Identity Crisis

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."  

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.

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.

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.

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."

Outside their little brown house, the sky has turned black, and in his room Joseph is still in bed, readjusting pillows and thumbing through old letters under the glow of a single red candle. A siren wails in the distance as he considers his evening options. No caller has offered to rescue him from his doldrums -- no one beckoning him to work, no friends calling him to hang out. GED classes are still an option, but not much of one. Then he remembers: Yesterday his friends had talked of going to the mall, of catching the new Jerry Springer movie at the multiplex. "Springer is the bomb," he says. "I can go to class tomorrow."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:

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