MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART straddles a lot of divides—between art and social justice, between past and present, between the personal and the global. I’m making this film because I see the story of what happened in my family as a cautionary tale; there are thousands of similar stories buried across the world. I want viewers to see that bigotry doesn’t always look like a hate crime: often, it looks like blind love.
I became a filmmaker on the day that 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. When I was growing up, people told two different stories about Miguel. The official story was about a gregarious, mischievous, brilliantly talented actor who died tragically young. The unofficial story was darker. Told in whispers, out of the sides of mouths: Miguel was gay. His mother didn’t approve. There was a lover, Robert, who disappeared after Miguel died. As I got older and began to care about social justice and LGBT equality, I was increasingly troubled at the casual way my family both did and didn’t talk about these events. Why had this chapter in my family history been forgotten, and what could I do about it now?
Growing up in suburban Central Florida in the late 80s and early 90s, I learned about AIDS through the very distorted lens of my parents’ Newsweek magazine—I remember sordid stories about thrush, fevers, and emaciated men scaring the crap out of me. But while I gathered that it was all very serious, I had a distinct impression of AIDS as a thing that was far away. Even when my mother would hint that my uncle Miguel may have died of AIDS—he had Kaposi’s sarcoma, refused to be tested, etc—I didn’t sense that this bit of family rumor had anything to do with this thing called ‘the AIDS crisis.’
In my family, it’s not that people didn’t talk about Miguel’s death—they did. It was just that there were two distinct ways of talking about it: one nostalgic, celebratory, and open, and the other oblique, told in whispers. And over the years, I found myself circling around a memorial black hole—a negative space where my uncle’s life should have been.
If I had known what I would confront by making this film, I honestly don’t know that I would have taken it on. Since I began chasing down the fragments of Miguel’s life and death, I have been repeatedly sent into a world of unresolved grief and suffering that was hidden from me. I did not know that while my family sat at the front of the church during Miguel’s funeral, Miguel’s partner of 12 years sat in the back row. I did not know that Miguel’s friends in New York had a separate memorial service that my family did not attend. I did not know that Aquin was excluded from my uncle’s death certificate, from every obituary, and from every trace of my family’s memory. I did not know that my uncle had an entire other family in New York—a family of choice—a family that lacked the legitimacy that Miguel’s biological family enjoyed, even though many of them spent more time in the hospital with Miguel than my own family did. When I sat down to interview these newly discovered friends, they repeatedly told me how Miguel’s death tore them apart as a group. As Miguel’s close friend Ricky put it: ‘it was like bomb, and we were all shrapnel.’ This collective unresolved mourning—a space to grieve that I felt my family had effectively stolen from my uncle’s New York family—was overwhelming to witness.
This is the story of MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART: a reckoning with my family’s responsibility, and a confrontation with a grief that never healed.
There is a moment in the film when my grandmother’s best friend asks me—who are you to bring this up now? I have often asked myself that question. I wasn’t there. I barely knew my uncle. So why should I care what happened to him? But I think that this question—why should you care?—is central to the themes of MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART. As I see it, AIDS became a crisis precisely because most people didn’t think it had anything to do with them. Now as much as then, AIDS is seen as a problem for queers and drug addicts, not ‘decent’ Americans. But the reality is that AIDS has always been everyone’s problem. And I believe that we—LGBT people, their families of choice, and their biological families—now have the chance to own this history collectively. We are in a pivotal time in the history of AIDS: a generation after the worst of the crisis, we are at risk of repeating the same omissions that made AIDS become a crisis in the first place. And I believe this is the moment for taking stock, before AIDS becomes just another badly remembered story.
There have been many times throughout this process where I’ve felt like it’s my job to avenge my uncle’s death. It’s a powerful feeling that carries equal parts responsibility and righteousness. But it’s also a very arrogant place to be. I’ve spent a lot of time pointing fingers—at my grandmother, my mother, and even Aquin—telling people what they should have done differently. But I have had to come to terms with the fact that I have no right to make such judgments.
The sad truth is that everyone in this story played their part. Everyone hurt my uncle. But the other truth—the more important truth—is that they also all loved him. And whenever I’ve begun to doubt myself (Do I have the right to ask these questions? Who is telling the truth? Am I messing with people’s lives? Am I playing God?), I’ve always come back to one guiding question—what would Miguel have wanted?
I think Miguel would have wanted people to remember all of him—his artistic passion, his humor, his poetic heart, his enthusiasm, his leadership and yes, his mistakes. I think he would have wanted everyone he loved to put their differences aside and love each other as much as he loved them.
When people ask me what I want people to do when they see this film, I always tell them I want them to cry. Not because I am a sadist or because I want the audience to feel manipulated, but because I believe that this story is more than just an interesting story. It is a story I want people to see in their own lives—not just people dealing with the aftermath of AIDS, but anyone who’s had a conflict, a falling out, a seismic loss—and to ask themselves what they could do differently now. I don’t just want people to ask, ‘What did Miguel do on his deathbed?;’ I want them to ask: ‘What would I do on my deathbed?’
I don’t think that this film has healed the past. Not yet. But I continue to hope that Miguel’s entire family—Aquin, my mother, Miguel’s friends, and everyone who knew and loved him—will find some measure of peace. A complicated and challenging peace, perhaps, but peace nonetheless.