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.

Felix Morisseau-Leroy had pioneered the concept of Creole as Haiti's own idiom by writing in Creole as early as the Forties; the movement gained momentum within intellectual circles in the Sixties. Various social, educational, and cultural groups sprung up and organized activities, all of which the Haitian Creole Movement promoted in its weekly program on Radio Caraibes. The members used symbolic or folkloric aliases; thus Jean-Marie Denis became Jan Mapou, the tree that never falls. Mirville called himself Pya Banbou, after the flexible, adaptable bamboo. "We talked about the importance of the language, asking people to unite," remembers Mapou, who at that time was working as an accountant at the National Bank of Haiti. "We were broadcasting very nice stories, fairy tales in Creole, mixing it up with vodou songs and other things. Everybody was listening to our program. But the government did not like it. Every time we finished with one program, we thought it was the last. It was not active political action, talking badly about the government. However, when you spoke Creole to the masses at that time in Haiti, it would qualify you to be called a communist."

And François Duvalier's government killed communists. Some of Mirville's and Mapou's group went into hiding; others were arrested and killed. "The big date for us was Sunday, April 6, 1969," Mapou recalls. "It was at exactly eight o'clock in the morning. I was just starting my show. A bunch of Tonton Macoutes came to the radio station, stopped the program, and put guns in our faces. They handcuffed us and made us sit in the back of a military jeep. We went straight to Fort Dimanche."

There, crowded into a windowless cell with as many as 25 other men, Mapou and Mirville spent the next several months. "They brought prisoners in almost every night, and killed prisoners almost every night," Mapou recounts. "They killed prisoners in the yard, you could hear the guns pop. In the morning they would give us a little coffee that smelled bad, like roaches, and I could never drink it. Roaches would crawl into the cups during the night and they just poured the coffee over the roaches and gave it to you. When prisoners got sick, there was no treatment at all.

"There was one guy in my cell, he was arrested because he was making counterfeit money, and the guy got sick, he couldn't pee. He was suffering and crying, his belly was swelling out, and they'd come and look at him and just tell him you're paying for what you did. One day his stomach popped out. The smell invaded the whole cell. Nobody could breathe. But he was still alive, and they came and buried him outside even before he was dead."

Meanwhile Mapou's family had given him up for dead. "I was staying with a cousin then, and after I was arrested she was trying to make connections with the Tonton Macoutes," Mapou continues. "There was a guy on our street who was very powerful in the government, and my cousin went to see him to at least try to find out why I got arrested. He didn't have the guts to tell her to stop bothering him, so he said, 'I saw it myself -- he is dead, they killed him.' My family even went to church to have a priest conduct a special ceremony for me."

His release, after four months and six days, can only be called a lucky break (Mirville would not leave Fort Dimanche for almost three more months). During a meeting with government ministers, Mapou's boss at the bank complained that he had a personnel shortage brought on by the departure of several good workers.

On August 12, 1969, St. Claire's Day, at noon, the saint answered Mapou's prayers. Impressed with stories of St. Claire's miraculous healing and protective powers, Mapou had chosen her several years earlier as his personal saint. That night he had stayed awake until dawn entreating her to work a miracle for him. "The cell door opened and a guard called out, 'Denis!' He told one of the police officers, 'Let him take a good shower today,'" Mapou recalls. "I was given a piece of soap. They shaved my beard and cut my hair."

The officer drove him to his cousin's house, but no one was home -- every St. Claire's Day his family made a pilgrimage to the neighboring town of Marchand Dessalines. So Mapou took a bus to Cite Simone, a Port au Prince suburb that is now the notorious slum Cite Soleil. There, he hoped, one of his aunts would be at home. "When I got there my aunt was sitting outside talking to some friends," Mapou says. "When she saw me walking toward her, she just stood up like I was a dead man coming out of nowhere. She screamed, 'Amway! Amway!' like a crazy woman and got on her knees, lifted her arms, hugging me and carried me inside her house. Everybody was coming and touching me and looking at me because they knew I was dead. They brought a big container with water and leaves and made a tea. I was a king for the first time in my life, and I had a very nice hot dinner that night."

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