Identity Crisis

In Lauderhill, a teenager pays for his Haitian parents' mistakes while struggling, like many of his friends, to find his place in the United States

A few slivers of sunlight slice the cloud of dust that hangs above his bed. Joseph stirs beneath the sheets, heaves himself out of bed, and stumbles into the living room, where his mother is waiting for him to drive her to work. For the last four and a half years she has been a cook at the Roadhouse Grill in Davie, stretching a meager salary to cover the care and feeding of two Florida-born sons, a third illegitimate son in Haiti, and her mother in Miami's Little Haiti. Recently she started working longer hours, now that her HIV-positive husband is unemployed and spends most of his time curled up on a daybed behind the kitchen, popping more than a dozen prescription pills every day.

Joseph stands in the doorway leading from the bathroom to the living room, a toothbrush dangling from his frothy mouth. He catches a glimpse of his mother, who stands in the shadows and is framed by the long strands of plastic vines and big, red artificial flowers that cling to the wall behind her. She flashes that sweet smile that tells him she still loves him, no matter what he's done to screw up his life.

Joseph spits and rinses, then grabs the keys to the van. "Come on, Mom," he says. The 15-minute drive to work is the only time they spend together anymore, and as he pulls out of the driveway, past the Lauderhill police station, the 17-year-old remembers why.

It has been just over a year since Joseph, in a bold act of defiance, called the police on his dad, a Haitian man struggling to hold his family together. Their relationship, already strained at the time, has grown downright frigid since that last big fight, when his father threatened him and then turned on his mother. Joseph has learned to live with the silence that now fragments his home and to avoid the sickly man he calls a "deadbeat."

Jean and Louise Larue didn't imagine it would be this way when they left Haiti for South Florida 18 years ago in search of a better life for their family. In Haiti they were dirt-poor and illiterate, their lives were uncertain, and their fear was palpable; their country, in political and economic turmoil, was terrorized by Tontons Macoutes, machete-wielding thugs serving Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's repressive regime. But whatever their troubles the Larues could always count on the insulation of the lakou, the Creole term for the cluster of homes -- a small village unto itself -- housing many generations of a single family, which in rural Haiti forms the core of family life.

Like so many of the more than 50,000 Haitians estimated to be living in Broward and Palm Beach counties, they came to this country on a boat in the dead of night. Even before they stepped foot on American soil, they imagined the day when they might return to Haiti, their American-educated children ready to rebuild their troubled country. For Joseph's parents and for so many Haitians like them, Haiti will always be home. They didn't come here to become Americans, only to pursue economic prosperity and social mobility. But along the way many found that new burdens were replacing the old ones: their children led astray by a culture that glorifies crime and encourages independence and youthful defiance, and their parental authority eroded by laws equating Haitian discipline with child abuse and by economic necessities that force many to work two or three jobs.

Joseph's parents, who have green cards but never applied for U.S. citizenship (which requires literacy), sometimes wonder if they've paid too high a price for the opportunities that lured them here. (Family members would only speak candidly about their situation if their real names were not used for this article.) Their youngest son, Paul, the baby who once clung to his devout Christian mother when she went shopping or to church, was last year incarcerated in the Broward Intensive Halfway House, a juvenile detention facility. The 15-year-old had been charged with grand theft auto and strong-arm robbery. His older brother, Joseph, the one they had always worried about, was also arrested last year, nabbed tooling around with a friend in a car he said he didn't know was stolen. Though he has so far avoided jail time, the 17-year-old dropped out of high school recently and now spends most of his days at home, curled up in bed watching daytime TV.

Joseph drops his mom at the restaurant and speeds home, catching green lights all the way. He's gotten the commute down to a science. If he's out of the house by 8:40 a.m., he can usually get back by 9:10, just in time to catch most of Jerry Springer. He landed a job as a cashier at Kmart not long ago, but, since he hasn't been put on the schedule yet, he's still uncertain whether or not they will call him in to work today. Most of his salary, $6.25 an hour, will go toward repairing the rust-bucket of a Cutlass Supreme that sits idle in the driveway; the rest will most likely go toward helping his mother pay the mortgage on the one-story Lauderhill townhouse his parents bought two years ago. If he isn't called in to work today Joseph might go to adult-ed classes he's attended sporadically in the evenings since dropping out of Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale. He needs to improve his vocabulary so he can pass the GED and then maybe go on to college. "Wouldn't that be something?" he says, smiling at the thought of it. "[Joseph Larue], a college boy."

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