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

Jean Larue plunks himself down on an orange-and-white-striped mattress behind the kitchen, stretching out in front of a night table lined with pill bottles. A portable radio is tuned to a talk show, where callers are debating in Creole the fallout of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. "With these laws kids can do whatever they want," says Larue. "If you put one little mark on them, they try to take them away from you. That's what I hate about this country. In Haiti you raise your kids however you want."

Joseph's dad had a stern upbringing. He was raised by a single mother in the verdant hills of Saint Louis-du-Nord, a poor town in the far north of Haiti. His father died when he was still a baby, murdered, his mother told him, by the ruthless government thugs known as the Tontons Macoutes. Larue and his eight siblings didn't have the option of getting an education -- a privilege, not a right, in Haiti -- and they were all recruited at an early age to work picking coffee beans, potatoes, and bananas on the family plot. "I don't have no education," he says. "I do any kind of job. Now I can't even find a job. I tell my kids if they don't stay in school they'll wind up like me. Joseph has the opportunity to do whatever he wants, but he's lazy."

Slouching toward a midday nap, Joseph hugs a blanket and flutters his eyelids shut, trying to form a mental image of his ancestral island home. "When I first thought about Haiti, I thought it was like a poor country with rocky roads and houses that look abandoned," he says. "But now I hear they have houses that are bigger than ones you have down here and more beautiful, too."

Joseph is intensely curious about Haiti, although he knows next to nothing about the country or its bloody history. The first independent black country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was liberated from French colonialism by a slave uprising in 1791. Controlled for almost 200 years by a minority of Haitian elites, the country has, in the latter half of this century, been ruled by a series of brutal dictators, including François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his successor son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. For 29 years, from 1957 to 1986, the pair presided over a reign of terror that left tens of thousands dead and turned Haiti into an international pariah state, as well as one of the poorest countries in the world. The Duvaliers accumulated enormous personal fortunes, ransacked the country's educated elite, and empowered the Tontons Macoutes, terror brigades recruited from the Haitian underclass, to muzzle all signs of dissent.

The fear the Duvalier years engendered inspired thousands of refugees to head for the United States. Haitians, a people deeply divided along class lines, left the country in stratified waves, with the upper and middle classes clearing out in the '60s and '70s and the underclass leaving in the '80s and '90s, when Joseph's parents and most of their peers in South Florida fled. The series of coups that followed the fall of Baby Doc left Haiti in a constant state of turmoil, culminating in the U.S. invasion in 1994 and the reinstatement of the country's first elected leader in more than three decades, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Haiti continues to struggle on the brink of economic and political collapse, though the terror has largely subsided and some refugees are beginning to return to rebuild their troubled homeland.

For Joseph the names Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and Tontons Macoutes are largely meaningless. In fact he can identify none of them (though he does know who Aristide is). "Tontons Macoutes?" says Joseph. "Wasn't he a general or something?" Despite his ignorance Haiti is one of the only two countries he longs to visit -- the other being France. His grandmother, who visited Paris once, told him wondrous tales about the city when he was growing up. In Haiti he is anxious to meet the two half-brothers his mother and father left behind when they moved to Florida. A degree of polygamy is not unusual among rural Haitians, and Joseph's dad, who has traveled to Haiti over the years, presumably contracted the AIDS virus from a sexual liaison he had during one such visit. Imagining Haiti's lush foliage and clear blue Caribbean Sea, Joseph drifts asleep.

An hour later he is roused from his nap by the click of the front door. His mother is home from work, which means it must be sometime after four and that she's managed to nab a ride home from a coworker. Her husband rises to greet her, and she plants a quick peck on his chapped lips. "I always told Joseph, 'Don't drive with no one else,'" she says, referring to the joy ride that last year led to her son's arrest. "He don't listen; that's why he gets in trouble. I drive with my coworkers because I know them well."

Louise Larue is deeply suspicious of strangers who exert influence on her sons. "I always told them, 'Why you need friends when you got family?'" she says, reaching into the fridge and grabbing the fish fillets she will douse in flour and fry for dinner. "More people equals more problems."

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