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.

Max Manigat, a retired history professor at City College of New York and an early participant in the move to legitimize Creole, takes credit for introducing Mapou to the book business in the mid-Seventies. "Due to the fact that I am one of the pioneers of writing Creole and making it the official language, Mapou and I doubled up very quickly," recalls Manigat, who also taught in the Congo and Zaire in the Sixties.

Manigat settled in New York a year before Mapou, and is currently director of the New York Sosyete Koukouy. "One day I said, 'We need a young man like you to develop a Creole bookstore.' [Mapou] started to buy a few books in Creole and French, and after a while he had a little stock in his house. So when he came to Miami I strongly urged him to start his bookstore. I lectured there just this past October. You will find the biggest collection of Creole books in Mapou's shop. Even in Haiti you won't find as many Creole books."

In the early Eighties, tens of thousands of destitute Haitian boat people began arriving in the United States. Most of them settled in Miami, along with thousands of Cuban Marielitos who came in 1980, forever altering the demographics of South Florida. At the same time there was some movement of Haitians from New York to Miami. Northerners were being lured to Florida by development companies offering cheap land for sale. Mapou and many of his friends in New York were buying. "In the late Seventies some big development corporations were offering land and properties to minorities, so the Haitian community in New York started hearing about Miami," Mapou relates. "Also some of the first generation of Haitians were getting old and fed up with the cold, and they moved down." Mapou bought a homestead in St. Lucie County, he says, but later sold it to another Haitian man because the contract required him to almost immediately build a home on the land, and he wasn't ready to move from New York (money from the land sale enabled him to buy his house in Queens).

By 1984 Mapou was ready to move to Florida. That year the company that operated the parking at La Guardia, where he was a parking manager, won the parking contract at Miami International Airport. The company, Kinney Systems, offered Mapou its top job in Miami, and he didn't hesitate. "I was in the field all the time, and the cold was getting to me," he says. "And Florida is closer to Haiti; you feel like it's Haiti as far as the weather and cultural environment." (Because of buyouts and contract changes, Mapou's employer is now Central Parking System.)

Mapou began his duties at MIA in September 1984, but his wife and daughters stayed in New York for two more years. In 1985 Mapou and some of his New York friends held the first Miami meeting of Sosyete Koukouy at Yolande Thomas's house in Southwest Dade. Thomas, one of Sosyete Koukouy's original New York members, had just moved to Miami and was working with Haitian immigrants at the Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church.

Then Mapou's old friend Ernst Mirville appeared in Miami. Mirville had been under virtual house arrest in Port au Prince since his release from Fort Dimanche in October 1969. But after Baby Doc's downfall in 1986 he was able to visit Miami. In 1987, while serving on a commission in Haiti to prepare for that year's presidential election, Mirville suffered a stroke and returned to Miami for medical treatment. He stayed and has since taught French and Creole at Miami-Dade Community College and in high schools. This past March Haitian President Rene Preval tapped Mirville to serve on the commission planning the 2000 national assembly election and the 2001 presidential election.

Mapou's reunion with Mirville would not be his last with souls from the past. Nor would it compare with succeeding encounters for sheer serendipity. In 1987 there was nothing too unusual about Mapou's middle-class life in Miami. Rita had earned her certification as a registered nurse and was working at Coral Gables Hospital, and the twins were standouts in school.

One day a Haitian woman came to Mapou's office at MIA to apply for a parking-lot job. She was just one of scores of applicants he interviews each month. He spoke with the woman briefly and told her he'd get back to her after he had a chance to read her application. Later that evening Mapou got a call at home from one of his supervisory employees, also a Haitian. "He asked me, 'Remember the lady you interviewed today? We were talking after she left your office and she told me she had been looking for her brother for the past 40 years. She told me, "His name is Jean-Marie Willer Denis." She was telling me, "I saw the name [J.M. Denis] on his desk and I was wondering if he may be a member of my family."'"

Mapou was stunned, remembering that family friends in Haiti had told him of the existence of a half-sister or half-brother in Port Salut, a coastal town two hours from Les Cayes. He called the woman back to his office. "I asked her, 'What's your mother's name?' and when she said Octavie Denis, I began to cry," Mapou recounts. "But my sister didn't know where [in Cuba] she was either. All she knew was that when she was about two years old her mother had left for Cuba. She grew up in Port Salut with her father. What I had not known was that our mother had taken another sister, a seven-month-old baby, to Cuba with her. Whether our mother was still in Cuba, or even still alive, no one knew."

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