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

He kicks off his shoes, flops into bed, and props his pillows against the headboard. He sits upright in the dark and musty room, the close-hewn fuzz on his scalp electrified by static, and settles in for what will surely be another dull day at home. Life wasn't always this uninspiring. There were happier times, back when Joseph Larue, class clown and Casanova, was the center of his 13-year-old universe. He hung with the "No Limit Haitians" then, the Haitian and Haitian-American kids (the Haitian community is fluid, regularly absorbing new arrivals) who waged war with their African-American counterparts beginning in the seventh grade at William Dandy Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. Joseph was still a tiny kid, short and bony, but he had the same bold attitude that now matches the linebacker he has become. (Before dropping out he was on the football team at Stranahan).

"The fights started over a girl," he recalls, smiling at the memory of those days. "These two guys, Nick and Andrew, they were both Haitians, but Nick was only half Haitian and didn't admit to it. He was friends with the black Americans, and they backed him up. Nick and Andrew were fighting over this girl, and I stepped in and said, 'Why you fighting? You're both Haitians,' and Nick said, 'I ain't Haitian,' and there was like a Haitian-American riot that broke out."

After the incident, Joseph says, there were fights between Haitians and African-Americans just about every day. The ethnic slurs Haitian kids had long ago grown accustomed to -- the taunts of "boat people" and "cat eaters" -- were now accompanied by threats of violence. Eventually an older kid, the Haitian quarterback at Stranahan, had the bright idea to funnel that tension through a football game. "We started playing football on Saturdays, Haitians against Americans, until no one was left standing," says Joseph, who was suspended on numerous occasions in middle and high school for participating in fights.

Tensions between African-Americans and Haitians (and their children) has long been a characteristic of life in low-income urban enclaves in South Florida. Many of the neighborhoods settled by the new Haitian arrivals were already populated by African-Americans, many of whom were suspicious of their new neighbors. After all, Haitians had strange customs, spoke an odd language, were said to be carrying the AIDS virus, and were known to take low-wage jobs no one else would have. "My mother used to dress me different from everyone else, with big bows and flowery dresses," recalls Judith Laroche, a social worker who was born in Haiti but spent most of her childhood in this country. "We were always different, we were always strange. Sometimes I would go home crying and say, 'Mom I don't want to go back to school, send me back home, send me back to Haiti.' And then AIDS came about, and they were saying Haitian people brought AIDS to this country. I was so ashamed."

Joseph remembers the anti-Haitian vitriol that, at an early age, made it clear to him wherein his loyalties lay. In school, though Joseph and his brother could have passed themselves off as African-Americans (as some Haitian-American kids did), they tended to congregate with kids of Haitian origin, including some recent arrivals who spoke little English. As he grew older and bigger, Joseph stopped having to worry about the African-American bullies who taunted him outside the classroom, the same bullies who used to chase down his little brother, trying to steal his cash and his new basketball shoes.

Sprawled across the bed, thumbing through his compact disk collection, Joseph smiles, recalling the times he stood up to those bullies -- the brick he slammed into the face of one and the bus-stop thrashing he gave another. With his index finger, he traces the ragged outline of the homemade tattoo a friend chiseled into his big bicep a few months ago. The faded black letters, spelling out the words "True Haitian" are a testament to the loyalty he feels for the island nation he has never visited. Until recently most Haitian kids in South Florida were far too scared to display such overt signs of Haitian pride, but the violence in the schools has begun to draw many into tightly knit self-defense groups, some of which have become full-fledged Haitian-American gangs like the Island Boys and Jack Boys. Today many of the same teens who once hid their Haitian heritage in shame sport tattoos bearing slogans like "Haitian For Life" or T-shirts boldly displaying the red, white, and blue of the Haitian flag.

Many credit one man for the nationalist surge among Haitian teenagers. Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born, hip-hop sensation who is a member of the Grammy-winning threesome the Fugees, is the first Haitian-American to reach pop-icon status in this country. The 27-year-old singer, who grew up in Miami and Brooklyn, performed at the Grammys last year wrapped in a Haitian flag -- an image that was broadcast into millions of American homes and was a source of great pride for many Haitian teens. "Wyclef has done a lot to give kids self-confidence," says Darline Malheur, a Haitian guidance-counselor at Sunrise Middle School, where the tension between Haitians and African-Americans became so pronounced last year that the school outlawed the wearing of Haitian flags on the grounds that they incited violence.

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