Janet: a Haitian street seller in Pedernales

Today I walked the streets of Pedernales with Janet, a seller from Ansapit with seven children, two still at home. Pepe helps her put food on the table. Rather than buy and sell pepe by the container, she buys it from other ti machann, bundles up the chemises — blouses, her specialty — and peddles them door to door six days a week. She’s a slim, small woman with a fast walk and an ingratiating smile, and like all the sellers I’ve met, she’s driven and professional. With 50 customers in Pedernales, she doesn’t stop for a lunch but works through the day and eats at home.

Janet turns off the main paved road into a wide, red dirt street lined with pastel-painted cement block houses with iron grill work. Some of her customers reach through the grill to examine the blouses — Janet standing with her bundle outside, the woman (it’s usually a woman) within. She calls at stores, draping her chemises on the counter where the owner stops between handling her own customers. Culturally, Dominican men do the selling in the markets and streets, which are considered unsafe and unseemly for women. Dominican women sell from homes or stores.

Some customers invite Janet into the foyer or garden area of their homes, while others come to the street to look at her goods. The clothes are clean and neatly folded. Janet deftly lifts one after another, draping items over one arm, many times kneeling on the ground because there is no table or chair handy when one works on the street. The buyer-seller relationship is much like that of the personal shopper, and the Dominican women enjoy it. Pepe has created a very pleasing shabby chic style both in home and personal fashion on the border. Both Haitian and Dominican women have an eye for combining mismatched pieces into outfits not so far from what top designers spend millions to market.

The Dominican women talk and laugh with Janet, who projects just the right amount of deference and intimacy. American women up to the 1960s probably enjoyed similar relationships with subservient African-American maids or cooks.

All that’s needed to emblematize the Haitian-Dominican relationship in Pedernales is a Black Sambo statue in the yard.

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