Photo: Memories of a Penitent Heart

We know the world is becoming a more accepting place for queer people, despite visible disparity and virulent backlash. But until we achieve equality for all, how do we reconcile the surviving traditionalist mindset with that of today’s progressive youth? Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary Memories of a Penitent Heart suggests, if not an answer, then a method for telling stories along our way.

The film recounts the story of her uncle Miguel, who died in 1987, when she was six years old. Her grandmother attempted to suppress the truth of Miguel’s death—that it resulted from AIDS—and that her son was gay. Neither his disease nor his partner were mentioned in his obituary. Inspired by a host of old VHS footage that her mother dug up in her garage, Aldarondo interviewed friends from the period of his life that he spent in New York, after moving from Puerto Rico. She spent considerable time with his partner Robert, who was then a former priest and, after Miguel died, re-entered the priesthood. She interviewed friends of her grandmother and her mother, and in the process uncovered a family secret that was kept even quieter than the truth about Miguel’s life. A lot of people think their families are interesting; Aldarondo has documented proof that hers is.

Memories played this year’s Tribeca Film Festival—its final screening will take place Saturday evening. A few weeks ago, I talked to Aldarondo by phone about making this movie and attaining retribution for her uncle’s legacy.

Gawker: What motivated you to tell your uncle’s story in film?

Aldarondo: I would just start noticing the way my family would talk about him. It was this kind of almost mythical thing. I think they were very romantic about how he was this very talented, bright young actor. Charismatic. The class clown. Everybody would talk about how great he was. But behind the scenes, they would toss off little details, like, “Oh, we know he was gay.” “Oh yeah, he had a boyfriend.” It was both casual and suspiciously not part of the main story. As I became an adult and someone who cared about gay rights, it bothered me, the way that they talked about it. I had a feeling there was something amiss in the story.

Was retribution part of your goal here? Part of what your movie does is reinserts your uncle’s partner back into his narrative.

I feel like it was a really common story, not just of the AIDS crisis, but it’s particularly intense around that time. There are so many people who get written out of history for one reason or another. There was a lot left of my uncle’s life in my family, but it was a selective memory. There was a lot that my grandmother saved and kept and cataloged of who her son was, but there was this huge thing missing. There’s something really intense about tracking down friends from his life in New York. I always suspected he had a community in New York, and then finding out that basically all these people loved my uncle so intensely and were in the hospital helping take care of him, and had never really grieved him. It’s hard to describe the sense of anger and injustice that I had. That sense of righteous indignation did drive this process for me.

Puerto Rico is underrepresented in media and underrated in our culture. Your portrayal of it also feels like retribution.

It was really important for me to pay attention to the question of my uncle’s cultural identity, and how that played a role in his death. Gay is not a universal experience. There are a lot of factors that inform the way somebody may or may not be accepted in a situation, and in the case of my family, and I think this still may be true across the island of Puerto Rico, the Catholic Church has a really intense foothold in people’s minds, particularly in the way families behave with one another. There’s also very particular expectations about how men and women should behave, how a child relates to their parents. I was raised to never disrespect my parents. That’s a very powerful thing in Puerto Rican society, even now. There are a lot of checks toward somebody breaking out of the mold and being counter-cultural and different. I think that’s also a consequence of colonialism. Puerto Rico is a place that for many decades has not had a clear identity.

You said you were raised to respect your parents and yet you made this movie. That’s rebellion, right?

Yeah. I don’t know that my mom knew what she or I were getting into. I think that’s a theme of the film. There have been many moments where I thought, “What would my [now dead] grandmother make of this process?” There are times that I think she would be horrified at what I’m doing. There are other times I’ve thought, “I wish I could have this conversation with her. I wish I could watch the film with her.” There is a freedom that comes from her not being around.

That question of respecting your elders is a very powerful thing. It prevents us generations later from asking questions about why this shouldn’t have happened, or who said what or did what. I’m very lucky that my mother is not her mother in the sense that she was open to the process. She represents an interesting moment in our history. She was open to evolving. I think that she welcomed the reflection brought up by this stuff. At the same time, it hasn’t been easy.

One of the things I’m trying to say with the film also is, “Just because we have a generation’s worth of hindsight and power and we can say with our distance, things should have been done differently,” I think it’s more important to ask yourselves what is our responsibility in that? How do we work together? I think about it as a collective debt we have to pay to the past and a sense that I should help to pay that debt somehow, and not just point fingers.

We understand that future generations will become more liberal and that queerness may actually become the norm, but in the meantime, before the largely [and relatively] homophobic baby boomer generation dies out, there needs to be some sort of reconciliation. We can’t just be waiting around for people to die for there to be progress. There needs to be dialogue and this movie represents a model of that.

I think about the arrogance of youth, like, “I’m part of the new generation. I’m so enlightened. I’m so much more progressive of you.” The hubris of that. I’m teaching a course on HIV and AIDS depiction in film and media in the fall to college students, and it’s interesting how little students know about the crisis in it’s capital-C sense. Part of the reason AIDS became an epidemic in the first place is that people in the United States didn’t think it had anything to do with most people. It was a problem for a particular set of marginalized groups. I feel like that extends into today the task or burden of understanding HIV and AIDS is a ghettoized thing. Part of realizing that my family had an active role in this was thinking, “Why doesn’t my family think this is their problem?” That to me is a lot of the unfinished business of this work. It’s not just like, “Let’s make sure we know our history,” but maybe it’s time for a lot of people, not just gay people, not just people who are infected, but people who lost people, maybe it’s time for all of us to look at ourselves and make some different choices.

What does your mother think of this movie?

I think this happens a lot with documentaries: you think that somebody’s going to freak out over certain things and then they don’t. I think she appreciated it. She didn’t have a violent reaction against anything. I think she’s open to being part of it.