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

Many teachers, students, and Haitian advocates say tensions remain high in schools throughout Broward County. In fact the word "Haitian" itself has become a slur -- as in, "Why are you acting so Haitian?" Last spring Friends of Children, a Broward County nonprofit group that mostly works with low-income, African-American children, addressed the problem by organizing a conference that brought together parents and educators from both sides. "The real problem comes from the parents themselves," says Malheur, who attended the conference and says few concrete solutions came out of the meeting, during which topics like improving diversity training and outreach efforts to Haitian parents were discussed. "There were a lot of stereotypes mentioned, but at least it opened up a dialogue between Haitian and African-American parents."

Joseph grabs the remote and switches to his favorite daytime wallpaper, the music videos on Black Entertainment Television. Wyclef's on the tube, jumping around, shaking his short dreads. Outside his window Joseph hears the dull roar of a car slowing down. Instinctively he reaches for the thick brown drapes that keep sunlight from his cocoon and checks to see if maybe some of his homeboys have dropped by. There's no one there. They're all in school. He lingers for a moment, focused on movement at a small house across the street.

"See that house?" he says. "The cops took that place down a few weeks ago. I mean SWAT team and everything. It was bad." Joseph says fear of arrest has been the greatest incentive for him to steer clear of the drugs, gangs, and petty crime that have landed so many of his childhood friends, including his brother, behind bars. "Sure you might make $400 or $500 a night selling drugs," he says. "I mean that's pretty good right now, but when you get caught they're going to bust you bigtime." That's what Jean Virgile, a Haitian advocate with the Haitian Community Center in Fort Lauderdale, has tried to tell Joseph as he's struggled to keep the teenager out of trouble. "He would call me and say, 'Mr. Virgile, man, my friends are coming around, and I know I'm going to do something stupid,'" says Virgile, who has worked with Joseph for almost a year. "I would go by and pick him up, and we would go to the movies. The best thing about Joseph right now is that he's not in prison."

Joseph mutes the TV, rifles through a drawer in the night table by his bed, and pulls out a frayed, green spiral notebook. He grabs a pen and begins scribbling in the makeshift journal, many volumes of which are stashed in the room. The young writer inscribes his darkest thoughts in those pages, along with poetry, rap lyrics, and bits of artwork. He lives out his dreams in his writing and tries to make sense of the chaos of life, of the hatred that swells inside him and the depression that seems to keep him so damn tired all the time. Somewhere in a discarded volume is recorded the tale of Joseph's first exposure to the perils of the street. One hot night in 1992, while visiting his grandmother in Miami's Little Haiti, the 11-year-old was cruising with a car full of machine gun-toting thugs -- older kids he had gotten to know after many years visiting the neighborhood. It was late August, Hurricane Andrew had just barreled through South Florida, and unbeknownst to Joseph the group was on the prowl for a drug dealer who had double-crossed them. "I remember all the electricity was off, and they pulled up on this guy, put on the high beams, and just started spraying," he says. "There wasn't a drop of blood. The guy got up and shook off the bullets. Legend says he didn't have a bulletproof vest on, that [what saved him] was voodoo, but I try not to believe that. Every time I think of it I get shivers."

After the incident those same Haitian-American kids showed him how to use a gun, though he's never owned one -- "These are my guns," he says, holding out his clenched fists -- and how to cook powdered cocaine into compact crack rocks, though he says he never sold or took the drug. The violence he's witnessed permeates the pages of his journal. One rap ode he composed celebrates Haitian youth with these lurid lyrics:

You look at us and see tru niggas
Deep inside we're all killers...
Live by no law
Everybody gonna feel the raff
Of our black claw.

Joseph, whose Haitian-American criminal associations enraged his parents, says it's the non-Haitian friends he began hanging out with in high school who got him in the most trouble, encouraging him to skip school and blow off his homework. He had already begun slacking off at school -- his GPA had dropped to a 2.0 -- when the family of an acquaintance whose house he'd visited accused him of stealing hundreds of dollars. In fact, Joseph says, a friend had stolen the money and tried to pass the crime off on him. To avoid reprisals -- he had gotten death threats from members of the family who accused him of stealing -- Joseph skipped school for a month and moved in with his grandmother in Miami. When he resumed his sophomore year at Stranahan High School, he had fallen too far behind to recover.

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