History and the people who make it: Marie Jose François

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 23rd in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Marie François was interviewed by Rebecca Minardi [M] in 2013.

F: Marie Jose Francois

M: Jose like Ho-sea?

F: Like Ho-sea.

I was born in Haiti, in 1953, Port-Au-Prince.

In 1983, after medical school—I came in the U.S. because the political area was not really the way I would like to see it. Freedom of speech—you cannot say what you want—and I look at healthcare in Haiti. It wasn’t really living up to the standard of me studying medicine. So my husband and I, we decided to come in the U.S.

M: What kind of medicine did you study?

F: General practitioner of medicine. When I came here, I did not pass the board. But, I did not let that stop me. I did a Master Degree in Public Health. And that give me another view. Medicine has two parts. Prevention and Treatment. In the U.S., the focus was on treatment, not prevention.

I received my Degree through Loma Linda, California—but I did it at Florida Hospital. My focus switched. I said, if I equip community with knowledge about what’s wrong with them, they will have a better control of their sickness.

In 1985-86—I work at community health centers. I did not see the focus too much on HIV. In people’s mind it was, Haitian brought HIV into the U.S. “Ignorance!” How can we combat ignorance with education? I came to the Farmworker Association of Florida, and I talked to the nuns: the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. People were focused on getting their green card, their citizenship, but did not focus on their health. Since 1987 until 2003, I brought together different HIV preventative awareness program at the Farmworker Association. Testing, education, assertiveness, skill negotiation, so people can be aware what is the disease, and what they can do to prevent it.

Look at the past, you have farm workers coming from the Caribbean, from Mexico — single men. Living in the camp. So temptation is there, they don’t know who they are sleeping with, they don’t have a family setting. They can expose themselves, to HIV, to other sexually transmitted diseases.

This is your behavior that put you at risk. I am looking at HIV within the farmworker community, as a disease we can manage: the key is screening. My main goal was to really dispel the stigma so Haitian can feel proud to say, “I am Haitian.” Back in the early 1990s, Haitian were afraid to say they were Haitian, because of the stigma of HIV. So, since 1987 through the Farmworker Association, we did educate all over Florida.

Back in the 1989, we have a youth group named SADA—all of the children of farmworker family. We have Hispanic, Black, African American, Haitian together. The name of SADA was Students Against Drug and AIDS. We started doing that through migrant clinician network. We educate the youth, we empower them with education, knowledge about HIV, and then the youth, they wrote play; and then they go and perform for other youth about HIV/AIDS, about STD, about teen pregnancy. They invited them to go to Tampa, they went to Miami, yeah. What they did make a big impact on their life: some of them went to college, some are married, some are very productive boys and girls because of that group at that time.

With SADA, we showed the meaning of tolerance of different cultures, of not being judgmental, of acceptance. This is 17 years at least of my life within the farmworker community. I can tell you, my journey at the Farmworker Association of Florida mold me of who I am today; make me a good listener, I can really talk to anyone no matter who you are—White, Black, Hispanic—make them feel comfortable to trust you. And then you can assist them in what they need.

When I come from Haiti, I was doing some volunteer work at Florida Hospital, when one doctor told me about the Farmworker Association and the Apopka community. I said to myself, “Even though I’m not practicing medicine, I still can use my knowledge to educate the community. You don’t dismiss people’s belief, you use that belief to make them see the right way so they can manage their sickness. Somebody can believe in home remedy, but we can say always communicate with your provider, because sometime you’re taking home remedy and you’re taking other medication, you can really have some side-effects you don’t know.

M: Were there a lot of pesticide-related illnesses?

F: Yes. Yes. Yes. Pesticide. The Association did a wonderful job in educating the community. But important also is educating the providers regarding pesticides. They not understand that. Somebody can have a type of dermatitis—skin disorder—and they do not know. But they go to see the doctor, and sometime medical provider they don’t tie your profession, what you do, with what you have. A lot of heat exhaustion. I work with a lot of pregnant women, and that’s very important for whoever is talking to that pregnant woman to know what are they doing, so that any impact on that baby—on that fetus—so some tests need to be done.

M: What is there still to be done providing healthcare and adequate education?

F: [Laughs] do not get me—I cannot go there. Look at the Affordable Healthcare Act, okay? You have one community, one population, with no legal status. You have to be documented to get access to that health insurance.

M: What is the Haitian culture like here?

F: The Haitian community is very diverse. In Central Florida, we have Haitian in Orange County, Lake County, Seminole County. And not all Haitian are doing farmworks. Now, when they receive their green card, they move towards construction, they work at the hotel housekeeping. We have a new generation of children of farmworkers finishing school, going to college. You have an aging, old Haitian community, and a new generation. You still have a group of Haitian, 60, 70 years of age that don’t speak English, but they are functioning in the U.S.

They speak Creole and French. But not English. And I can tell you, 30 years within that community, a lot of progress. Now we have a Haitian Chamber of Commerce, we have a Haitian Consulate; so instead of going to Miami for their passport, they can get something here, locally. Slowly, the level ofeducation, the level of literacy is increasing.

M: Do you still have your traditions?

F: Oh yes, I have my language, okay? I have a culture in cuisine, I still keep my Haitian food, okay? And at my house I have my mom, my mother in law, who speaks French and Creole. My daughter was born in the U.S., she claim to be Haitian-American, because we show her to be proud of that culture. When I came back in the 1983, it was a cultural shock for me, okay? I’m proficient in English, but still my first language is French and Creole. When I came from Haiti and I saw the living condition of farmworkers, of Haitians in the Apopka area, yeah? It was like back home in Haiti in countryside.

When I came from Haiti, I came with my husband who was to do a doctor degree in engineering. It wasn’t easy. Until 1990 in two community health centers because of my profession, my background, they sponsor me. And then I can have my green card. Now I am a U.S. citizen. I will not say it was good, but, my journey make me who I am. As an immigrant woman, it is my duty to assist other immigrant, to help them walk the path I have walked. I can guide.

And people are scared, they do not understand the system, so I believe us who have been there before, our role is to guide those coming after us. So, those of us leaders in that community, in the Caribbean community, in the Haitian community, in the Mexican community, in the African community, we need to guide our sisters and brothers, by being a role model. I make them tell me where they are, what do they want. And then show them the path.

Education is the key in the U.S. I tell them about high school diploma, I tell them about GED, you can learn the language, that is the number one step. They have to speak the language. That’s okay to keep your language, it’s important. But you need to understand the American culture and language.

M: Do you see a lot of immigrants who come in just not knowing anything?

F: Yes, yes. And those people working under the table, they are paid in cash, they don’t have any rights. They abuse them. Back home in Haiti, I don’t trust government, and I can tell you even in the U.S.—I don’t trust government. When somebody want to be elected, they promise, promise, promise, but it becomes a different reality when they are elected.

M: Let’s talk a little about your family. You live with your mother in law?

F: My mother in law and my mother, and my husband also. I have a daughter and her name is Christel—like Christ—she is right now in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a degree in pharmacy. And she works at Emory Hospital. She is 28. I came in 1983, Christel was born in October 1984.

I am Catholic. And my faith lift me up every day. You need to know your purpose in life. When you know your purpose, then you can know which path to take.

Inspiration. I’m always ready, when I leave my house. I do have problems, but I believe every day I am meeting someone, there is a reason why. I maybe catch somebody maybe one time, just to say one word to somebody can make a big difference. I always say to anybody I talk to, “Tomorrow will be better.”, but today you need to work, to make tomorrow better.

M: How do you come into contact with most of these people? Is it through your organization?

F: Through organization, through friends, and like I said, divine way. Our mission is to serve. Even in the medical field we are serving the community. So, we need to be humble. Humility is a condition where you can really open your mind and heart to somebody in need of your service.

M: In the Catholic church there is some stigma against the use of—

F: Condom?

M: Yes. How do you combat that?

F: Just say it. Say it. At ten, twelve, thirteen they are pregnant. This is not by the Holy Spirit! They got pregnant because they had unprotected sex. So we cannot give them education half-way. Okay?

When I left the Association in 2003, there is another group I put together called the Center for Multicultural Wellness and Prevention, where a lot of work with HIV/AIDS is being done now. They have HAPWA, which is Housing Assistance for People with HIV/AIDS. I believe they are the Ryan White dental provider. It started they do dental work, but they are the dental coordinating agency to assist people with HIV, because if you don’t have good oral health, you cannot eat. So, you cannot do nothing. Okay? The Center for Multicultural Wellness and Prevention, it’s like a legacy. A legacy to show different cultures can work together without backstabbing. I have witness minority agencies because of lack of togetherness, fail.

We put the community first. Compassion, understanding, and integrity, and it’s working pretty well. Because it’s universal, and whoever is coming in front of you is sick, not with a disease, but they can be homeless, they can be hungry, they can need somebody to talk to. With that group, they have staff that can listen to the need of whoever get into that door. No matter what.

The mission of the CMWP is to enhance the health, wellness and quality of life for diverse populations in Central Florida. We have a website you can look at what we’ve done there. My family, everybody embraces what I do. Because I work, let’s say sixteen hours a day, they understand my passion, what I want to do, all of that in the name of service.

My husband loves soccer, and he is using soccer as a way to discipline some young boys. Soccer is a national sport for Haiti, and sometime I use soccer to educate the community: we do soccer tournament. And during the tournament we use physical activity, sometimes the men are playing, the women, we can walk around the field, and we do education about different illnesses. Yes, while playing.

Soccer can be a way to educate the community about health issues. We offer some screening. This will be eleven years we have been doing what is called “Caribbean Health Summit”, from 400 people attending, up to 1,500. Caribbean Health Summit is a way to promote primary prevention, to know about your blood pressure, your blood sugar, we do mammogram, we do blood for prostate cancer. We do a lot of health screening. When you have that screening result, we link you into services, to what we call in Orange County, Primary Care Access Network. Everything is on that website, yes.

I’m not doing anything by myself, it’s teamwork. This is what the immigrant community needs. Togetherness, networking, and collaboration. With both hands together, we can serve the whole community. One hand cannot serve the community, okay?

Search for “Marie Jose Francois” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

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