Exploring their shared island’s history led Haitian and Dominican couple to each other
NEW YORK — The living room of Lissette Acosta Corniel’s apartment is decorated with vibrant paintings and cherished artifacts from both her native Dominican Republic and Haiti, the country next door on the same island, where her partner James Louis-Charles lives and works.
Inside this studio apartment, the couple sat around a small white round table in July, sharing endearing moments as anecdotes unfurl about their courtship, then relationship. They fully turn toward each other at times, when debating who prepared the soup joumou last January First – Haiti’s Independence Day – or whose family had been particularly welcoming of the other.
“Fifty-fifty,” Louis-Charles said, settling the matter of the Haitian dish as a shared culinary experience.
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Here in their presence, thoughts of the deep-rooted tensions and widely amped hostilities that impede Haitian and Dominican relations are distant. What’s present is Acosta Corniel and Louis-Charles commitment to nurturing a strong romantic bond – a goal of the couple’s. To them, success means not letting their different cultures and constant conflicts to keep them from choosing each other. A year and a half into the relationship, the couple has also found purpose in fostering better relations between their two homelands through the professional pursuits that first led them to one another.
“That’s one way of bridging the gap between the two cultures, by starting with the kids.”
“We’ve been looking at ways to establish a line of communication so that the kids from her programs in the Dominican Republic, and my kids in my program can actually learn a little bit about each other,” said Louis-Charles.
Acosta Corniel has been involved in nonprofit work in the Dominican Republic for more than 20 years, particularly with a program promoting children’s developmental activity. Louis-Charles recently started and currently runs a soccer program called FC Juvenat for kids in rural Haiti.
Since Louis-Charles started the soccer program, the couple has begun to discuss the possibility of having participating kids from both sides of the island talk to each other through the Internet. Eventually, they would like to have the participants meet for friendly sports matches.
Acosta Corniel and Louis-Charles both hope to promote positive and instructive relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They believe this approach may enable Haitian and Dominican children from a very young age to meet and learn about each other through sports.
“That’s one way of bridging the gap between the two cultures, by starting with the kids,” Louis-Charles said.
Acosta Corniel, 46, is a historian and assistant professor of Latin American Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY-BMCC). Louis-Charles, who is in his late forties, is a soccer coach who also teaches Haitian history and U.S. history at the American School of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. After completing a master’s degree in Sustainable Peace Through Sports, Louis-Charles moved back to Haiti a few years ago to work in the field.
The couple first met in December 2021 through social media. Louis-Charles had been following Acosta Corniel’s Instagram account and other social media platforms for a while, as a way to discover more about Haiti’s neighbor.
“From a Haitian perspective, there’s a lot that we don’t know about the Dominican Republic. And from the Dominican Republic, there’s a lot they don’t know about Haiti,” he said. “So I wanted to bridge that gap somehow, to find out more to our story, following different organizations and musical groups.”
On that December day, Louis-Charles was in Barcelona when a tweet from Acosta Corniel popped up on his feed and got his attention.
From that point on, Louis-Charles realized that he and Acosta Corniel were actually very much alike and shared mutual interests. They are both educators of history, pursue social activism and love traveling. Neither has children nor been married before.
They started a relationship soon after.
Louis-Charles resides mainly in Port-au-Prince and Washington D.C. and stays in New York when Acosta Corniel is there. Together, they continue to explore cultures, traveling everywhere together from Aruba to Puerto Rico, Fort Lauderdale to Panama, the Dominican Republic to Haiti.
When in New York together, they alternate between attending Central Park Rara sessions and Dominican Gaga in Washington Heights. They also try out Haitian and Dominican restaurants to continue learning about each other’s food and culture.
Cuing up the welcome playlist
Acosta Corniel was raised in Tenares and Río San Juan in the Dominican Republic. She said her maternal grandfather, Miguel Corniel, was a staunch advocate for kindness. He would get upset at people who tried to tell him not to be kind to certain nationalities.
So Acosta Corniel grew up with a different mindset of acceptance toward Haitians. In her immediate family, they welcomed “all people in general,” so they did not participate in the prejudicial behaviors common in the Dominican Republic. Acts such as Dominicans being forbidden to socialize or date Haitians.
“I’m not going to say that everything was color de rosa, as we say in Spanish—rose color and petals and everything—of course not,” said Acosta Corniel. “We did have those family members who not only did not like Haitians, period, but simply who didn’t like Blacks.”
Acosta Corniel recalls organizing an interactive event for which she had invited several Haitians into her home. After one family member made a negative comment about her guests, Acosta Corniel said she quickly found another space for the event.
“When that family member came back and said ‘What happened? You’re not doing the activity?’ I said, ‘I am. I’m just not doing it here because if you want them to leave, I leave too.’”
Louis-Charles met Acosta Corniel’s family for the first time during her uncle’s 81st birthday celebration in Fort Lauderdale. A big family weekend was planned, and each day had a specific food menu. When Acosta Corniel’s family learned that Louis-Charles was going to attend, they switched the menu for the first night to incorporate Haitian food.
“They said, ‘You were bringing Louis-Charles, and we wanted to welcome him into the family,’” Acosta Corniel recalled. “They had a playlist and everything for him.”
Different versions of some things mean double the joy
That the couple enjoys learning about each other’s culture is obvious in their interactions. From debating who’s Spanish or Creole is better to food and music similarities.
“I discovered a lot of Dominican food that I hadn’t been exposed to in Haiti,” said Louis-Charles, who grew up in Port-au-Prince and moved to the U.S. at age 13.
“I’m sure it’s the same for Lissette when it comes to Haitian food, which is, to me, very interesting,” he said. “How you have two people on the same island, and yet there’s a lot that we don’t know about each other.”
Acosta Corniel offered a simple answer: “Well, we have different colonizers, different enslavers.”
At first, Louis-Charles wondered how Acosta Corniel could not know about diri djondjon before they met. Meanwhile, Acosta Corniel inquired the same about Louis-Charles’ ignorance of locrio de pollo – chicken and rice. It is now Louis-Charles’ favorite Dominican food.
In the end, “the African background, you can see it, perhaps in some of the cuisine,” Acosta Corniel said. Her favorite Haitian dish, soup joumou, is equivalent to the Dominican sancocho.
“We have Merengue, but there is Haitian meringue except that it is slower. Merengue [is] faster, and it has a faster pace.
“In my family, there’s a joke that if you dance konpa with a Haitian, you have to marry them because it lasts for like eight minutes,” she added.
Louis-Charles added that he knows a few Haitian songs that were translated into Dominican Spanish. One Dominican carnival song, in particular, “Esto se encendió” by Diómedes y El Grupo Mío is a version of the Haitian song “Kè m Pa Sote” by Boukman Eksperyans.
Thorny topics inspire advocacy, action
As a social studies educator and a historian, respectively, Louis-Charles and Acosta Corniel are very aware and concerned about living conditions for some Haitians in the Dominican Republic. They often discuss the Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitian and anti-Blackness policies.
“As a Haitian, I put a lot of the responsibility on the fact that we haven’t had a responsible government in Haiti that Haitians can rely on to fight for their rights and to advocate for them,” Louis-Charles said.
To him, the Haitian government seems to prefer for people to leave Haiti—“rather than be a burden” there. This way, in his view, Haitians working in the Dominican Republic or United States can send remittances back home. However, this does not mean Haitians are a burden there, he added.
“In my viewpoint, we’ve contributed a lot to the economy of the Dominican Republic,” Louis-Charles said. “To listen to some of the rhetoric being spoken about Haiti being a burden, I don’t agree at all.”
Acosta Corniel, in her professional view, says every country deserves the right to properly manage immigration reforms. But, when the reforms or legislations specifically harm a specific group, “then you begin to question the integrity of the government,” she said.
“The other thing that I disagree with on an institutional level is that no government has come forward to speak about the xenophobic rhetoric and ambience that continue to be instilled in the minds of people—the hate, the racism,” Acosta Corniel said. “People listen to authority.”
Without that prevailing attitude, people will inevitably focus on the disparaging messages about Haitians wanting to invade the Dominican Republic or to ‘fuse the island’ – a politically, economically and financially impossible task, she said. Such negativity, promoted through misinformation campaigns on social media, overshadows the positive relationships between the two groups.
In the U.S., by comparison, the couple has witnessed more variety in the types of relationships Haitians and Dominicans can develop.
“How come that here, it seems to be more positive and more possible,” Acosta Corniel said. “I think that because here [perhaps], maybe people might be more open.”
Louis-Charles, for his part, believes their mutual goal and bond can help to overcome current tensions and make a difference in this world. “That’s pretty much why our relationship has been as strong so far,” he said.