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Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarando's uncle Miguel in the hospital with his mother
Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarando's uncle Miguel in the hospital with his mother
So many stories have not yet been told about secrets that tear couples and families apart. Death doesn't stop the secrets, it only further obfuscates the truths. In a groundbreaking new documentary film project, Memories of a Penitent Heart, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarando tells the story of her uncle Miguel, who died when she was 6 years old, and of her journey to seek out the truth about her uncle's life and death.

The story:

In 1987, my uncle Miguel gave up being gay as he was dying in a New York City hospital. After making history as the world’s first-ever Puerto Rican heart transplant recipient, he succumbed to AIDS, leaving behind a live-in partner, a devout Catholic mother, and a lot of unanswered questions. It all began in 2008, when my mother handed me a box of 8mm home movies that she’d found in the family garage. Spurred by this discovery and troubled by rumors about Miguel’s death, I began digging into my uncle’s mysterious past. Did he really repent of being gay on his deathbed? Did his devout Catholic mother push him into it? Did he really have AIDS? And what happened to his partner, who disappeared after Miguel died?
Join me below for more about the film project and for a conversation with the filmmaker.

In a recent feature article for POZ, Aldarando talks about her memories of her uncle, who died on an Easter Sunday, and of finally hearing from his partner on Christmas Eve in 2012:  

I have one memory of my uncle Miguel. It comes from a surprise visit he made to my family in 1986, when I was six years old. He told me a racist joke, which I found very funny but knew well enough not to repeat. He died a few months later, on Easter Sunday 1987. He was thirty-one.

My memories of Miguel’s funeral in Puerto Rico are much more vivid. It was my first brush with death, and I found it very frightening to be surrounded by grieving adults. Even my fat macho grandpa, always so stoic, had tears running down his cheeks. However, what I don’t remember, because I didn’t know it at the time, was that my uncle’s lover Robert was sitting in the back row of the church as my family sat mourning up front. I didn’t know it because no one in my family mentioned his presence.

I only found out years later, when I moved to New York and went looking for Robert. After two years of false leads and dead ends, I’d pretty much given Robert up for dead. Until Christmas Eve 2012, when a message showed up in my inbox. It was only a couple of lines long.

"I am the person you are looking for. Robert, your uncle Michael's lover. Please call me asap. I think this shall be your happiest Christmas in quite some time."

When I talked with her by phone last week, she spoke about what it was like growing up Puerto Rican in Florida in the Orlando area, being raised a Catholic and going to Catholic School.  

Though she didn't know her uncle well, she knew that he had gone to New York to become an actor, a fact that made members of the family proud. After the death, in the years to follow, there were always whispers ... whispers that Miguel was gay. And that he had not died from cancer, but from AIDS complications.

Aldarando talked with me about how easy it is today for young people—who didn't live through that time when so many people were dying at the height of the publicized epidemic—to pay little attention to the toll of HIV/AIDS. One had to have been there.

She pointed out, "Though there has been a resurgence of film about that time fraught with deaths, so few of the stories that are told are about people of color and even fewer are told from the perspective of the family members who were, and are, still affected."

She added, "Often, it is only the story of those with a certain level of privilege within the gay community who are featured."  

I agreed, sharing with her the story of my brother-in-law who died of AIDS while still young, and of the family members who also said it was from "cancer." I can't tell you how many funerals I went to in the ubiquitous Ortiz funeral homes scattered throughout New York City's Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. So many for young men, and a few young women. All taken by "cancer."

The stigma—and yes, there is still stigma—is doubled in communities where the institution of the church preaches that homosexuality is a sin.

Through the film's lens Aldarando makes us view religion, faith, AIDS and homosexuality from multiple perspectives—without casting judgements. She explores the desire of her devout grandmother to see her son be absolved of sin, and what she viewed as the miracle of his death on Easter, a sign to her that he had been accepted into the arms of Jesús Cristo.

We witness the acute pain of his long-time partner, pushed to the side during key moments in Miguel's life and death.

She tells of finally meeting his partner, now a monk, named Father Aquin:

When I flew out to California to meet Aquin for the first time, he handed me a cardboard box that he’d kept in a closet for 25 years. The box contained all the traces of his and Miguel’s relationship—snapshots, love letters, hospital documents, Miguel’s unfinished plays. It took a total of nine hours to go through the box, as he told me all about his life with Miguel. When we were done, he handed it to me: "Take it," he said. "I don’t want it anymore."

It’s hard to describe the responsibility I feel in receiving this box. In my mind, the box contains an untold history, the forgotten undercurrent of Miguel’s life. Take the obituary clipping that was in the box as an example. It names the surviving next of kin—parents, sister, brother—but makes no mention of the man who was Miguel’s companion for over a decade.

These documents have challenged my family’s version of events, and offered a fuller texture to Miguel’s life as a gay man. It isn’t just Miguel’s history that has emerged in the telling, or even Aquin’s—it is the history of my uncle’s closest friends, a tight-knit community of people who’d witnessed him in sickness and in health, and who’d never really gotten the chance to grieve him as Miguel’s biological family had. I have also come to see my uncle, not as a repentant struck through with the fear of God’s wrath, but as an anguished son and brother who felt caught between love for his family and a burning resentment at his lack of legitimacy among them.

On the phone with me, she shared that while going through the box, listening to Aquin share his memories of Miguel in the hospital with a huge crucifix on his chest, she had to rush into the bathroom to throw up.

And yet in all of this there are complexities. Miguel was not an atheist. Aquin has worked through his pain and suffering by embracing his spiritual path. One of the first places Aldarando was able to screen footage and do fundraising was in the heart of the Castro District in San Francisco, at Most Holy Redeemer Church.

Cecilia with Father Aquin
Cecilia with Father Aquin

Aldarando spoke strongly about the need for us—as progressives—to come together and take HIV/AIDS off the back burner, at a time when it is taking its heaviest toll in communities of color. We have to find new ways to start conversations with families and with faith communities. We need to help families deal with unresolved guilt and unresolved grief.

Independent film-making is labor intensive, and indie filmmakers wind up wearing many hats. I'm pleased that Cecilia could take time out from her frenetic schedule to join us here this morning between 9 AM EST and 10AM to talk with readers about the film, her family and her journey.  

Please welcome her.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 25, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, LatinoKos, HIV AIDS Action, LGBT Kos Community, and Remembering LGBT History.

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