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.

Jean-Marie Willer Denis was born in 1941 in Les Cayes, a town on the southwestern coast of Haiti. (His mother named him Willer after a legendary English general.) His mother, however, disappeared when he was five years old. Mapou was raised by his father and grandmother, who told him they didn't know why his mother left or where she was. Decades later he would learn she had suddenly "disappeared" to Cuba, her birthplace. She was Haitian, but her parents had been among the thousands of Haitians from Les Cayes who, throughout the first half of this century, traveled to eastern Cuba seeking work in the sugar-cane fields. The final migratory wave had taken place around the time of Mapou's birth, during World War II, lasting through the mid-Fifties until the upheavals leading to the revolution of 1959. Mapou, like most Les Cayes natives, might be expected to have at least some relatives in Cuba because of this migration. But he knew of none while growing up.

Despite his lower-middle-class upbringing, Mapou showed academic promise and ambition. He attended Catholic primary and secondary schools, then moved to Port au Prince to take university entrance examinations. Mapou had wanted to be a physician most of his life. Before the medical school exam, he says, "I spent a year studying the anatomy book; I studied day and night." Even though a professor told him his test had been "beautiful, perfect," he didn't get in. The reason was simply that he was from the country and had no parrain -- a godfather or sponsor connected to the Duvalier government. He'd known that was a requisite, Mapou concedes, but "I was still innocent enough to believe if my test was perfect and I did everything right, I had a chance. When I realized I never did, I gave up. I was very depressed and angry. I felt it wasn't right that they didn't give intellect and knowledge a chance in my country."

Instead Mapou went to two different schools, an accounting college and the equivalent of a United States liberal arts university. In 1964 the National Bank of Haiti hired him to work in its portfolio department. Rita Mehu was a secretary for one of the bank supervisors, and she used to bring Mapou correspondence and papers. "Every time she came to my desk I would write a little poem for her," Mapou remembers. "We were in love already when I got thrown into jail."

After Mapou returned to work he began planning for his departure from Haiti. He applied twice without luck for a visa to travel to the United States for medical treatment. In early 1971 Rita and her family moved to New York; she got a job as a nurse's aide. "Everybody wanted to leave Haiti at that time," Mapou recalls. The country was in more turmoil than usual with the death of François Duvalier in 1971 and subsequent unrest as his son Jean-Claude took over. Haitian professionals emigrated en masse to New York, Quebec, Montreal, and African nations such as Ghana, Congo, Senegal, and Zaire. "No one was going to Miami then," Mapou adds.

Among those wanting to leave Haiti, Mapou discovered soon after his release from prison, was his older brother Herman Daudier. Mapou was ten years old when he first learned of Herman's existence. They had the same father, but Daudier had grown up with his mother in St. Louis du Sud. Daudier, a dedicated Duvalierist, became a commissaire du gouvernement -- a representative of the regime -- in his hometown. But when he called Mapou in 1970, he said he feared for his life and begged his brother to help him leave Haiti. "I told him I was in the process of getting my papers ready," Mapou recalls, "but I didn't know if there was anything I could do for him. That was the last time I talked to him. It's a mystery what happened to him. Apparently some people were after him. I understand he was a true believer in the Duvalier regime; maybe he excelled too much. So many things were going on then. I know he was arrested one time, then they released him, and then he disappeared. Some say he took a kannte to Miami and never made it. Or they killed him."

Mapou finally received a visa in mid-1971, after his doctor submitted a letter stating that he needed to undergo a series of tests in New York owing to health problems caused by his incarceration. In December 1971 Rita traveled back to Port au Prince to visit, and they were married. Mapou arrived in New York in December 1972. (Also that year his daughter Natalie Seneque was born in Montreal. She was the product of a relationship Mapou had before leaving Port au Prince. Mapou and his family remain in contact with Seneque.)

For a time Mapou and Rita lived at the Hotel Lucerne in Manhattan, then with a cousin in Brooklyn. Although he'd studied English in Port au Prince, and had a rough command of the language, he took English classes at when not at work as a parking garage cashier at JFK airport. After a short time with the airport parking company, Mapou received the first of several promotions. With Rita working two jobs, they bought a house in Queens in 1974; Taina and Nadia were born the same year. Also in 1974 Mapou published a book of poetry and founded Sosyete Koukouy. "It was the same concept we had in Haiti," he says. "We had music, theater, and dance sections. We had a radio program also, and I wrote a column for one of the Haitian newspapers. I directed nine plays in New York from '74 to '84. Out of the nine, I wrote five."

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