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.

Life and death have played some excellent tricks on Jan Mapou. Of course, in Haiti, Mapou's homeland, that isn't so unusual: The trickster spirits of vodou go to and fro among the living, and zombies are dead and alive at the same time. Haitian art and music celebrate the capricious coexistence of illusion and reality.

Like all who have left that nation of desperate poverty and extravagant cultural richness, Mapou keeps a little of Haiti with him. He also tries to give away a lot of it, having devoted most of his 57 years to preserving and championing Haitian culture. Since 1990 he has owned Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in Little Haiti, and about the closest thing in Miami to a Haitian cultural center. He has written two books of poetry and a book of short stories, and has created and produced ten plays, all in Haitian Creole. He has received numerous awards for his efforts to introduce Haitian culture to Miami's public.

Mapou's own life has been like the old tales told at night under a big-rooted mapou tree by a black river, deep in the Haitian countryside. In Mapou's world living people have vanished like ghosts and dead people have come back to life. In his world there are secret lives and many lives hidden within the same person. Mapou took his name, in fact, from that giant spreading tree found throughout Haiti. Mapou isn't his real name, though no doubt it is closer to his identity than J.M. Denis.

That's the name on the plaque sitting on Mapou's desk at Miami International Airport, where since 1984 he has worked for a private company as manager of the airport's parking facilities. (J.M. stands for Jean-Marie.) He was transferred here from New York, where for the previous twelve years he had worked as a parking supervisor at John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports. Now directing a staff of 100, he also must exercise his powers of diplomacy in the hotbed of political patronage that is MIA.

Mapou is tall and wears a gray suit that closely matches his receding salt-and-pepper hair and beard. His red-patterned tie is loosened, and he occasionally pushes his gold wire-frame glasses up on his nose. His desk and file cabinets fill almost all of his work space in the drab parking office in MIA's Flamingo garage. The small television monitors that sit on the file cabinets show various garage sites. An employee scheduling chart covers a bulletin board on one wall. Mementos from Haiti and religious figurines and pictures occupy most of the rest of the limited space atop Mapou's desk and cabinets.

His phone rings and he reaches out a large, pillow-palmed hand to punch the blinking button. It's a parking lot supervisor sounding upset. It seems a very important county airport employee is furious. A cashier is delaying the departure of the employee from the parking lot because she doesn't have her pass card with her. "She's a pain but she works in the director's office," the supervisor complains. "She's just pressuring [the cashier] very much. I don't know what you can do to get her the hell out of here." Mapou, in his usual measured tone, speaking English with a faint accent, tells the supervisor not to worry, to let the woman leave. Later Mapou calls the very important county employee, just to make sure everything is resolved. No problem, she tells him.

At 5:30 p.m. Mapou walks out of his office, gets in his Ford Aerostar van, and drives to his bookstore at 5919 NE Second Ave. The shop is run by Mapou's long-time assistant Bernadette Louinis and is open seven days a week. Mapou is there almost every evening and weekend day, talking and strategizing with friends and relatives, all co-crusaders in a campaign to prevent Haitian culture from dissipating as the Haitian people are dispersed throughout the world. Writers and academics hold frequent readings and lectures at the shop.

Mapou lives in nearby Miami Shores with his wife Rita Mehu Denis; their 24-year-old twin daughters Taina and Nadia left earlier this month for New York, where they're entering medical school. Mapou's twelve-year-old son Clarence lives with his mother, who is not Mapou's wife. Clarence, though, is a frequent presence at his father's business and at the numerous events and activities held both at the downstairs bookstore and at a separate space upstairs, the Mapou Cultural Center.

The store is brimming with shelves and tables of books in Creole, English, and French, as well as a newsrack full of magazines and periodicals and displays of Haitian-made jewelry and clothing. Upstairs, on one wall, artists, writers, and scholars have left their autographs and musings in Creole, handwritten in black paint. A mural covers another wall with a fanciful representation of a vodou ceremony taking place inside the massive, cavelike trunk and among the limbs of a giant mapou tree. Paintings and sculptures hang and sit everywhere. On the mantle of a faux fireplace is a forest of golden trophies and plaques awarded to Sosyete Koukouy (Firefly Society), a dance and drama company Mapou founded in Miami in 1985 after having started a troupe of the same name in New York ten years earlier. The society has by now developed a broader mission: to cultivate and advocate for all forms of Haitian art.

Tonight, Saturday, a dozen Sosyete Koukouy dancers and three drummers have gathered for rehearsal in the walled open-air courtyard behind the shop. The dancers, who aren't paid and usually hold day jobs, have several dates coming up, including performances at public schools and at Vizcaya. They'll do a piece celebrating Haitian flag day and a shortened version of a popular program enacting the history of Haiti.

Folk scenes are painted on the courtyard's pink walls. A dancer's barre stretches along one wall, and a shaky-looking basketball hoop stands in an opposite corner. As a half-moon emerges in the violet sky, the drummers start tapping and pounding out different patterns in the specialized and nuanced language of Haitian drum rhythms.

Most of the dancers are women wearing loose pants over leotards. Barefoot on the smooth concrete, all line up behind Marie-Henri Antoine Volel, a classically trained dancer who left Haiti only two years ago. Most Sosyete Koukouy dancers had solid experience in Haiti, remarks dance director Nancy St. Leger, a speech therapist for the Miami-Dade public school system. "But a lot of younger Haitians always say, 'Oh, we know that dance. I saw that when I was in Haiti,'" St. Leger says. "But then they find out it's not as easy as it looks; they still have to learn it. A lot of people have come in and out of here in the last five years."

Volel, moving wraithlike in brown tights and white T-shirt knotted above his navel, leads the group first in warm-up movements, then in increasingly complex steps and turns. The drummers, sometimes striking the side of the drum with sticks, lift their heads to sing about fields and skies, old chants Haitian villagers used to improvise at the end of a day of harvesting. In a ceremonial dance to Danmbala, the vodou snake deity, the dancers' arms unfurl like ribbons, hips undulate in perfect sensual accord, backs arch like the rainbow that is one of Danmbala's manifestations. An hour passes and the drum rhythms, along with the sky, grow darker and deeper, a thick hypnotic stew of time signatures. Before taking a break, the dancers go into a rara, a street dance. Fast and fluid, they repeat an elaborate series of twirls and turns, syncopated thrusts and hops.

Meanwhile Wooley Henriquez has arrived at the bookstore carrying a thick manuscript of his first play. Henriquez, a Haitian expatriate, was a professor, actor, and director of a performing arts center in Senegal before coming to Miami a few years ago. Mapou and other writers and officers of Sosyete Koukouy pull up chairs around a bank of computers to discuss the possibility of staging the play. It's a comedy about Haitians who come to the United States only to decide they want to go back to Haiti. Henriquez's voice rises and falls; he growls, chuckles, cries, and gestures forcefully as he describes the action. The group decides to begin rehearsals right away and perform the play by the end of August.

Mapou wrote half the twelve plays Sosyete Koukouy has performed so far in Miami; the most successful productions have been Chaloska, an adaptation of a South African play about apartheid martyr Stephen Biko, which in 1987 toured the eastern United States and Canada; DPM Kannte, about an ill-fated boat (kannte) of Haitians heading to Miami, a video of which was widely distributed in Haiti and other nations; Libete u Lamm˜ (Liberty or Death), about the start of the slave rebellion that led to Haitian independence, and which drew such crowds to Miami's Caleb Center that the troupe had to schedule extra performances; and Antigone by the late Haitian cultural icon Felix Morisseau-Leroy (a Creole version of Sophocles' 2400-year-old masterpiece).

"Sosyete Koukouy is a way to try to keep alive the Haitian culture, to keep our soul alive. If you destroy our soul we are finished," says Dr. Ernst Mirville, a retired psychiatrist and professor of French who has lived in Miami since 1988. "Haitian culture is very important for Haiti now because the economy is very bad and the only thing you have now is our culture. It links different social classes. There may be other ways to try to keep it alive but Sosyete Koukouy is a very important one, because political problems have caused a real cultural diaspora."

A quiet bespectacled man in his late fifties, Mirville speaks from experience. In 1969 he and Mapou were arrested at a Port au Prince radio station. Their crime: speaking Creole on the air. They were handcuffed to each other and thrown naked into a cell at the notorious Fort Dimanche prison along with eleven other men.

Mirville and Mapou were members of the Haitian Creole Movement (Mouvman Krey˜l Ayisyen), an organization formed to advocate for Creole as Haiti's official language. At the time French was the only language spoken publicly, even though most of the population knew only Creole. "Creole wasn't considered a real language, just a patois," Mirville observes. "It was forbidden to speak it in school. The government used it as a way to control the people."

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."

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."

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."

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.

"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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