Slave to History

A Colorado couple is determined to remember the past.

Before Haiti became the world's first black republic, it was a slave nation. On the island, there were quarantines, where a new slave was broken down, beaten physically, informed of his inferiority and told to be thankful to his captors — because it was the work that the slave would do for his masters that would lead to forgiveness and acceptance into heaven.

Now, more than 200 years after the slaves revolted, a former Colorado couple wants to commemorate the quarantine, which they believe is the source of the Western world's violence, racism and greed. "Our culture, our society did that," says Carla Bluntschli, who's lived in Haiti for 22 years. "And I'm a part of it."

Back in 1978, Carla's husband, Ron Bluntschli, who'd gone to high school in Greeley, got out of the Navy and enrolled at Colorado State University, bringing his wife and new daughter to Fort Collins with him. While Ron earned first a bachelor's and then a master's degree in crop sciences and plant breeding, Carla had another child. And then the couple signed up to work on a reforestation project in Haiti through the Mennonite Central Committee — even though neither was a Mennonite.

While Carla had never been out of the country before, Ron had fond memories of Haiti from a stop there during his Navy days. The couple worked for the Mennonites for eight years in various capacities, finally running a guest house where new volunteers received their orientation training. During a 1991 coup, the family took in nine Haitian activists who were being hunted by the military, including Ari Nicolas.

When the Bluntschlis finally finished up with the MCC, they stayed in Haiti and got involved with fact-finding missions for human-rights organizations. That's when they realized that both the Haitian people and foreigners lacked an understanding of how slavery had truly shaped today's world, where descendants of Europeans are still wealthy, descendants of slaves are still poor and descendants of the Native American are so few.

Carla had noticed early on that in Haiti, the natives view themselves as inferior to whites. Once, as she walked through a market with a group of white people, a vendor told Carla that she was walking among the children of God. When Carla, who speaks fluent Creole, asked who the Haitian people were, the vendor replied that they were the "children of Satan." And it still amazes her that hair-straightening and skin-lightening products are in such high demand in a country that has so little money for any kind of hygiene.

In 1999, Ari Nicolas told the couple that he had a vision of their future: Memory Village. Ari, who'd discovered that his last name reflected not his African heritage, but his great-grandfather's French enslaver, envisioned a slavery theme park, a walk back into the past where the first stop would be the world before colonization, including both the African and Native American empires that the colonists had destroyed.

Visitors to Memory Village would decide whether they wanted to be spectators or participants during a twelve-hour day. The latter would receive traditional African clothing and then be mock-kidnapped from their homelands, shackled, chained and forced to march to the slave ship (resting on a real stream), where they'd be piled in as cargo for the crossing of the Atlantic. Once the ship reached the New World, the participants would be brought to market and sold, then broken down in the quarantine and put to work out on the plantation. Near the end of the day, a slave rebellion would start, a rebellion that would eventually lead to the establishment of Haiti.

"The breath that I take, the blood that runs in my body, is all in debt to that history," Carla says. "Slavery is a terrible wound. Germany is still suffering from the Holocaust and trying to get over it, and this is a Holocaust that happened for centuries."

Carla says she feels indebted to Haiti for beginning the end of the slave trade. And that's why she and her husband have used their retirement money to build a house in a Haitian village roughly 25 miles from Port-au-Prince, where they plan to build Memory Village.

So far, they have the concept and a foundation, N a Sonje, but they haven't yet come up with the $700,000 in funding they anticipate will be needed to get the project off the ground. Still, the foundation has been recognized by the Haitian government, and they've raised enough money to buy half of the three acres needed for Memory Village.

They raised some of that money when the Bluntschlis, Ari Nicolas and another Haitian friend toured the United States in 2006 and 2007, putting on performances of a play about slavery and the slaughter of the Native Americans. On both trips, they stopped in Denver, where one of their daughters lives.

She's a former schoolmate of Dan Jeune's.

 
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