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.

"My mother was so much in love with him, and for all those years she never knew why he disappeared. I'm the one who told her. I said, 'He was a married man.' She said, 'How do you know that?' And I said, 'I know him. I have a big brother.'"

In Port Salut Octavie married a jealous and abusive man who rarely let her leave their home. They had two daughters, but when the younger was seven months old, Octavie took the two girls and fled first to Les Cayes and then to the Cuban embassy in Port au Prince. "The Cuban consul told her, 'I'm going to arrange for you to go back [to Cuba], but you can't travel with children,'" Mapou relates. She sent the older girl to her father in Port Salut, but the infant she was able to carry onto the plane disguised as a doll.

So Octavie and her daughter returned to her hometown of CamagYey. She got a job as a maid, then as a sugar-cane worker, and became a labor-union leader. She retired three years ago.

On his visit Mapou and his group learned firsthand that ties between Haiti and Cuba had not dissolved altogether after the revolution closed Cuba to most outside contacts. "I was singing in Spanish with the people there," recalls Yolande Thomas, a woman with a broad smile and lilting voice whom Mapou praises as Sosyete Koukouy's best actor. "Mapou doesn't speak Spanish but we could function in Spanish and Creole. Mapou met many, many of his relatives. One of his cousins there knows a group of artists who are third-generation Haitians living in Cuba; one afternoon we met, and we sang and we feasted, and we had a wonderful time. I know there are hundreds of Haitian artists' groups in Cuba. They speak Creole and are interested in Haitian affairs."

Back in Miami Mapou has resumed his own cultural mission to Little Haiti. It's Saturday afternoon and he is standing at the front door of Libreri Mapou. His son Clarence and another boy are filling plastic cups from a frozen-soft-drink machine that sits on one glass counter next to a display of bottles of a Hawaiian energy tonic. A couple from Canada, tourists, are looking through the shop's collection of hand-sewn clothes and crafts from Haiti. They're the only customers.

In a few hours the officers of Sosyete Koukouy will meet upstairs to discuss and plan the upcoming year's performances and events. As usual Haitian music is blaring from the record store across the street. This stretch of NE Second Avenue has no sidewalks, and its wide paved swales are often scattered with litter, especially in front of the locked metal sliding doors of the Caribbean Marketplace on the north side of the bookstore.

Mapou, gesturing broadly, describes the entrepreneurial and residential flight from Little Haiti that he's seen during the past several years. "They are moving north," he says, and he means north to heavily Haitian North Miami and North Miami Beach. "Most of the businesses [that used to be] on 54th Street and Second Avenue have moved to 125th Street and West Dixie Highway. They can't continue to do business here. If you're selling ice cream or fast food you'll do okay here, but 99 percent of the residents are making minimum wage and there's no way for them to be shopping at the small businesses, like this one, which have to charge higher prices. Walking around here at night -- now it's like a cemetery.

"I have sent proposal after proposal to the city for funding to turn the Caribbean Marketplace into a real cultural and recreational center. I've said all the time it could be a way to show non-Haitians the beauty of our culture. I feel I can do more." Mapou, though he's said these lines many times before, repeats them with feeling.

He pushes open the shop door and takes a few steps outside, where, on the south side of Libreri Mapou, workmen are renovating the building next door. A Haitian bank is set to rent the space for a money-transfer operation. Many months in the making, this is seen as a boost to Little Haiti's economy. Then Mapou points farther south, in the direction of a travel agency on NE First Avenue that he and a group of investors just bought. It's part of a grand partnership with another Haitian bank to establish tourist excursions to Haitian resorts. And he mentions an even bigger scheme he and his group are now moving forward with: the construction of a Haitian cultural center -- restaurant, theater, hotel, art gallery -- on 35 acres in Florida City.

Mapou paces for a few steps, smoothing his beard, then slowly turns to face north, glancing up at the fanciful turrets and cupolas gracing the Caribbean Marketplace. Even though there are now some hopeful signs of renaissance in Little Haiti, Mapou keeps trying to find a way to lift the marketplace from the bureaucratic quicksand in which it's sinking. "We could use the marketplace like those cooperatives in Haiti, to show the products of Haiti and the works of Haitian artists here," he says. "If we can turn it into a showplace, this [area] would become a corridor for tourism. There is big potential. If they want to sell the Caribbean Marketplace and give me the mortgage, I will buy it. I will do it." Mapou doesn't raise his voice, but he pauses between each word. "I'm telling you I will do it.

Owing to a reporting error in Kathy Glasgow's "The Secret Life of J.M. Denis" (July 1), the manager of Libreri Mapou was misidentified. Her name is Bernadette Bastien. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published:

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