll into the outskirts of Cap. The passengers gather their belongings and climb out of the truck. One by one, they trundle home.
Since the war, La Dalia has mostly been a gang-zone dive frequented only by calloused old men. In the last few years, though, the area surrounding Plaza Libertad, just outside La Dalia’s window, has added a decorative fountain and benches. The Libertad movie house has turned on its blue neon Libertad sign, even if the theatre’s still closed, and art galleries have sprung up.
The rest of downtown, however, is largely a crisis area where yellow police tape is common and chain-link fences surround both seedy parking lots and opulent but abandoned stone buildings with Doric-columned facades. The rickety open-air sidewalk bodegas have corrugated metal roofs and crude signs Magic Markered on cardboard.
Right now, on a Saturday night at La Dalia, a 20-something fellow in a crisp pork pie hat is chalking his cue stick. I meet a few painters, then a sculptor. I talk to a muscled photographer so exuberant about his tattoos that he strips off his shirt to show me his shoulder tat of a shimmering, silver ’50s-era microphone. “Freedom of speech,” he explains. “It’s important.”
As I mill through the crowd, I know the prosperity I’m seeing here might not last. In his isolationist fervour, President Trump is ending temporary protected status, a humanitarian program that has facilitated U.S. residency for war-scarred Salvadorans since 2001.The remittances that U.S.-based Salvadorans send home constitute 20 percent of their nation’s gross domestic product.
Eventually I find myself standing behind a slight and boyish young man dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt wrapped, androgynously, in a black mesh singlet. He keeps shifting yogi-like in his chair, so that now he is sitting cross-legged and now he is kneeling on his haunches as he peers, oblivious to all others, into the cracked screen of his iPad. He has a wispy beard. Beside his beer glass is a formidable English-language volume, “Erotism: Death and Sensuality,” by Georges Bataille.
Asking around, I find that the man goes by a nom de plume, Nadie, which is Spanish for “nobody.” He’s a poet and a visual artist, and he grew up – and still lives – in Soyapango, a San Salvador suburb, population 275,000, that is, with San Salvador, one of El Salvador’s perennially most violent cities. When I meet an American curator, Caroline Lacey, she draws me aside. “Nadie,” she says, “is the most interesting artist in El Salvador.”
When I approach Nadie, he is gentle and welcoming. He can’t hear me over the music, though, even as he leans toward me. It’s simply too loud, so he scribbles his phone number into my notebook and, beside that, he draws a small, squiggly heart.
Before I meet with Nadie the next day, I do some research. His real name is Javier Ramirez. He is 32. He has a drag queen alter ego, Nadia. He is 5-foot-5 barefoot and, he will tell me with a wry lilt, six inches taller in heels.
Nadie’s work is conceptual, and at times it involves satirical pranks. Once, when the august tastemakers at the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) offered him a solo show, he didn’t display his own work. Rather, he thumbed his nose at the museum’s brass – “all elites,” in his sour opinion – and hung naive paintings of flowers wrought by his father, a mid-level bank functionary.
Another, more earnestly curated show now hangs at MARTE. “Where There Was Fire,” on display until 2022, presents work by 24 of El Salvador’s best contemporary artists and includes a three-minute video by Nadie titled “It’s the cumbia that rules my country.” The film purports to celebrate a danceable folk music, but as it delivers cheesy shots of purple-clad trumpeters swaying in unison, it’s brutally spliced with images from El Salvador’s war: a burning bus, snipers, a medley of corpses.
When we reach the third corpse, a soldier in combat boots, Nadie lingers on the body for a full four seconds as the upbeat soundtrack goes silent. We know, watching, that it’s more than the cumbia that rules Nadie’s country. But what exactly is this guy saying about El Salvador?
“I ride the bus every day,” Nadie tells me when we meet, “and on the bus I constantly see people getting mugged. Meanwhile, all the drivers like to play pop music really loud. You could be getting killed, and the soundtrack to your murder is Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ ”
We’re in a wealthy neighbourhood, Nadie and I, in a swank brewpub, Cadejo, a few blocks from MARTE. His black clothes are rumpled now, and his manner is droll – Andy Warhol with a tincture of sweetness. He tells me that in El Salvador violence laces every moment with tension.
“In Soyapango,” he says, “if you’re on the curb waiting for the bus, the drivers will drive directly up to you, acting like they’re going to run you over. Then at the last minute they swerve and then laugh like, ‘Hey, that was nothing!’ A few months ago, I decided I was going to wear all white, but just as I was leaving my house, a bus came along. On purpose, the driver billowed smoke all over my clothes.”
“I’m from Soyapango,” he says, shrugging, “and I’m a drag queen. The life expectancy for gender-nonconforming people in El Salvador is 35. I’m 32.”
Now, the brewpub’s stereo pipes up, so that we’re drowning in a corny English-language version of “Happy Birthday.” A well-dressed dining party nearby titters as they circle about a single candle. Nadie waits, impassive, until the song plays itself out, and meanwhile I notice that this brewpub, unlike its stateside counterparts, doesn’t strive for an antique cobbler-bench vibe. No, Cadejo is decidedly Vegas, with shiny plastic patio chairs and bright, stagy lighting.
“El Salvador is a cheesy country,” Nadie says. “Everyone here is just pretending. You have to do that to survive in a screwed-up society, but I’m interested in art that disrupts things, that provokes.” He tells me about a new project. He’s writing poems that explore the animal-like cruelty that drove a particularly brutal, U.S.-trained unit of the Salvadoran army, the Atlacatl Battalion, during the civil war.
He plans to read the poems theatrically as a blurry backdrop video shows a mutant, two-legged cow hobbling about on its hoofs. “I don’t care if the art is ugly,” he tells me. “What matters is that it captures reality.”
Gingerly, I tell him that I’m touring Trump’s most hated countries looking for beauty. All sweetness drains from his voice. “I’m against beauty,” he says. “I don’t even know what beauty is beyond pretty flowers, beyond the superficial.” He tells me that for five years, with a friend, he ran a local arts festival that he called Fiesta Ecléctica de las Artes, so that the acronym would be FEA. “Fea” means “ugly” in Spanish.
One afternoon I go to what’s called a performance piece at MARTE. A San Salvador arts collective, the Fire Theory, has brought into the museum a civil rights lawyer to convene with two soft-spoken older country women in a gallery space, where they’ll discuss a real-life legal case involving their relatives, whom the Salvadoran military made disappear decades ago during the civil war. The “art” on display is the meeting.
The Fire Theory’s Melissa Guevara, who helped coordinate the show, says of the women, “These people are treated like animals.
We need the media to pay attention. We need the government to do something.” But almost no one turns up to watch. And I’m reminded anew that, even now, 27 years into peacetime, El Salvador is still a polarised country.
‘We don’t make things perfect and shiny,’ Salvadoran artist Simon Vega in La Libertad. Photo / Fred Ramos, The Washington Post
I seek out Simón Vega, who, at 46, is El Salvador’s most well-traveled artist, having shown his sculptures in Italy, Austria, Cuba, Dallas and at Coachella, the California music festival. Vega’s work is at once larksome and deep. He makes spaceships – funky, fantastical, nonflying vehicles imbued with both the sleek glimmer of actual rockets and the ragged disorder of a street vendor’s stall.
His installation “Third World Space Explorers,” now showing at MARTE, looks at first like a homeless encampment dumped mid-gallery. There are two wheeled carts and, beneath one, a massive, mysterious lump that is the size of a truck tire and wrapped in a wrinkled blue tarp. The carts are appointed with all kinds of jury-rigged shelves, and weird, junky gadgetry is affixed to them: a mirror, a Rubik’s Cube, segments of garden hose.
When I travel 45 minutes south of San Salvador to meet Vega at his home by the Pacific Ocean one evening, he talks first about the Cold War and how it brought carnage to the streets of his childhood. “I wanted to do work about that time in El Salvador, about the Cold War, without being too literal,” he tells me.
Eventually, he began thinking about the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. His meditations made him feel a little inferior. “We’re not good at technology in El Salvador,” he says. “We don’t make things perfect and shiny. We’re sort of broken. We’re seeking an identity.”
A few years ago, Vega began looking for the Salvadoran soul.
Working as a sort of anthropologist, he traveled Latin America with a camera, making comparisons of how, say, Mexican and Salvadoran street vendors racked bags of potato chips. “We’re messier,” Vega tells me. “We’re living a life that can end at any moment, so we don’t organise. We just throw stuff down and get going.”
For many, El Salvador’s chaos might be a negative. Vega has embraced it. “We’ve got a different kind of technology here, a different kind of beauty,” he says. “If you look at our shantytowns, there’s an ingenuousness in the way people make do with cardboard, with scraps of metal. There’s color to it. There’s life.”
I persuade Nadie to take me on a tour of Soyapango, which lies a half-hour east of San Salvador. Caroline Lacey, the American curator, drives us, and Nadie turns the trip into a vocabulary lesson, teaching me an adjective endemic to El Salvador. “Grencho” can mean “cheesy” or “kitsch,” but it also nods, Nadie tells me, to the darkness underlying El Salvador’s good cheer. Nadie regards nearly everything in his orbit as grencho. The cumbia is grencho, as is his dad’s artwork, and Salvadorans’ ardor for toy guns.
“In one way,” he continues, “I don’t like things that are grencho. In another way, I’m obsessed.” As we pull into the streets of Soyapango, past swarms of small schoolchildren laden with backpacks, he seems grencho himself, sentimental. “Apart from the violence,” Nadie says, “everyday life here is very mundane. I’ve never seen an empty street. People use the public space in a very normal way, selling bread and fruit in the street, playing soccer, eating pupusas. It might not look like an advertisement, with people walking their dogs and smiling fake smiles, but there is happiness here. There is joy.”
Nadie still lives in his childhood home, along with his dad, and he tells me, “All I do here is sleep and make art. I go into San Salvador every day.” He and Lacey are poised to open an art sales space – the Only Gallery – downtown next month. But even as he claims that Soyapango is unimportant to him, he’s protective of the place. He won’t let me inside his house, for fear I’ll be judgmental, and when he talks about the Barrio 18 gangster who lives five houses down, his tone becomes fond.
“He’s very nice to me,” he says. “He always asks how my day’s going.”
Earlier, in discussing his life as a Salvadoran artist, Nadie told me, “I feel very privileged that I get to do what I do – and that I live here. I can be myself more here than I could anywhere else. I never want to move.” The human mind, it seems, wants to believe in the safety of home.
In El Salvador, the mental gyrations that citizens must go through just to fall asleep can be extreme, and Nadie’s cumbia video explores these gyrations. It lampoons Salvadorans’ grencho wishful thinking amid darkness, and also revels in it. His work isn’t going to save El Salvador, of course, but it might help Salvadorans know they are possessed of a strange, unique hope – one that is there every moment if you just look for it.
As we turn back onto the highway, Nadie lets up on his boycott of beauty and says, “There are certain things in Soyapango I think are beautiful, like when the streetlights come on at dusk – very grencho, I know – and once I remember this crazy street lady came up to me in the driving rain and asked me to help her lift a manhole cover, to rescue a cat that had gotten down into the sewer pipes. This woman lives on my street, and I think she’s homeless. She makes money throwing away other people’s garbage. I’d never talked to her before, but now she was afraid the cat would drown, and so we tried to lift the lid off the manhole. We tried, but it was impossible. The cat died.”
On his iPad, Nadie shows me a picture of the woman kneeling on the wet pavement, her head pressed against a sewer grate as, desperately, she peers downward. “She acted like that cat was her child,” he says.
“So what was so beautiful to you?” I ask.
“Just that the woman cared so much,” Nadie says. “I come from a very stigmatised place, but the stigma does not define who we are. Everyday life goes on here – very human experiences. Here was this crazy old lady out in the rain in Soyapango, and still there was something she loved.”
I have arrived at Code 146, which means I am standing in the epicenter of the HipCo universe. HipCo is a local version of hip-hop, and I’m tuning into it because, really, HipCo is to Liberia as jazz is to the United States: It is an art form indigenous to this tiny nation.
It is a new music that gives voice to the Liberian masses, and it is central to Liberia’s hope to transcend its long status as an American satellite. C. Patrick Burrowes, arguably the nation’s foremost historian, will tell me, “We’re on the verge of a renaissance, and HipCo is at the leading edge of it.”
HipCo sees the disenfranchised speaking truth to one another – in their own language, no less. The “co” in HipCo is short for “Kolokwa,” which is the dialect that the Liberian underclass has been improvising since the early 19th century, blending the English brought by 19,000 ex-slaves with words from about 15 native tongues to attain a soft-sounding patois.
Kolokwa is 99 percent an oral language – as yet, there is not a single full book in the dialect – and it is all but incomprehensible to the American ear. In Liberia, the cultural elite have long shunned it as lowbrow. Which means that when HipCo artists inject a few choice snatches of Kolokwa into otherwise English lyrics, their words have political zing.
The most political – and the most famous – HipCo singer is Code 146’s 37-year-old owner. Jonathan Koffa was so central to the mid-2000s Monrovia-based genesis of HipCo that he became known as Takun J, the name being a Kolokwa take on Tycoon. In 2015, he wrote a sort of anthem, “They Lie to Us,” that I listened to repeatedly on the plane. “I sayayaaa,” Takun cries out in that song, stretching his words.
“They lie. Lay pepoh fool us oh. Lay pepoh lie to us.” Right now, as the crowd swells for a Friday-night open mic, Takun is surrounded by an entourage and sucking meditatively on a large reefer as he eyes the stage. The show begins around 10, and it stars a medley of rappers. Amaze takes the stage to rip through a frenetic, muscular 10-minute set featuring a tightly written rap about a corrupt teacher who takes “kini kini” (small change) to keep “wackin’ it” (eating, that is). After rapper Lady Skeet performs, fans surge toward her, showering her with money until the air above the stage is a blizzard of Liberian five-dollar bills, each one worth about 3 U.S. cents.
But all this is prelude to the moment Takun J stands before us, lean and dreadlocked and delicately featured, glimmering with sweat as he bends low to switch on the bright blue LEDs lining the sidewalls of his super sneakers. He gives a disjointed and, to me at least, inaudibly fuzzy sermon about love. Then he rolls into a magical medley: a cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love” segueing, eventually, to “They Lie.” His long braids whip behind him, dappled in the glow of the disco lights. The money rains thick on the stage.
My hotel sits just a few blocks from Code 146 in Central Monrovia, the city’s weary seaside old town. The hilly streets around me are choked with little yellow three-wheeled shared taxis – keh kehs, they’re called – and when stray preschoolers, wandering about sans guardians, need to cross the busy streets they reach up to clasp the guiding hands of strangers. One afternoon I find myself shepherding five tiny children through the mayhem.
While there are many formal stores in Central Monrovia, the commercial life of the city lies on the sidewalks, where some vendors push wheelbarrows filled with socks as others line the pavement with shoes. I gather my breakfast each morning by wandering between vendors, buying fresh bread (12 cents U.S.), a couple of boiled eggs (12 cents) and then a few slices of fresh pineapple and coconut before repairing to Broad Street, where small clumps of men gather at newsstands to peruse newspapers pinned on high clotheslines.
Takun grew up largely in wartime refugee camps. In his teens, though, he sat on the sidewalks of Central Monrovia, making a slim margin distributing Liberian currency in exchange for American bills. His club is proof that he stayed loyal to his neighbourhood. Code 146, which bears no exterior signs, is more community center than business. He lives upstairs with his two children and the children’s mother, Sugar.
When I drop by, seeking to float Takun into a long, soul-searching chat, he is playing soccer on his PlayStation, the furrow on his brow so etched that it practically shouts, “do not disturb.” He is wearing headphones and staring off into space, so that I cannot reach him.
But Takun is not the only player in Kolokwa’s glory moment. HipCo has inspired Liberian writers and poets to see the potency in an Koffie street tongue, and one morning I meet with the dean of literary Kolokwa. D. Othniel Forte is a publisher. His eponymous press, Forte Publishing, will this summer release a book written in Kolokwa. “Kuku Jumu Ku,” an anthology whose title means “insider’s club,” will feature Liberian women writing about their nation, postwar. Along with many of “Kuku Jumu Ku’s” authors, Forte is also at work on a Kolokwa dictionary.
“We have a private Facebook group,” he tells me. “There are eight people, and we’re working word by word to come up with standardised definitions and spellings. We want to gather 4,000 words. Right now we’re at 200.”
The journey, Forte says, is all about word music. It’s about trying to render an unwritten language in letters. Kolokwa goes easy on hard consonants, he tells me, and it carries its own idioms, so that the phrase “We’re insaaah” doesn’t mean, “We’re inside the building,” but rather, “We’re committed to the struggle.” Elision is paramount (“Come, let’s go” is “comelego” in Kolokwa), but so is elongation. “If you’re really insaaa,” Forte explains patiently, “you’re insaaaaaa.”
If the Kolokwa revolution is to go forward, it will need Forte. It will need both his precise mind and Takun’s spirit. Liberia’s problems are deep, after all, and for language and song to triumph over despair, the assault must be multipronged. “Kolokwa is as rich a language as French,” Forte tells me, “and if you want to bring about social change, it’s the language you need to use.” A few years ago, he asked himself, “Why don’t we start writing it?”
Forte, who’s 41, didn’t grow up speaking Kolokwa – his father, a Methodist minister, saw the language as plebeian – and for most of his adult life he’s lived outside of Liberia. He left Monrovia in 1992 to teach English in a succession of Asian cities. But far from home, Kolokwa tugged on his heartstrings. “It’s the one thing that Liberians have in common when they sit down to the table,” he says.
Forte moved back to Liberia in 2017, when he felt the nation had attained enough tranquility, postwar, to sprout an indigenous literature. (“You can’t write when the bullets are still flying,” he explains.) He is still so newly arrived that Liberian food, often spicy, upsets his stomach.
Still, his Kolokwa dreams are vast. He believes that, in standardised Kolokwa, Liberians can find a “national identity, something to rally around,” and he envisions a day when Liberians of all classes can turn to a standardised Kolokwa for stories, both true and fictional, about their nation’s most pressing issues. “We can have podcasts in Kolokwa,” he envisions, “and the words will flash across the screens of people’s smartphones. We can do subtitles on TV programs.”
Listening to Forte, I feel almost lifted. His optimism is that stirring, but still his tone – erudite, almost professorial – seems out of sync with a language that lives most in the mouths of the dispossessed. How can a guy like this bridge the class gap?
Forte is well aware of this challenge. “We aim to get HipCo musicians like Takun J on board. That’s important,” he says. “They’re already part of a movement, and we want to approach them and say, ‘Why not work with us? Would you take these stories we’ve written and work them into your songs?’ ” I ask Forte if he’s ever been to Code 146. He hasn’t, but he makes plans to meet me there in a few days.
One morning I join Amaze and Lady Skeet to take in a new spot on the HipCo landscape. The Innovation Campus, perched on a hill at the western edge of Central Monrovia, is the pleasant half-acre Liberian home of the Accountability Lab, a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization that aims to give young people in poor countries – among them Liberia, Nepal and Pakistan – a creative voice, so they can hold leaders’ feet to the fire. Funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the iCampus is home to killer WiFi, a filmmaking studio that produces a TV show called “Integrity Idol” and – to Amaze’s delight – a $12,000 recording studio.
As a celebrated Liberian sound man sits at the mixing board, Amaze and Lady Skeet lean against the foam-covered walls, teaching me Kolokwa words that they believe have emerged only in recent months.
“Shekie dada,” says Lady Skeet. “That’s someone who has a lot of money.”
“Kwass,” says Amaze, who is, officially speaking, the Lab’s Liberian accountability ambassador, its liaison to the local music community. “Hiding the money. Embezzling it. He kwass the Central Bank money and” – Amaze gestures daintily toward an imaginary secret compartment in his blue jeans – “he put it in his wise pockets.”
“Zwag,” says Lady Skeet. “That’s eating corruption money.”
“A lot of girls. Fast cars,” Amaze explains before getting serious. “Integrity is a great issue in our society,” he says, “at every level. We have market women putting candle wax in their measurement cups to shorten your ration of rice.”
When I’m hungry, I decide to veer away from the market, and one night I find a street-corner food stand that serves delectable fish, still on the bone and still fish-shaped, and I eat, along with other diners, on a little wood bench by the vendor’s grill.
The next day, I go swimming in the rough surf off Golden Beach, testing fate a little as a large sign warns of riptides. After I stand and scramble out of the water, I’m running late for an interview. I’m in a hurry on busy Tubman Boulevard, and my guard is down. When a driver pulls up in a battered Toyota, presenting himself as a cabbie, I make a rookie mistake. I climb in, not quite adding up that all five other passengers are young men.
Inside there’s confusion. One guy slams the car door shut over and over. The two guys beside me jostle about, like they’re trying to scrunch us all together in the crowded back seat. Then the driver tells me that he’s not going up Tubman after all.
When I step back onto the sidewalk, my iPhone 6 is gone from my pocket. Soon, D. Othniel Forte will tell me the fake taxi trick is so common in Liberia that a local gang has made it their specialty – Passenger 57, the gang is called. The name recycles the title of a 1992 Wesley Snipes movie about airplane hijackers.
It’s no surprise that Liberia’s slang is tethered to American culture. Liberia has always been tethered. In the early 1800s, a white-dominated group called the American Colonisation Society conceived of a country for freed slaves, which became Liberia. Whites appointed by the ACS governed Liberia for the nation’s first 25 years and named the capital after President James Monroe. In 1980, a 28-year-old barely educated soldier, Samuel Doe, took over Liberia in a violent coup – and stayed in power largely because he was a reliable Cold War ally for the United States.
Doe eschewed the Soviet Union and welcomed the U.S. military to train in Liberia’s ports. In turn, the United States gave Liberia $500 million in aid or loans – more per capita than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa – between 1980 and 1985. (Nevermind that Doe once had 13 of his political foes executed on a public beach.)
A church choir practices for upcoming Sunday services in Buchanan, Liberia. Founded in 1822 by American Baptists. Photo / Michael Robinson Chavez, The Washington Post.
It was Liberian discontent with Doe that spurred the nation’s first civil war. “Even the way Liberians see themselves has been shaped by the U.S.,” Burrowes, the historian, tells me. “So far, our scholars haven’t escaped that – they’ve simply parroted what others have written. How do you escape? HipCo artists are finding a way. They are unapologetically seeing themselves through their own eyes. They’ve found a way to tell their stories.”
One scorching evening, Forte and I find ourselves on the patio at 146, drinking beer and waiting for Takun. He’s inside at the bar. Ten minutes ago, he promised to come chat about the birthing of written Kolokwa. A few days earlier, though, he spoke skeptically of Forte, suggesting that he’d taken too long to solicit the HipCo community for input on the dictionary. “We’re the ones who got all this started,” he said.
Forte and I are facing a mural Takun commissioned. Labeled “Legends Never Die,” it features a pantheon of black heroes: Nelson Mandela,Haile Selassie, Malcolm X and Takun himself. “Why are there no women up there?” Forte asks. “Is he going to put women on the opposite wall?”
We wait. I want this meeting between Takun and Forte to come together. I want Kolokwa force to gather and grow seamlessly, without a hitch, as it propels Liberia toward a bright future. But this may be too much to wish for. Every moment here is complicated by history, and perhaps all you can hope for in Liberia is that hope stays alive. Forte does not despair. After maybe 45 minutes, his tone softens. “I’ll come talk to Takun when it’s less busy,” he says. “I need to do that. We need to understand one another.”
When we amble back inside, passing the bar en route to the exit, Takun sees us and bathes us in his celebrity smile. Just the way he stands there glowing – there’s a performer’s grace to it, a nimbleness that lowly, unassuming writers like Forte and me can’t even touch.
Takun hugs Forte. He sounds a couple of glancing positive remarks about Forte’s Kolokwa endeavours – “I like it; let’s work together” – and then Forte and I float out through the alley, our feet pattering in the puddles. “I’m feeling so hopeful,” Forte says, foreseeing a collaboration with Takun. “I cannot afford to be anything but optimistic.”
When I land in New York, it’s early morning. I flick on my backup phone, and then I decide to dive headlong into American reality. I navigate to @realDonaldTrump on Twitter. The first tweet I encounter reads, “The White House is running very smoothly. … We are the envy of the world.”
I wonder how far I have really traveled from the viper’s den of Liberian politics. As I head down the long corridors of the airport, I find myself humming the Takun J tune “They Lie.” “I sayayaaa, they lie. They can lie. They can steal. They can connive.”
I think, too, of something that Burrowes said about HipCo artists: “With no resources save for their talent, they’ve created something out of nothing.” Couldn’t this be said of every person I met on my trip – of the HipCo pioneers, and the chefs in Haiti, and the sculptors and filmmakers and painters in El Salvador?
The president reviled all of these people with one ugly phrase, and they refused to be defamed. Instead, they speak. They create. How can I not be inspired? I feel hallowed, really, to have connected, all over the globe, with artists working in difficult straits. And as I step into the long line at immigration control, I’m resolved to keep these connections alive. Even if we never step outside the States, aren’t we obliged to stay open to the possibilities offered us by all peoples, all cultures?
The line snakes between the crowd-control stanchions. The low din of the multitudes fills the high-ceillinged hall.
Eventually the customs officer summons me to the window and flips open my passport to give me the once-over. He compares the photo against the weary traveller standing before him. Then I hear the hard chonk of his rubber stamp hitting my passport. Outside the sun is climbing in the sky. “Welcome home,” he says.