Marjorie Colas celebrates her heritage during Haitian Flag Day celebration at Walt Disney World. (Marjorie Colas)

This story is republished from the website Reckon

By Jonece Starr Dunigan | [email protected]

Before Marjorie Colas made history at Walt Disney World in Orlando, her father made sure she knew the magic of being her authentic Haitian self.

Born in the island’s capital of Port-au-Prince, Colas is the youngest in her family. But her father, Banes, made sure his daughter knew she was mighty. He was the first person to call her princess and reminded her often – both with words and actions – of her majestic potential.

“He would always say, ‘You are the star of the family,’” Colas said. “So I grew up believing all those things and knew that I had to do really well. That really guided how I managed my life as best as I could.”

Colas was raised with a confident spirit, on an island of freedom fighters who established the first free Black republic in January 1804. This legacy is celebrated loudly during Haitian Heritage Month in May, through the nation’s food, music and language. Colas refused to water down her vibrant culture when she moved to the United States nearly 30 years ago and became the first Haitian Walt Disney World Ambassador.

Colas’ wishes to disrupt those who perceive her country only as a nation of poverty and instability. She isn’t ignoring the political unrest in her homeland, but she knows the tragedies of the present don’t erase the pride of Haiti’s past. An island once colonized for its sugar cane and resources was freed by the enslaved who overthrew the French regime.

“When you know your history, no matter how bad things get, you know who you are and you have something to look back at and work towards,” Colas said. “So being from Haiti – yes, there are so many different things happening there. But at the end of the day, Haiti is the mother of freedom.”

Haitian Heritage Month is an expansion of Haitian Flag Day on May 18. The flag has become an emblem of resilience, pride and freedom for the nation. In 1803, Catherine Flon sewed together remnants of the French tricolor flag, torn apart by Haitian revolution leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The blue and red stripes represent the alliance between Black and mulatto citizens. Under the flag’s coat of arms is a white ribbon with the motto “L’Union fait la force,” which means “unity makes strength” in French.

Everything is shut down when Flag Day arrives, Colas said. Schools would parade their pride in the streets, decorated in red, white and blue. Colas beamed with excitement when carrying the flag and singing during her middle school parade. The smell of the food, the exuberance of the music and laughter merge together into a symphony of heritage.

Flag Day became the perfect classroom, teaching children about their pride. Colas learned how Haiti was an architect of freedom. In 1815, then-Haitian president Alexandre Sabès Pétion gave Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar refuge and resources as he fought for Latin America’s independence against Spanish rule. The Greek Revolution was inspired by the uprising in Haiti, which was the first country to recognize Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1822. Even before the country obtained its own independence, a group of freed Black men from Haiti known as the “Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue” volunteered to help colonial troops capture Savannah from the British during the American Revolution.

“Haiti was the ‘Pearl of the Islands’,” Colas said. “That’s the pride. I grew up knowing, ‘Hey, you are from Haiti. When you talk about freedom, we led that movement.’”

While Port-au-Prince gets media attention, Colas praises other parts of the country that deserve more spotlight. Her family spent many carefree summers in her father’s hometown, Jacmel, on the southeastern coast. Luscious green mountains frame the beautiful blue Caribbean Sea. Colas and her relatives could leisurely walk out the front doors and indulge in mangoes, mandarins and sugar cane plucked straight from the source. If it got too hot, Colas cooled off with her favorite frozen treat, Ti Kawol, a homemade popsicle made with Haitian fruit.

“Growing up in Haiti was truly a joyful experience,” she said. “Everyone wanted to ensure that the children of that environment were cared for and were loved.”

Remember who you are

Education was prized possession in Colas’ household, so when political issues in Port-au-Prince started affecting Colas’ schooling, Colas was sent to live with her older sister in Connecticut, where she attended Stamford High School in June 1994.

News about the discrimination Black Americans faced were hard to ignore when she moved to the United States. She thought it was strange how Black people received less resources in education and other areas of their lives. After graduating high school, Colas faced the same microaggressions that wear on the souls of African Americans. Back in Haiti, she was a part of the majority. But in America she learned how to navigate life as a Black Haitian woman – a triple minority in a predominately white society. There have been people who made her feel like she didn’t belong and questioned her intelligence because of her accent.

Being her authentic self, without it being a threat, is one the main things Colas misses about Haiti.

“I don’t have to justify who I am,” Colas said. “I don’t have to worry about the color of my skin. I don’t have to worry about my accent because I don’t have an accent when I’m home. When I’m home, I am me. When I’m away, I have to explain to people why I have an accent after living in the U.S. for 30 years.”

The comments about her accent didn’t distract Colas from her goals. She didn’t need to nurse her confidence back to health, either. She pushed herself forward in her education and career because she had her Haitian pride and her father’s words repeating in her mind.

“It’s important for people to remember who they are,” Colas said. “Because if you don’t, you will easily get shaken by the calamities of society.”

Colas kept this wisdom in mind while she climbed the ladder of leadership at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Like many, she was enchanted by the brand. “The Lion King” and “Cinderella” are some of her favorite stories. But she didn’t think about working for Disney, until she landed a job of being a language service coordinator in 2004. Her main job was to help with communications between Disney and their employees, which the company refers to as “cast members,” and to conduct cultural awareness training. She didn’t know at the time that the position would be the gateway to her celebrating the Disney magic worldwide.

Bringing the magic of Haiti to Disney

Colas was only a year into her career when she learned about the Disney Ambassador Program, which was created by Walt Disney himself in 1965. Disney Ambassadors are cast members chosen to represent the company, its cast members and its values, acting as spokespeople and goodwill ambassadors at events and in the media.

Colas didn’t see a Haitian ambassador for Walt Disney World, but the absence didn’t intimidate her and she decided to apply in 2005.

“I wanted to bridge the gap and representation. So I put my name in the hat,” Colas said. “It’s the idea of remembering who you are. I was like, ‘Of course, I can do this.’ We have other cast members from Haiti at Disney, and I wanted to inspire everyone – but particularly them – to see themselves in a position that would make them proud to be who they are.”

Becoming a Disney ambassador is a rigorous process. Colas was one of 129 people to apply for the position that year. She said 29 of them moved on to the second panel interview with executive leadership. Only nine of them made it to the final interview with the company’s president. Applicants interview skills were tested as leadership asked about current events in their community. Their love and knowledge of the Disney brand was examined. Colas leveraged her leadership skills she gained while working in the human resources department at that time.

Throughout the intense endeavor, she held on to her accent and her Haitian identity.

“My accent is my identity,” Colas said. “Until you speak with me, you don’t know I’m not from here. I want people to know about Haiti because Haiti is my foundation.”

On Oct. 28, 2005, Colas and the other finalists stood in front of Cinderella Castle to learn who would be the next ambassadors. Walt Disney World selects two ambassadors for the opportunity. So when the president of Disney called her name after saying the name of her Black coworker, Michael Collier, she was in disbelief.

But the moment was real. She turned a dream into a reality, and from October 2005 until December 2006, Colas walked in the footsteps of history, just like her ancestors did before her.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Oh my goodness, we have two Black ambassadors and one of them is from Haiti,’” Colas said. “I felt like it was no longer about me. It was about everybody else. How do I really leverage this platform to elevate everyone else with me?”

Being a Disney ambassador is a cherished position of service to Colas. She felt honored when she traveled the world to bring the gift of Disney magic to both the guests and the hundreds of thousands of cast members who kept the parks running.

“When you are out and about, you have to make the guests feel special because they are special,” Colas said. “When you go to a hospital visit with Mickey and Minnie, you have to make the children and their families feel special. At the same time, we need the professionalism of the employees when we host dignitaries. So it’s a combination of both.”

During her time as ambassador, Colas continued to talk about the gifts Haiti gave her and how her upbringing led to her success in America. She helped initiate Disney’s first centralized event for Haitian Flag Day in 2006, which continued for 12 years. She and other Haitian leaders also created the Haitian Task Force. The group was later renamed KONBIT, which is the Creole word for “teamwork.” It’s a fitting title for an organization of leaders who continue to elevate Haitian heritage and culture.

Colas continued serving her people at Disney even after her time of ambassadorship was over. She left her role in human resources to become an executive director in housekeeping, which is the department that employs the most Haitian cast members. She still looks out for her extended family members now as a senior facilitator at Disney Institute, which teaches professional development to other organizations around the world.

“For me, it has always been about: It’s not a curse to be from Haiti. It’s a blessing,” Colas said.

Right: Haitian native Marjorie Colas (right) poses with her 9-year-old son Marques-Emmanuel. Left: Marjorie Colas poses in front of Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World during the park's 50th anniversary in 2023. (Walt Disney World /Walt Disney World)

Today, Colas is carrying that message to the next generation. She sings the Haitian national anthem along with her 9-year-old son, Marques-Emmanuel, as he gets ready for school every morning. He was only two when he visited Haiti the first time. But to him, the country is a colorful home filled with the memories of his mother’s childhood. He understands the Creole tongue that’s spoken in his house and at church. His favorite dish is chicken prepared in a creole sauce with a side of white rice with black beans.

But most importantly, she makes sure he inherits the same pride her father instilled in her.

“As a parent to a young Black man, I put on him as much wisdom and knowledge he needs for him to be proud of himself and of his heritage,” she said. “The more the child knows who they are, the more they are better able to stand with their heads high and shoulders straight.”

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