When authorities deported Marc-Henry Petion from West Palm Beach he was a chubby kid nicknamed Pillsbury who spoke almost no Creole and sported a grill—a line of gold caps affixed to his front teeth that served as his flashy, street-smart calling card.
Three years later, he has picked up the language and altered his appearance. The dreadlocks he once wore are stuffed in a plastic bag in the tiny cinderblock room he rents on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. He lopped them off to avoid calling attention to himself as a deportee, a classification that carries a heavy stigma on Haiti’s unstable streets. He’s also forgone the oversized clothes he wore in South Florida, another telltale sign of his U.S. upbringing.
But he doesn’t have the money to remove his grill, so has learned to keep his mouth shut, literally.
In Haiti, where deportees are widely thought to fuel gang violence and kidnappings, the struggle to assimilate is a perilous one. A misplaced pronoun can give you away, subjecting deportees to outright hostility. But no physical trait advertises a deportee’s status more loudly than grills, which are virtually non-existent here except in the mouths of youths who have lived in the United States. Some deportees have gotten rid of them to avoid discrimination—and thugs looking to extract the gold and sell it.
Once made for corrective dental procedures such as crowns and fillings, gold-capped teeth became popular in the late 1970s. By the early ’80s, some of hip-hop’s emerging stars began to wear them, making grills a popular part of street culture.
Also known as “fronts,” they sometimes come with pricey diamond inlays. While some people opt for removable caps that snap into place, others, including Petion, have permanent caps fitted with an adhesive. They range in price from $20 to thousands.
Haitians account for a relatively small percentage of deportations from the United States. But community activists in South Florida have complained that federal officials are putting deportees at risk by sending them back to the troubled nation during violent flare-ups.
They’ve also asked for the government to extend temporary protected status to Haitians already living in the United States, which would allow them to stay here while their country recovers from cycles of political strife.
Haiti has been known to temporarily jail criminal deportees even if no charges are pending against them in their homeland. Authorities say the measure is precautionary, since crime is already rampant. Haiti’s roller-coaster ride through rebellion and lawlessness has included reports of deportees popping up in the ranks of insurgent gangs.
Once released, criminal deportees face an uphill battle to assimilate. When Petion and Charles arrived, their homeland was a foreign place to them. Petion was two years old when his parents left. Charles was eight. Neither spoke much Creole.
Michelle Karshan, executive director of the Alternative Chance counseling program for criminal deportees, said grills spark fear and can even provoke malice in Haitians, who usually associate the gold caps with hardcore criminality. But many deportees are not hardened criminals. Some simply overstayed tourist visas. Among criminal deportees, convictions range from misdemeanors to felonies, the majority related to street-level drug sales.
The issue prompted Karshan to call a Fort Lauderdale dentist who fitted some of the deportees’ grills to ask if he would voluntarily remove them. He was under review by licensing authorities, she said, and hung up on her.
While the gold caps represent one of the most ostentatious barriers to fitting in, deportees say dreadlocks, accents, and even posture can give them away.
“They even walk differently. They’re physically different because they are healthier than the general population, and a lot have come from prison so they’ve lifted weights,” Karshan said.