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

His dad didn't respond well to the news that his son had become a dropout, but when he raised his hand to strike him, Joseph caught it.

"I won't take it from him anymore," he says. "With my mom I really try to control my temper, but towards my father I have real trouble. My mom will hit me and I will just walk away, but my father will hit me and I'll grab his arm and say, 'Listen, you hit me one more time and I'll hurt you.'" Though Joseph and his father spend most of their time at home, the two rarely interact; Joseph is usually in his room, which he keeps bolted shut.

Haitian advocates and social workers say Joseph's brand of defiance is not unusual among Haitian-American teens in this country, although such behavior would be almost unheard of in Haiti. That country is a place still largely untarnished by pop-culture mayhem (though it is burdened with plenty of the political variety), where children often live at home until marriage and filial piety is the norm. "In Haiti parents expect children to be respectful to all adults," says Amos Eugene, a Haitian preacher and Protective Services caseworker with Children and Family Services in Broward County. "When children are raised here, they adopt a very different attitude, sneering at Haitian traditions. We are torn between our culture and the American culture, but we try to enforce the law. We have to tell parents the old ways won't work, that they can't discipline their children violently."

Eugene says Haitian parents are often far stricter than their American counterparts and have no compunction about bruising their children with belts or electrical cords. Applying the same discipline their parents used on them, many parents find that their children know far more about the American legal system than they do and will use that knowledge by threatening to call the police or, in some cases, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Parents who can afford to will sometimes respond by threatening to banish their unruly children to Haiti, to live with relatives who will raise them the old-fashioned way, without any government interference.

Other Haitian parents are so perplexed by their kids' behavior that they seek mystical explanations for it. Delores Kellman, another Haitian caseworker at Children and Family Services, counseled a woman whose children were taken into protective custody after she began sending them to school adorned in voodoo paraphernalia. "She really believed the children were possessed, that they were behaving badly because someone had put a hex on them," says Kellman. The non-Haitian investigator who initially handled the case believed the woman was crazy. Kellman says non-Haitians working at Children and Family Services receive no cultural training even though the number of Haitian families entering the system is surging. (Detailed statistics are not available because cases are broken down by race but not national origin.)

Last year Joseph's family had its own run-in with the folks at Kellman's agency after Joseph called the police on his dad, who at the time was working as a dishwasher at a pizzeria. "He was drunk, too drunk to go to work," recalls Joseph. "I took a call for him from his boss, and when he went to get it the guy had hung up on him. He thought I'd done it on purpose and started hitting me. That's when my mom stepped in and said, 'You aren't going to hit my son.'" Joseph says that after his enraged father threw a chair at his mother, he slammed his father on the ground and called the police. Sgt. C.J. Fifer of the Lauderhill Police Department responded to the 911 call and took Jean Larue away in handcuffs. Charged with domestic battery, he spent six days in jail and got six months' probation.

Fifer, a stout, boyish-looking Ohio native with a swooping lick of hair in the center of his forehead, patrols southeastern Lauderhill, a high-crime area inhabited by large numbers of Haitians, Jamaicans, and African-Americans. He has responded to countless domestic-violence calls at Haitian households. "It's usually the kids who call the police," he says. "When you show up, all they want is for you to stop the violence. They don't understand that we have to make an arrest." Fifer says he sometimes feels awkward applying child-abuse laws to family squabbles, especially in light of the way his own father raised him. "My father used a cut-down two-by-four as a paddle," he says. "Still, no matter what your personal feelings are, you have to enforce the law."

Joseph walks into the kitchen where his father, who has bumbled out of bed, is standing shirtless preparing lunch -- peeling green plantains and popping them whole into a dented pot of boiling water. He doesn't look well. His belly is distended, as if carrying a child; beads of sweat ring his brow, which is spotted with little brown boils. He turns and looks at his son. "This boy don't listen no more," he says. "You can't tell him nothing." Joseph navigates around his dad, barely acknowledging him, grabs a chicken patty from the freezer, and pops it into the microwave. He assembles a sandwich with lettuce and tomato and retreats back to his room with his food and a tall glass of ice water.

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