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Uncovering My Family's Secret Queer History

In the documentary 'Memories of a Penitent Heart,' a filmmaker uncovers the truth her family hid of her queer, AIDS-afflicted uncle's life.
Image via PBS

At times, Cecilia Aldarondo's documentary Memories of a Penitent Heart plays like a slideshow put together by a loving family. We see pictures of her uncle Miguel as a little boy in Puerto Rico during the 70s, then later as a struggling out gay actor in New York City. Some happy photos of him and his lover, then a handful of his time at a hospital, not long before he died at the height of the AIDS crisis.


Today, 30 years after Miguel's death, Aldarondo's film unearths Miguel's life, attempting to trace why his name had always carried the feeling of a dirty secret within their family.

According to Aldarondo's grandmother, Miguel spent the last hours of his life in that hospital room repenting for his sins and rebuking his homosexuality. Following his funeral, the family never got around to inviting Robert, Miguel's lover, into their collective grief. Memories of a Penitent Heart tracks down Robert (now a Franciscan monk) who attempts to fill in the gaps in Miguel's story. What emerges is a chronicle of a gay man who constantly wrestled, until his very last breath, with how to square his sexual desires with his religion, culture, and family obligations. Ahead of the film's premiere as part of PBS' POV series tonight, Aldarondo spoke to the importance of telling Miguel's story, at the intersection of Puerto Rican, queer and Catholic cultures, and why it remains so timely even in 2017.

VICE: How did this film come to be?
Cecilia Aldarondo: It's funny, because I wasn't even a filmmaker before I started making Memories of a Penitent Heart. But it all happened kind of serendipitously in that, in 2008, my mom was cleaning out her garage and came upon a cardboard box with canisters of 8mm film. She knew I was a film nerd; I was doing my PhD. at the time and studying film, but more from the theory and critical side, so she knew I was the family film aficionado. She said, "Hey, I found these canisters, do you want them?" And I said, "Yes, absolutely." "Well, I'll make you a deal," she said. "If you can put them on DVD so I can see what's on them, you can do whatever you want with them." I don't think she knew what she was getting into at that point. Even I didn't know what I was getting into at that point.


But they were basically documenting my mother's adult years and adolescence in Puerto Rico, from the 1950s to the 70s. And as I was looking at these old, grainy and scratchy images, I saw my uncle, who died when I was really young. I was only six years old when he died, so I barely knew him. But he occupied this kind of mythical place in my family memory, because he died young—he was only 31. And he was also this talented actor, and they cast him in these legendary terms. They talked about him as this talented guy whose life was cut too short—who was brilliant, funny, handsome, all these things. The more I thought about him, the more I started to remember his death and I had these visceral memories of his funeral. That was my first brush with dealing with death.

The more I thought about him and the more I thought about how my family talked about him, I just started to realize there was something awry in the family memory, as it were—a dark side to this story. I started to remember another side of the way people would talk about him, like out of the sides of their mouths, they would tell another story. He was gay (though that wasn't openly talked about). He had a partner who disappeared after he died. And I increasingly became troubled by the casual way my family kept asking, "Oh yeah, I wonder where he went?" So that was where the film was born from. It was a suspicion that something smelled wrong. It launched me into what eventually became a detective search, not just for my uncle's partner but also uncovering a whole other side of my uncle's life and death.


But it's not just a story about your uncle. It's also very much about your family, no?
I think of it as a kind of autopsy of a family in conflict. It's looking at the complex ways that different players in the family dynamic impacted my uncle when he was dying. Looking at what it means to be 31 and dying of AIDS as a gay man in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis, but also what it means when your family doesn't approve of your partner. I think of this as a kind of cautionary tale. On one hand it's a very personal story, and something that happened in my life. But it's unfortunately a really common one that families went through, especially during the AIDS crisis, where a lot of long-simmering tensions or disapprovals came to the surface in really catastrophic ways as people were dying.

It's so clear the film is really interested in intersectionality. Was that always part of the project?

It's funny—when I was making the film and fundraising for it, I'd pitch it to different funders and supporters, and I would often get feedback like, "Oh, you're trying to do a lot. How is this a film that's about family and about religion and about cultural identity and homosexuality and the AIDS crisis?" I feel like everything orbits around Miguel, but in a way, no human being is a monolith. Yes, this is a story about Miguel as a gay man. But it's also a story about him as a Puerto Rican man, someone who came of age on a colony of the United States that has its own particular relationship to the Catholic Church, for example. Or particular gender roles. So I think of Miguel as this person through whom very complex cultural and political and social factors came together. It was very much a goal in the film to have it be very multilayered, where we focus on one theme or another. It's kind of like a tapestry.

There really is no way of talking about one aspect of his identity without the other. Have you felt audiences responding to that since you began showing the film?
You know, I think this follows the conversation we've been having about it and intersectionality. The film has been shown to a lot of diverse audiences. Just last month I was in Puerto Rico, where we had a two-week theatrical run. It's been shown primarily in LGBTQ film festivals. It's been shown to queer audiences, to AIDS survivors in a public health context. It's been shown to people who are actively religious or recovering religious. It's shown to family members of queer people. And this was a very big goal of the film: to offer access points for people from different life experiences. That's actually been really gratifying, to see audiences reacting that way. I've had long term survivors of AIDS or people who lost people many people to the crisis coming and saying that the film has enabled them to examine things in a new way for the first time in 20 years. And on the other side, I've had young queer Latinos who come and say, "This is happening to me right now!"

After the Pulse massacre in Orlando we did a benefit screening, because I'm from Orlando and we had a kind of intersectional panel of people. You know, when Pulse happened, the vast majority who died in the massacre were Puerto Rican. And they were people whose families didn't accept them now for being gay! Even though the film is historically-located, in a sense—it happened in 1987—it's been very important to me to see for how many people it's still very much a contemporary experience.

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