WBUR

Mattapan Square Cafe A Haven For Haitian Transplants

Calixte Dorisca serves up an order of chicken patés at the Blue House of Coffee on Blue Hill Avenue, which he opened last April. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Calixte Dorisca serves up an order of chicken patés at the Blue House of Coffee on Blue Hill Avenue, which he opened last April. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — All day long and into the night, people from the Haitian town of Gros-Morne would come. They would sit in his father’s tailor shop while he sewed. They would visit him in the family’s home.

“Sometimes I thought: Why don’t they leave my father alone?” said Calixte Dorisca, one of 13 children in the family.

But his father was a good man, a God-fearing man, and people trusted him with their troubles. Decades later — and many miles away — a different community of Haitians is trusting Dorisca with theirs.

It often starts with business: insurance policies, translation help, tax preparation, transportation. These are some of the things Dorisca has provided for nearly three decades in Mattapan Square — first at the corner of River Street, now further up on Blue Hill Avenue, where he opened The Blue House of Coffee last spring.

In this neighborhood, where more than 30 percent of residents are Haitian, the Dorisca name is trusted. People will wander into the cafe and ask for help with housing, with jobs, with a phone number they could easily look up themselves. He is their person for reading letters, or filling out rental applications, critical things they don’t have the skills to do.

“You got a problem, come here,” said Alphonse Dominique, a client for more than 20 years.

The requests are sometimes overwhelming. At the end of some days, after Dorisca drives home to Medfield where he lives with his wife Betsy, he is too tired to talk. But he could never tuck this knowledge from people who need it. God would want him to share.

‘This Is What I Can Give’

Back in Haiti, his dream was small: a Kodak camera and a bike. That was all Dorisca wanted from America when he was a boy, living in a 10-by-25-foot home, sleeping with his brothers and sisters on the floor.

For his parents, the dream was different. His mother wanted to see books in the hands of her children — fingers turning pages, voices raised in discussion. Her husband rose at 3 a.m. every morning to pay for that dream, walking seven miles under the stars to reach the family farm, where he worked until the sun brought its heat. Then he walked seven miles back to his tailor shop in town.

There were certainly days when the family did not have enough to eat.

“But if it was misery, we wouldn’t have survived it, so it couldn’t have been that bad,” Dorisca said.

And between the farm and the tailoring, his father put every one of his children through primary school. God and education, he used to say, this is what I can give.

Dorisca took those gifts to Port-au-Prince and cobbled together income from any job he could find. Hair cutting, trumpet playing, tailoring, tutoring: these are the things that paid for his secondary school tuition, while his older brother Pepe sent money back from Boston for rent.

Then, on Sept. 6, 1979, Dorisca set out for a different kind of life. He slipped on one pair of pants, then another; pulled a short-sleeved shirt over his head, and then another. He took a Bible, a jar of peanut butter his mother had made for Pepe, and he boarded the first of two planes that would take him to Boston.

Hoping For The Best

Somewhere in his house in suburban America, Dorisca has a pair of thin, Italian-made shoes. He was wearing them the day he arrived in Boston.

The new country was not just cold. It was curious. People were kissing in public. They were saying sorry all the time, and did not seem to mean it. Dorisca studied the way they walked — a few blocks in what seemed like seconds — and soon he saw that slow was no longer an option.

“In Haiti, it will work,” Dorisca said. “But here, it will not work. I will not get ahead.”

His first job was in a nursing home, working as an aide. There he met a “radiant” 19-year-old girl named Betsy Harkins. She noticed the careful way he worked with the residents; here, she said, was a gentle soul. Several months later, she brought him home to the mostly white town of Needham.

“Certainly not what the parents expected,” said Betsy, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

But he showed promise: With working papers, Dorisca had taken out loans, and with loans he had paid for his education. By the time he proposed to Betsy, he was one semester shy of graduating from UMass Boston with a degree in management. In the summer of 1986, he set up shop in Mattapan Square — a college graduate, a married man, hoping for the best.

Sometimes clients from Haiti will ask him how he made it this far. This is hard for Dorisca to explain. Hard work is one thing. He has taken three weeks of vacation since he first arrived in the U.S. But God has also put good things in his path.

How else to explain the elderly Jewish shop owner who sold Dorisca his first piece of property? Standing in the man’s tuxedo shop, they struck up a conversation, then worked out a deal: Dorisca would pay just $500 as a down payment on the man’s $80,000 property.

“Guess what?” he told Betsy when he returned home that night. “I bought a temple!”

Decades later, Dorisca now owns several properties in the U.S. and several in Haiti. Some years ago, as the rents in Mattapan Square began to rise, he bought the building that would become The Blue House of Coffee. His wife had an idea: turn the space into a Starbucks-style cafe, the kind of thing the square had yet to see.

It took some convincing. Dorisca was not ready for the risk. But then, the local Dunkin Donuts closed down, and his clients began to urge him: Open a café of your own.

Dorisca decided to try. He tucked his file cabinets into a crawl space up the stairs, painted the storefront pale blue, cut laminated counters for the two windows and hung art scenes of New Orleans. The brightly colored doors reminded him of Haiti.

‘It’s Like A Nonprofit’ 

Valerie Lake-Hart stood in the cafe the other day, admiring the scene. Something new in the neighborhood — something classy, she said, something nice.

“I’m tired of the 99 cent stores,” Lake-Hart said. She had seen the blue awning from the bus and decided to stop in. “Something like this, I love.”

The original plan was to stay small. Dorisca would provide muffins and coffee and a cozy place to sit. But then in came the neighborhood, wanting different patés, and rice and beans and griot, and small plates, and large plates, and prices they could afford.

Within a month, Dorisca had given it to them — fresh food, made from scratch in the back, at significant cost to his bottom line.

“It’s like a nonprofit,” his younger brother, Roosevelt, said from behind the cash register the other day.

Over time, Roosevelt has detected a trend: his brother provides good service in one area, and customers want good service in every area, and only from him. This is how the translation help started, and the tax preparation, and the notary services. Dorisca will charge, but lower than anywhere else — and sometimes not at all.

These are, after all, his people. “I could be any of them,” he said.

In 2000, he decided to run for president of Haiti, hoping to strengthen the school systems there so his clients would have a better chance at success here. He ran on a four-pronged platform: education, agriculture, health and justice. He dropped out of the race a month before the election in protest of what he called corruption.

“At least nobody can say I didn’t try,” he said.

To this day, some clients still call him “president.” They will wander in, see his smile, hear his hearty laugh and settle in to tell him a story, a story they have not told anyone else. Dorisca will sit quietly until the story ends. Then he will ask questions. He will try to trace the problem back to its roots.

Sometimes he worries the words are not enough. But the trying is what counts. He is known for it, and relied upon for it. Just like his father before.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
Most Popular