Cecilia Aldarondo was 6 when her uncle Miguel, who had left his native Puerto Rico to become a Broadway actor, died of cancer at age 31. Or so she was told. “He loomed large in the family mythology—he was so talented and amazing and full of promise,” Aldarondo recalls today. “I have these memories of my grandmother—who was super Catholic—telling the story that Miguel was living a life away from the Lord but that as he was dying, he asked to see a priest and repented of being gay. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had my own sense of social justice that I was like, This doesn’t sound right.”
In 2008, Aldarondo’s mother gave her a box of home movies she found in the garage. As she combed through the family archive, she started remembering the uncle she barely knew and the way her family would also whisper about his being gay. She wondered what really happened to him and whether he had actually repented on his deathbed. “I decided to dig into it,” she says, “and it turned into the film, which is an excavation of this conflict in my family and his death.”
The result is the intimate and artful Memories of a Penitent Heart, which debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. You can watch it now on PBS, which is streaming it until October 27 as part of its documentary series POV (point of view). In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began September 15 and ends October 15—the latter date also marks National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day—POZ spoke with Aldarondo, a professor of film at Skidmore College in upstate New York, about the documentary, its relevance today and audience reactions. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Aside from solving the specific mysteries around your uncle, what compelled you to make this film?
The more I found out what my uncle had been through, the more I felt a sense that my family had something to account for. You could say [it was sort of fueled by] all the righteous indignation of my relative youth. And through the process of making the film, I did a ton of research on the AIDS crisis and found that what had happened in my uncle’s life was really, unfortunately, quite common. This is a film about hindsight and different generations coming into contact and maybe in conflict with one another; it’s animated by the contemporary generation’s sense of horror. So there’s a lot that’s unresolved, and the film was a desire to reckon with that.
Did you accomplish that?
I realized at some point I was effectively acting as judge, jury and executioner and pointing fingers. On the one hand, yes, the film is animated by desire for justice, but it’s also animated by my love and compassion for everyone involved. It’s really an anatomy of conflict. The thing about conflict is that we have these stereotypical ideas of victim versus perpetrator. Often, when we hear stories of prejudice and homophobia, we have an idea of what bigotry looks like. Part of what the film is doing is capturing the nuances of what this means on the ground. In the case of my uncle’s life, everybody thought they were truly doing their best, even my grandmother, who did quite horrible things in the spirit of love. The film does try to understand how there really are no complete innocents in the conflict. Everybody in some way played a part.
The film really captures those nuances. Miguel, for example, isn’t portrayed as a saint. But your grandmother, Miguel’s mom, is particularly complex. What was your relationship with her?
When I was growing up, she was a really important figure in my life. She was the most gentle woman I’ve probably ever known, never said a harsh word about anyone, always full of love and always looking on the bright side. But at the same time, she was this very dogmatic old-school Catholic. Someone said to me once that she was the kind of person who needed an institution from the outside to tell her how to feel on the inside. She really craved order and structure.
The film was very much an archival excavation, and I found a lot of, for example, her diary where she kept really elaborate notes and would quote fire and brimstone stuff from the Bible. The more I got to understand the insides of how she saw the world, the more horrifying I found it. At one point while making the film, I got very angry at her and came to realize that this person who had been a real hero kind of fell from grace in my eyes—she was effectively beating her son over the head with a Bible as he was dying. And she was relentless. It’s bad enough to die at 31 of this horrible disease, but it’s extra awful with somebody telling you that everything about you is wrong and you’re going to hell. It was painful to realize this stuff about her. But I didn’t stop loving her, and she didn’t stop being an important person to me, so I tried to understand where she was coming from.
What did you conclude in her case? How did you make peace with those conflicting traits?
She, like everyone else in the film, is very much a product of her environment. And there’s a big distinction to me between her as an individual and, for example, the institution of the Catholic Church. She’s the product of colonial Puerto Rico and very entrenched gender roles, very rigid expectations around the family. She was regurgitating and repeating the things she was told were right. It’s an important difference when trying to understand human beings and their frailties and trying to understand political institutions that, in my mind, are ultimately responsible for really motivating the way people act and behave.
How have audiences reacted to the film? It covers so many topics and communities.
This is a film that tries to be thoroughly intersectional, with my uncle at the center. He, as a human being, wasn’t just a gay man or just a Latino or just a man. He was all those things in one. So the film tries to address these issues from multiple angles. It’s interesting to see how people relate to the film in different ways, depending on what their experiences might be in their own lives. I’ve seen people who are recovering from religion or were raised in strict religious backgrounds gravitate to those themes in the film. I’ve had longtime AIDS survivors come to see the film. Somebody wrote me to say the film gave him space to face some grief and anger that wasn’t resolved.
And I’ve had young queer people—very often people of color—say it’s not a question of an unresolved past, that it’s a very active issue for them now. Maybe they lost somebody to AIDS or have an LGBTQ family member and are trying to figure out how to interact with them or fight for them. So the film tries to make space for people in all those different positions to arrive at a different sense of understanding and acceptance.
It’s unfortunate that people are still dealing with these issues today, in 2017. I wonder whether some viewers might have assumed that we as a society had evolved past much of this, now that we live in the age of same-sex marriage equality and effective HIV treatment.
I think it takes a very privileged position to say, “That was then, this is now.” It may be true for some people, but there are many communities, particularly communities of color, where, for example, religion is deeply important and maintains a strong role. I have met young Latino gay men and women, etc., who have seen the film and said to me, “This is my life now. This is what I’m struggling with now. I’m struggling with the fact that my brother is being shunned now.” We have this way of thinking of AIDS as a historical phenomenon, and it’s not—it continues to be a crisis in lots of communities. And for many people, issues of acceptance and family and all that stuff, they’re contemporary issues. The narrative that we’ve all evolved, like one universal thing, it’s often from a secular and white lens and often generalizes a situation that is more complicated.
When I was fundraising for the film, I really resisted the film’s ghettoization in any way, categorizing it in niche markets, whether LGBT or AIDS or person of color. What I [tried to stress] is that everybody has a family, and to me, that is one of the reasons why AIDS became a crisis in the first place—because straight people didn’t think it had anything to do with them. For me, this is very much a solidarity film that says issues that impacted my uncle are actually global and that the film’s not just for people in this one corner off to the side. This is a film that’s asking everybody, “What would you do on your deathbed? What choices would you make? What do you want to achieve before it’s too late?” That is universal.
In the course of your research, you meet up with Aquin, Miguel’s lover who was shunned by your family, and you uncover some rather shocking family secrets—
—and at one point, someone in your family muses, “Why bring up all this stuff— especially when these people are dead?” What is your answer to that?
If we wait until everyone concerned is gone, then where does that leave us? I made a decision in making this film to say that it’s more important that we do talk about these things openly before it’s too late than that we keep it all buried. To me, the virtue of bringing this stuff up is that if I hadn’t brought it up when I did, what would it have meant, for example, for my uncle’s partner or for my family to examine this?
That is one of the questions of history. To what extent do we just go about our business and not interrogate who gets to write history. This is a film that’s attempting to rewrite my grandmother’s version of history and to give my uncle a space and dignity that he otherwise wouldn’t have. So for me, I think that if you have a respectful attitude toward the past, then perhaps this film is a violation of that, but as an activist, this is part of what activists do. They say, hang on a minute, maybe this is not the right way to go about things.
Finally, now that the film is out, how have those involved in it responded?
For Aquin and my mom, the key characters still alive, I think it’s ultimately been a meaningful process for them. In a way, they put a lot of things to bed. I think with Aquin, it’s given him a measure of peace, and he feels vindicated. In the case of my mom, she sacrificed a lot and put herself out there in a way she normally doesn’t do. She’s different from her mom in the sense that she was a lot more open to discussing this stuff openly.
My mom lives in Orlando, Florida, and after the Pulse massacre [when in 2016 a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub popular among Latinos], my mom organized a benefit screening in Orlando, and she raised $3,000 for survivors and families. She’s been to screenings and done Q&As with me, and when she connects with people there, she feels that it has been worth it to put this out there. She would say there is a greater good.
For a related POZ article, read Aldarondo’s opinion piece “‘Sanctuary’ After Pulse: We Cannot Let the Orlando Shooter Win” and the October 2017 cover story “Island Fever: Puerto Rico’s economic crisis threatens critical progress on AIDS.”