Lise Robinson: A Celebration of My Caribbean American Heritage
Written by Lise Robinson
Lise Robinson, Chief Financial Officer at Women Who Code discusses her Caribbean heritage, her childhood emigrating to the US from Haiti, how her background has impacted her life and personal philosophy, and what Caribbean-American Heritage month means to her on a personal level.
- Tell us a bit about your Caribbean background?
I was born in Verrettes, Haiti in a town known for its great school systems and ideal location to raise children. My parents are both Haitian-born with ancestral ties to West-Central Africa, Mali, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Portugal, Basque, and Sardinia, to name a few. During the late 1800s to early 1900s, parts of my maternal family emigrated to Cuba and other nearby islands to pursue other financial opportunities and a better life, thereby expanding my distant relatives outside of Haiti. On my paternal side, I come from a very large family of Haitian farmers, educators, artists, ministers, and public servants who focused on growing large families to build a legacy. While Haiti was under the dictatorship of Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and as a result of the Tonton Makouts, Haitian intellectuals and medical professionals like my parents were forced to flee the country.
5-year-old me prior to moving to the US
- Where did you grow up?
I moved to the US when I was 6 years old. I grew up in South Florida, specifically Fort Lauderdale. I am a beach and sunshine baby, through and through! I grew up in a middle-class diverse neighborhood full of kids, retirees, and other Caribbean cultures. I grew up in South Florida where the hurricane season lasts five months, the summer is eight months long and you might just get a whiff of winter in January and February, but don’t expect any snow and it may not get cooler than 50 degrees! My house had six children, mother and father, and the revolving stays of uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents who all eventually emigrated to the US from Haiti.
- How did where you grew up impact you?
Being raised in a large family in South Florida was the best experience I could have had. I grew up with five siblings and my father had nine siblings and both of my paternal grandparents each had eighteen plus siblings. Through being raised in South Florida, I grew up understanding the importance of family, genealogy, drive, inheritance, love and community. I learned to embrace being Afro-Latina, Caribbean, West-Indian, Southern, black, Haitian, and American. Where I grew up gave me the foundation to become culturally empathetic and give appreciation and tolerance of cultures that differ from my own; my cultural empathy developed as a child and has been reinforced and challenged over time thereby making me who I am today.
- What does National Caribbean American Heritage Month mean to you?
It’s a celebration, a reminder, and a recognition of Caribbean immigrants’ contributions to the US. As a self-proclaimed history and genealogy buff, I am fascinated by the contributions that black people have made to American development, but I’m equally proud of the impact Haitian Americans also made on America’s history. I feel proud when I read of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable who founded Chicago; Henri Christophe who led the Haitian Revolution and served in Savannah in the American Revolution; Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes who was a civil rights activist best known for his work in Plessy vs. Ferguson; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Haitian-American modern artist whose art has immortalized pop culture. During this month, the contributions of those with Caribbean heritage are highlighted so that we’re all reminded of the Caribbeans’ gift to music and cuisine, as well.
1 year old me with my maternal grandmother
- How has your Caribbean heritage influenced you throughout your life?
Without a doubt, it influences how I interact with friends, colleagues, and strangers, and it also affects how I make decisions for myself and my family. Although I wasn’t raised in the islands and I wasn’t raised in the traditional Haitian home, there are some cultural lessons I’ve learned that I carry with me, like:
- addressing others as Mrs./Mr. especially if they are old enough to be my parent.
- taking off my shoes before walking into someone’s home.
- the Caribbean need to barter, find a good deal and never pay full price.
- the beach is in my DNA, it heals all infirmities and ailments.
- coming from a good Caribbean family is like inheriting wealth and a legacy.
- Haitian cuisine combines cooking traditions taken from the African continent, France, the indigenous Taino people, Spain, and the Arabs and our cuisine cannot be lumped together with Caribbean cuisines, because it is unique and distinctly Haitian.
- I always feel proud of my rich and full heritage, and that pride has directly contributed to my confidence and success.
- How does your Caribbean heritage influence your current work?
Being an immigrant and a child of immigrants influences my love for education; the need to learn and grow in my discipline as a subject-matter expert in financial management and all things nonprofit; it affects how I participate in work-community life, and my strong work ethic is the result of my Caribbean heritage and national identity.
- Is there anything else you would like to share?
If you’ve never tried Haitian cuisine, you have unfortunately neglected your tastebuds. Google Haitian restaurants near you and try some Haitian cuisine this month!