The Secret Life of J.M. Denis

By day he manages the parking facilities at the airport. By night he's Jan Mapou, Miami's guardian of Haitian culture.

Life and death have played some excellent tricks on Jan Mapou. Of course, in Haiti, Mapou's homeland, that isn't so unusual: The trickster spirits of vodou go to and fro among the living, and zombies are dead and alive at the same time. Haitian art and music celebrate the capricious coexistence of illusion and reality.

Like all who have left that nation of desperate poverty and extravagant cultural richness, Mapou keeps a little of Haiti with him. He also tries to give away a lot of it, having devoted most of his 57 years to preserving and championing Haitian culture. Since 1990 he has owned Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in Little Haiti, and about the closest thing in Miami to a Haitian cultural center. He has written two books of poetry and a book of short stories, and has created and produced ten plays, all in Haitian Creole. He has received numerous awards for his efforts to introduce Haitian culture to Miami's public.

Mapou's own life has been like the old tales told at night under a big-rooted mapou tree by a black river, deep in the Haitian countryside. In Mapou's world living people have vanished like ghosts and dead people have come back to life. In his world there are secret lives and many lives hidden within the same person. Mapou took his name, in fact, from that giant spreading tree found throughout Haiti. Mapou isn't his real name, though no doubt it is closer to his identity than J.M. Denis.

That's the name on the plaque sitting on Mapou's desk at Miami International Airport, where since 1984 he has worked for a private company as manager of the airport's parking facilities. (J.M. stands for Jean-Marie.) He was transferred here from New York, where for the previous twelve years he had worked as a parking supervisor at John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports. Now directing a staff of 100, he also must exercise his powers of diplomacy in the hotbed of political patronage that is MIA.

Mapou is tall and wears a gray suit that closely matches his receding salt-and-pepper hair and beard. His red-patterned tie is loosened, and he occasionally pushes his gold wire-frame glasses up on his nose. His desk and file cabinets fill almost all of his work space in the drab parking office in MIA's Flamingo garage. The small television monitors that sit on the file cabinets show various garage sites. An employee scheduling chart covers a bulletin board on one wall. Mementos from Haiti and religious figurines and pictures occupy most of the rest of the limited space atop Mapou's desk and cabinets.

His phone rings and he reaches out a large, pillow-palmed hand to punch the blinking button. It's a parking lot supervisor sounding upset. It seems a very important county airport employee is furious. A cashier is delaying the departure of the employee from the parking lot because she doesn't have her pass card with her. "She's a pain but she works in the director's office," the supervisor complains. "She's just pressuring [the cashier] very much. I don't know what you can do to get her the hell out of here." Mapou, in his usual measured tone, speaking English with a faint accent, tells the supervisor not to worry, to let the woman leave. Later Mapou calls the very important county employee, just to make sure everything is resolved. No problem, she tells him.

At 5:30 p.m. Mapou walks out of his office, gets in his Ford Aerostar van, and drives to his bookstore at 5919 NE Second Ave. The shop is run by Mapou's long-time assistant Bernadette Louinis and is open seven days a week. Mapou is there almost every evening and weekend day, talking and strategizing with friends and relatives, all co-crusaders in a campaign to prevent Haitian culture from dissipating as the Haitian people are dispersed throughout the world. Writers and academics hold frequent readings and lectures at the shop.

Mapou lives in nearby Miami Shores with his wife Rita Mehu Denis; their 24-year-old twin daughters Taina and Nadia left earlier this month for New York, where they're entering medical school. Mapou's twelve-year-old son Clarence lives with his mother, who is not Mapou's wife. Clarence, though, is a frequent presence at his father's business and at the numerous events and activities held both at the downstairs bookstore and at a separate space upstairs, the Mapou Cultural Center.

The store is brimming with shelves and tables of books in Creole, English, and French, as well as a newsrack full of magazines and periodicals and displays of Haitian-made jewelry and clothing. Upstairs, on one wall, artists, writers, and scholars have left their autographs and musings in Creole, handwritten in black paint. A mural covers another wall with a fanciful representation of a vodou ceremony taking place inside the massive, cavelike trunk and among the limbs of a giant mapou tree. Paintings and sculptures hang and sit everywhere. On the mantle of a faux fireplace is a forest of golden trophies and plaques awarded to Sosyete Koukouy (Firefly Society), a dance and drama company Mapou founded in Miami in 1985 after having started a troupe of the same name in New York ten years earlier. The society has by now developed a broader mission: to cultivate and advocate for all forms of Haitian art.

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