Serge Pierre Louis found that being Haitian wasn’t easy when he arrived in the U.S. to study medicine in the early 80s. His homeland meant AIDS to most Americans. “It was very painful,” he says. “It took a whole decade for people to understand that this epidemic was also taking place in other parts of the world.”

Pierre Louis is president of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad, a 22-year-old group providing health care to Haitians worldwide. Now that democracy has returned to Haiti, the organization has resumed sending doctors back to the island after a three-year break. Pierre Louis, who heads the epilepsy program at Cook County Hospital, was in Port-au-Prince this summer. “On the one hand things are very hard because of the legacy of the UN embargo,” he says. “On the other hand I was very pleased to see a renewed commitment to vaccination and health care for the poor.”

Political upheavals have forced many to leave Haiti, and Pierre Louis fears images of boat people and violence have prejudiced many against Haitian culture. So his group has organized a celebration this weekend to showcase the island’s dance, food, music, and history. While they want to remind Chicagoans that the city’s first nonnative settler, Jean-Baptist-Point Du Sable, was a Haitian, the group will also be commemorating the 192nd anniversary of the battle of Vertieres, which led to Haiti’s independence from France. According to Pierre Louis, the Haitians had neither guns nor horses and fought the armed French troops with their bare hands. Legend attributes the victory over the 20,000 French soldiers to the Haitian faith in voodoo, the religion slaves brought from west Africa.

The celebration A Haitian Experience: From Vertieres to Chicago will be held at 7 PM Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Wacker; tickets are $75, and proceeds will fund scholarships for Haitian students both here and abroad. For more information, call 476-8217 or 633-5325.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.