Memories of a Penitent Heart
Cecilia Aldarondo never knew her uncle very well. He died when she was only six years old -- but not as a result of being the first-ever Puerto Rican to receive a heart transplant. In her new movie, "Memories of a Penitent Heart," funded via the crowdsourcing site Fractured Atlas, Aldarondo delves into a past littered with her uncle, 31-year-old Miguel Dieppa, suddenly getting ill, his devoted male lover and a deathbed confession to satisfy his ultra-religious mother.
"I grew up with a feeling that something was not quite right with this," said Aldarondo. "Two stories were being told. The official story that I grew up with was that everyone was so proud of him, he was an actor on his way to Broadway, the class clown that everyone loved. Then there was the unofficial story told in whispers and rumors that he was gay, that he had a partner, Robert, that he was dying of AIDS, that he repented."
As Aldarondo grew up, she found she had a passion for LGBT rights, and wanted to learn the truth behind the story of her uncle. What did he go through? If he had a partner, how deep was their relationship?
"One thing that I was told matter of fact was that he died on Easter Sunday," she said in a recent interview. "For my grandmother, this was a miraculous thing. She thought he rose with Jesus Christ, and was resurrected. He repented and went to heaven, was the story I was told."
But as she started digging around through the letters, photographs and official hospital documents, a darker story emerged. In a letter penned by her grandmother, she revealed that in Dieppa’s final hours, he asked for a priest, repented his homosexuality and ’came back to God.’
Aldarondo had a hunch that her grandmother’s religious fervor was behind this deathbed reversal. And when she began posting online to fund the project, her uncle’s former partner -- now a Franciscan monk -- contacted her to describe how intense the situation really was.
"As my uncle got sicker and sicker, his partner, who had been his primary caretaker and helped to keep him alive, began to hear from my grandmother," said Aldarondo. "She spent more and more time in the hospital, with an active campaign to get him to repent. That’s where it all imploded."
His partner told Aldarondo that Dieppa desperately wanted his family to accept him, and the overlying tension was brutal. The partner and their friends were caught in the middle between caring for Dieppa and managing his expectations that his religious mother would accept him as a homosexual. Eventually, family won out, and Dieppa reportedly made a deathbed reversal, repenting his homosexuality and his long-term relationship.
"He went through a tailspin when my uncle died," said Aldarondo. "He didn’t have any say in the decisions made about the burial or funeral, he went and sat along in the back row, nobody talked to him and he wasn’t mentioned in the obit. He said he felt very alone, and spent a lot of years in a dark depression. He lost his way, and for him, returning to the church saved his life."
The Mystery Continues
Aldarondo’s uncle was the first Puerto Rican to ever get a heart transplant, performed at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. That was in 1984; but by 1987, her Uncle Miguel was dead. Because of the transplant, he had been taking immune-suppressing drugs, and developed symptoms that were very much like AIDS: Kaposi Sarcoma and multiple infections.
"His partner insisted he had AIDS, that he saw lesions even before the transplant," said Aldarondo. "But my uncle refused to let them perform the AIDS test so the hospital wouldn’t give him an angiogram. He thought it put you on a blacklist. So he contacted his lawyer and threatened to sue the hospital [because they refused him medical care]. I don’t know how it was resolved in the end."
Anti-gay discrimination is nothing new, said Aldarondo, but what interested her more in making this film was looking at the complex familial dynamics at work in this particular situation, and how it impacted her uncle, his partner and the entire family.
"This film is telling the story of a quieter and more insidious form of discrimination -- what happens in families when people think they are being loving, but they are really just pushing aside who someone is," said Aldarondo.
"My grandmother was a moral compass for me growing up, and somebody who people revered," she continued. "She was incredibly gentle and warm, and accepting on the surface. She was an important person to me, and so to reexamine her in this light has been really painful and difficult. I have been very angry with her when I think about the monstrous way that her faith worked. But she was incredibly devout, and really tried to live her life as a good person, by what she though Christ taught, and that’s the paradox."
Rather than simply writing her grandmother off as a crazy Bible-beating freak, Aldarondo tells the story of how people can be blind to how they are damaging others, and asks viewers to examine their own blindness. She wants to tell the story of many gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis, whose God-fearing families swept into hospital rooms to cut lovers out of death notices and funerals, leaving a tide of shame, guilt and bitterness.
She has raised $27,000 on Kickstarter last December, and has more than 60 hours of footage. They are now working with an award-winning editor with several feature documentaries under his belt to do editing, color correction and sound. Aldarondo hopes to raise a total of $75,000 to complete post-production and get a rough cut of the movie.
"This is very much a grassroots project," she said. "I have a lot of ideas and energy, but I don’t have industry connections. But I want to see this film make it to Sundance. It’s got legs, it’s just a matter now of spreading the word and getting the support I need to finish it."
For more information or to donate to the campaign, visit https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=8605