When asked to describe Haitian culture, Marceline Estil thinks for a moment, laughs and says, “It’s a lot.” Marceline was born in 1978 and grew up in Port au Prince, Haiti, with her maternal grandmother. An important aspect of her youth was education. “Back there, it’s kind of like your passport,” she says. Studying was so important that some of her fondest memories were in those brief breaks for holidays, when children in her family would be allowed to play freely and eat sweets.
Marceline also fondly remembers Haiti’s culture of faith. She says that in Haiti, faith is their foundation. Marceline grew up Christian, attending church multiple times a week. “You don’t have no choice,” she says, with a laugh. But really, she enjoyed it.
Respect for elders is very important in Haitian culture, and she misses the morning tradition of asking older members of the household for a blessing. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, good morning,’ you’d say, ‘Hey, benediction,” and they would say, ‘God bless you.’” She also remembers attending a lot of funerals, because everyone they knew was considered family. “If somebody die in church, I don’t care who, Grandma dragged us to everybody’s funeral.”
Marceline moved to New Jersey with her father in 1996, when she was just beginning 11th grade. The transition was difficult for her – due to culture shock and the language barrier. She grew up speaking Creole and French, and says it took her about a year to be really fluent in English, taking regular high school during the day, after school classes with a mentor who could help with her work, and night classes in ESL. Still, it wasn’t easy, and after 22 years in the U.S. she still thinks she has room to improve: “I [have] three college degrees and I’m still taking English classes.”
After a year in New Jersey, Marceline and her grandmother moved to Miami, where Marceline graduated from high school and got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Johnson & Wales University. “I was thinking one day I see myself moving back to Haiti to become either a human trafficking lawyer or advocate,” she says. However, after she was unable to pass the bar exam, she decided to relocate to Indianapolis, where the cost of living would be lower and job opportunities were more abundant than in Miami.
Marceline went on to earn associate’s degrees in early childhood education and American Sign Language and a bachelor’s degree in ASL/English Interpreting. Soon she will also have a culinary and hospitality bachelor’s degree. She jokes that going to school isn’t an addiction, but that if it were, “It could be a good one.” While she was studying, Marceline also worked to fund her education. She started a cleaning business in 2005, worked as a corrections officer for 3 years and in the sheriff’s department for 9 years. In 2012 she started a Medicaid transportation service.
Her next venture will be the culmination of her culinary school experience. Soon she will open a Haitian restaurant in the International Marketplace. Marceline says that even though she likes to cook traditional food at home for herself and her son, Jahbaury, sometimes she just doesn’t have the time. With so much made from scratch and with so many spices, it isn’t an easy process. She found herself wishing there was a restaurant she could go to and find the food she loves to eat. However, she won’t just focus on food from Haiti, but on Creole food in general – “Caribbean Creole,” as she calls it. She’ll bring in influences and dishes from Louisiana, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other islands.
Even though the Haitian community in Indianapolis isn’t large, she sees an opportunity to share the culture with others and even serve those who have done service work in Haiti and loved the food there. She plans on hiring from within the Haitian community, so that people could come to the restaurant and order in Creole. She hopes that it will become a place where culture is shared, continued and remembered. She especially hopes that it will allow her son to be more immersed in the Haitian language, food and culture of her childhood.
Written by Hannah Lindgren