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.

How his mother came to settle in Port Salut, Mapou had yet to discover. He hired his sister, and she still works for the parking company. But hardly anyone knows her relationship to him, and Mapou asked that her name not be published because he doesn't want his other employees to think she's getting special treatment.

In 1990 Mapou opened a bookstore in the shiny new Caribbean Marketplace on NE Second Avenue at 60th Street. The colorful building, designed by Haiti-born Coral Gables architect Charles Harrison Pawley, was a striking revisitation of Port au Prince's famed Iron Market. Mapou and the thirteen other Haitian merchants who set up shop there believed the marketplace would be the foundation of a cultural and tourist mecca in Little Haiti.

The marketplace won architectural awards and was listed in travel guides and tourist handbooks. But the owner, a nonprofit organization called the Haitian Task Force, mismanaged the property and eventually dissolved, owing lienholders more than $300,000. A group of Haitian investors, of which Mapou was part, failed to raise enough money to buy the marketplace, and the City of Miami and the state foreclosed on the property in January 1997. Since then the deteriorating marketplace has lost all but one (nonpaying) tenant and is home to squatters. It has no electricity or water. Mapou and a small group of activists continue to meet with city and county officials in an ongoing effort to have the fading structure renovated and reopened. Several plans have been publicly discussed but there's been no action on any of them.

Mapou moved his bookstore out of the Caribbean Marketplace and into the building next door in April 1997, but not without first paying $81,000 cash for the structure; three banks turned him down for a loan, so he took out a second mortgage on the house he still owns in Queens. He has received several grants from the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council to make improvements to the upstairs space used by the nonprofit Mapou Cultural Center. But the terms of the grants require him to get the work done before being reimbursed, so he's still waiting on most of the improvements.

While Mapou was involved in efforts to save the Caribbean Marketplace, he was also using his position at Miami's busy airport to seek word of his mother. "Any time I had a Cuban in my office I asked about her," Mapou says. "Then my sister met a man from CamagYey. It must have been sometime in 1995. We went together to his house. He said, 'If your mother's name is Octavia, a light-complexioned lady, yes, I know her.' He was going back to CamagYey in the next few months, so we gave him all our phone numbers and he said he'd talk to this Octavia. One year later he called us back and said, 'That's your mother.'" In November 1996 Mapou's sister traveled to CamagYey.

Mapou wasn't able to make the trip until this past March, when he, Yolande Thomas, and Ginette Etienne (who designs costumes for Sosyete Koukouy), spent a week in CamagYey. There Mapou not only saw his mother for the first time in half a century, he discovered an uncle he had never known about. The uncle was one of four of his father's brothers in Cuba (three are now dead).

Octavia (she no longer used the French version of her name, Octavie) revealed her story to her long-lost son. She had come to Haiti from CamagYey with her mother when she was eight years old. After a year her mother disappeared; she never knew what happened to her. She grew up with her godmother in Port Salut. When she was eighteen years old she moved to Les Cayes, rented a room in the house of a friend of her godmother, and got a job pasting labels on bottles at a pharmacy. That was where she met Anthony Daudier. "He used to come to the pharmacy, and he told her he was in love with her," Mapou says. "He never told her he was married, and no one else did either." Daudier worked out a deal with Octavie's protective surrogate godmother to visit the teenager at home two days a week.

It was during one of those visits, when no one was home to keep an eye on the pair, that Octavie became pregnant. "My mother was very scared," Mapou goes on. "She stayed inside the house for nine months. She didn't see my father, and my grandmother only found out about me when I was born." Mapou grins. As dramas go this is one of the best plots he's found.

"Then my grandmother became very, very protective," he goes on. "She would baby-sit me all the time, and she kept telling my mother, 'Apparently his father is not going to do anything for you; it's better if you forget him and redo your life.' But she never told her why he wasn't going to marry her. Finally my mother thought the best thing to do was leave me with my grandmother, go to Port Salut, and redo her life.

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