For Haitian deportees, American-style 'grills' mark them as targets for violence and hate
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.
"It's all I have as a token of the United States. It's like a trophy," said Petion, 27, who left Haiti with his family as a toddler and grew up in South Florida as a permanent resident. Federal officials deported him after he served a nine-month sentence for driving with a suspended license and signing a false name to a traffic ticket.
Wearing a grill in Haiti, "you don't know what might happen," he said. "I don't walk the streets."
To underscore his point, he mentions a friend who had a grill and was abducted seven months ago. The kidnappers pulled off the caps one by one, with pliers.
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.
Herby Charles, 29, from Miami, said he removed his grill before being deported to Haiti. With it, he wasn't sure what kind of a welcome he'd get.
Even without it, he said, people shouted and cursed the bus that carried him and other recent arrivals to the National Penitentiary the day of his removal. Like Petion, he was deported three years ago.
Haiti is NOT the place to wear ya’ grill
Up In Their Grills