Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Tragic story rediscovered

Television


Robert Aquin and Miguel Dieppa in director Cecilia Aldarondo's documentary "Memories of a Penitent Heart." Photo: PBS
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"I became a filmmaker on the day when my mother gave me a box of 8mm films she'd discovered in her garage in 2008. Visceral memories of my uncle Miguel's funeral came back to me, and suddenly I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. Why had this chapter in my family history been forgotten, and what could I do about it now?" With this statement, Cecilia Aldarondo began her detective story about the untimely death of her uncle Miguel Dieppa, a young Puerto Rican actor, at age 33 in 1987 (when she was 6). It resulted in a minor masterpiece documentary, "Memories of a Penitent Heart," broadcast last month on PBS' POV series, still streamable for free until the end of October. Combining home movies, video, old photos, written documents with artfully shot contemporary interviews, as well as verite footage, "Memories" cracks open a Pandora's box dealing with LGBTQ acceptance, HIV/AIDS stigma, religion, cultural difference, and unresolved family secrets concerning events that had been repressed and forgotten for a generation.

The official family line was that Miguel was a brilliant actor who died of cancer tragically young. Yet Aldarondo had heard dark whisperings that her uncle was gay, had a lover named Robert, who disappeared after Miguel died, and that on his deathbed at the urgings of his religious fanatic Catholic mother Carmen, Miguel repented of his homosexuality, asking God's forgiveness. Sensing there was something ugly and unresolved in her family's past, and even though she hardly knew or remembered her uncle, she starts searching for Robert. But it will take two years before she finds him. Because he had been so disowned by the family, her mother Nylda (Miguel's sister) didn't even know Robert's last name. He's now Father Aquin, a Franciscan monk, who has continued to grieve over the loss of "Michael," and is bitter over what happened in the final weeks of his life.

Aquin starts filling in the gaps for her. After growing up in Puerto Rico and finishing high school, Miguel moved to New York, both to pursue his love of theater as well as sexual freedom, becoming a charismatic, talented actor and playwright. He reinvents himself as "Michael" (Aquin speculates because he was angry with his parents and didn't want to be associated with them), falling in love in 1985 with Robert. He tells her that Michael died of AIDS, having contracted Karposi's sarcoma, with the distinctive lesions. Miguel's parents tried to stop him from seeing Michael in the hospital, but he got a letter from his doctor giving him permission to visit him anytime. His final weeks ignited a family war. Carmen had been writing Miguel letters for years urging him to confess and give up Robert and homosexuality. She believed God was punishing him for his sins, finally convincing the dying Miguel to return the commitment ring Robert had given him, otherwise God wouldn't let him into heaven with it on his finger.

Robert Aquin was excluded from Miguel's death certificate, from every obituary, and unwelcome as he sat in the back row of the church during Miguel's funeral while the family sat in front. Michael had his family of choice in New York, with many of its members spending more time in the hospital with him than his biological family, who didn't attend the separate memorial service held in New York by his friends. Aquin says, "When Miguel died, Robert died also," and returned to religious life.

Aldarondo also discovered that Michael had run into his cultured father, Jorge, in a gay bar, but Jorge never defended Miguel, feeling deep homophobic shame about his own same-sex desires. She also found letters Miguel had written to a disapproving Carmen, supporting his gay lifestyle, and to his sister Nylda: "Love is not spiteful, contemptuous or defiant. You can't let it trickle now and then, withholding it as punishment for not being normal. So if you say that you love me despite the fact that I'm gay and I won't go along with your religious beliefs, then you're saying your love is incomplete. And believe me, I don't love you despite anything. Though honestly, I still resent the fact that I was never asked to be a godparent to one of your children, and we both know why."

The scene where Aldarondo confronts her mother with this letter is shattering and riveting, but begins Nylda's process of repenting for not fully backing Miguel, realizing "he must have felt abandoned by me," and eventually becoming a vocal activist supportive of LGBTQ people's need for family acceptance. At one point, Nylda justifies her actions by saying, "The bottom line is that we all need to survive, and we use different ways of surviving, according to our gifts, our limitations and our circumstances." This comment prompts Aldarondo to ask, "Can't we survive and look out for others as well?"

Aldarondo has miraculously pieced together conflicting versions of her uncle's story, creating a kaleidoscopic view of the past. She shows how devastating black-and-white thinking can be, as well as how challenging it is for families to face open secrets, painful resentments, and reckoning past injustices. Aldarondo presents her family story as a cautionary tale, realizing there are similar stories from the AIDS crisis out there. The documentary also reveals the power of religion and culture to contribute to the growth of the HIV epidemic on low-income communities of color, noting that one in every 36 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV, that their rate of new HIV infections is 2.9 times that for white men, that even though they represent only 17% of the US population, they comprise 23% of HIV diagnoses. While a sad story, "Memories" is an artistic triumph.

 






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