Aristide was elected twice in Haiti; once in 1990 and again in 2000. He was overthrown twice. He is a divisive figure here, popular among the very poor and derided by others. Before he was president, he was a priest.
For many like Gaston, Aristide's return Friday -- two days before Sunday's presidential election -- is nothing short of a resurrection. Thousands poured into the street to celebrate, but Gaston walked alone, making his way with a small picture of Jesus in his arms.
"Papa Defo! Papa Defo!" Friends and strangers greeted Gaston by his nickname. No one here came to see him, but they greeted him all the same.
In downtown Port-au-Prince, Gaston is that odd urban animal, a well-known loner. He made his name dancing on the floats at carnival, beloved not for his talent, but for his enthusiasm.
On this day, he smiled benevolently under a bright white beard. At 61, he is wiry and sun beaten, concave in some places, strong in others. His dark blue eyes rested on the crowd when suddenly he threw his arms up with the picture of Jesus and turned in a small circle.
His father gave him books: geography, ethics and civics, the history of Haiti. Eventually he received a copy of the catechism, guidance for how to live a Christian life.
It read like an interview with the Almighty. It answered the questions he hadn't thought to ask.
Why did Christ rise from the dead?
Christ rose from the dead to show that He is true God and to teach us that we, too, shall rise from the dead.
Will all men rise from the dead?
All men will rise from the dead, but only those who have been faithful to Christ will share in His glory.
"When I was young, I never went this way or that way," he said while zigging and zagging his hands. "I was straight."
Gaston's father never married Gaston's mother. He had another family, and other children.
For Gaston, the vast vocabulary of faith gave voice to both his loss and his good fortune. He learned to pray, fiercely, at a young age.
His parents died in 1992 and 1993, one after the other. He struggled to remember the exact years.
"During Aristide's first exile," he finally recalled.
Finding His Own Way
Gaston lived with his parents until they died; he was 43 years old. They were his best friends and confidants. As life in Haiti became more difficult, spirituality cleared Gaston's path.
He wanted more -- a real job, an identity, to share the gifts his parents gave him with the rest of the world. But times were tough.
After Aristide was ousted by Haiti's military in 1991, the United Nations and the Organization of American States instituted strict sanctions to punish the new regime. It killed the small manufacturing economy in Haiti.
Aristide himself had been a vex on Haiti's business class. When he came back to power in 1994, U.S. President Clinton forced Haiti to lower its trade barriers. Haiti now had cheap, imported food. Much of the agricultural industry died, too.
For Gaston, neither was urgent since he had no real skills. He wasn't a farmer or a manufacturer. But it hurt the economy. Unemployment rates coasted around 50 percent.
With the downturn, Gaston reached toward music with more vigor. He decided he was an "artist."
By 1997, he was "Papa Defo," a musical sideshow adored by many. Like studying the catechism in his childhood, being an artist allowed Gaston to understand his own injustices, especially poverty.
His father's other family -- three sisters -- rejected him and refused to give him money.
On Friday, Gaston stood outside his tent on the concrete where his parents' home once was. It collapsed in the quake.
"My family doesn't understand me."
He never married. No kids. He loved two women in his life. He left them both because he could not bear to offer them his poverty.
Maybe Gaston was never good at relationships and spirituality was his only comfort. Or maybe the rules within the catechism -- honor, marriage, sin -- gave him ways to avoid what escaped him.
As Papa Defo, he was suddenly "Papa."
"I don't have personal kids, but I have kids in the street," he said. "I am their papa because I show them the way through love."
On Friday, he walked the streets of Port-au-Prince toward Aristide's house, in slow reverence. He greeted children; he held his own small procession.
Haiti's Most Famous "Papa"
Jean-Bertrand Aristide is Haiti's most famous "Papa." Part politician, part priest, part icon. Even after his second presidency, in 2001, and second ouster, in 2004, much of the public still clamored for him.
From the beginning, he made great promises to the poor, and though he didn't have the chance to see them realized, many Haitians believed.
After the earthquake, current President Rene Preval became unwilling to speak to the people. For days they waited. For inspiration, for a patriotic spiritual message.
Gaston's faith became stronger. "God made the earthquake and he made the tent, too." But he longed for Aristide. For Gaston, Aristide is a catechism unto himself.
Who is Jesus?
"Jesus is King of Kings because he sent Aristide back to us."
Who is Aristide?
"Aristide is a mighty person. Mighty people are mighty within themselves. ... They have the power to feed people or to let them starve."
Will Aristide deliver us, like Jesus?
"Jesus is Jesus. Aristide is a human being. He is a loving person."
As Aristide stepped off the private jet from South Africa on Friday, he seemed to speak directly to Gaston. After seven years in exile, the former president greeted the Haitian people.
"Sisters. Brothers. Honor! Respect! Sisters. Brothers. Honor! Respect!" His voice found a cadence.
"My sisters and brothers, if you could lay your hands on my heart, you would be able to feel how it beats more quickly."
No Haitian government officials came to greet him, nor candidates for Sunday's elections. His wife and young kids, American actor Danny Glover, and his lawyer accompanied him.
Aristide noted the promise of billions of dollars of natural resources in Haiti, "Oil reserves are probably larger than we think." Calling to mind the vast majority of children who cannot attend school, he said the gap was a problem of "exclusion."
Haiti is sick, he said. "If the outbreak of the crocus depends on the rays of the sun, the outbreak in Haiti depends on the sun of our love."
Determining His Vote
Last week, Gaston planned to vote for friend and fellow artist Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly instead of the professorial Mirlande Manigat. Now, for Sunday's vote, he will wait for Aristide to tell him what to do.
"I make my own decisions," Gaston said. "But I also like it when people give me advice."
The catechism asks: How should we pray?
"To really pray," Gaston told me, "you have to put loving trust in his goodness. You have to be helpless. You have to get down on your knees. You have to beg."
As small bands and thousands of onlookers followed Aristide to his house, Gaston came behind, smitten.
At the gates, neighbors smiled at Gaston, and he smiled back. He turned, turned, turned, with the image of Jesus in his hands.