Film Based on 8mm Archives to Explore LGBT/Puerto Rican Family Dynamics in 80s

The holidays are filled with a lot of family time. This is the season when distant relatives gather around the living room or the dining table to share a meal, exchange some gifts, and catch up on lives. It’s also a time when LGBT people wonder how out and open to be about their lives and relationships.

Last year, GLAAD initiated a Thanksgiving campaign with the spunky title “I'm Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.” It asked people to talk to their friends and family about why LGBT equality is so important to them, even if the topic is uncomfortable.

This year, Groundswell launched the Friends and Family Plan, asking people to do the same thing. Knowing that marriage equality was on the ballot in four states this past election, Groundswell equipped people with resources to have the best conversation with loved ones.

Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo is exploring her own family history, and uncovering one of those topics that wasn’t discussed in her family. In her film, Memories of a Penitent Heart, she explores the relationship between her gay uncle, her devoutly Roman Catholic grandmother, Puerto Rican machismo culture, and a world that was waking up to the reality of AIDS.

Four years ago, Cecilia’s mother gave Cecilia a dusty box of 8mm film that told the story of her uncle, Miguel, a 31-year-old Puerto Rican with dreams of making it big on Broadway. Miguel fell sick, possibly from AIDS (which was just emerging as a public health crisis).  Cecilia’s grandmother, a devout Catholic, travels to New York to care for him and begs him to repent of being gay. Miguel agrees, despite the fact that he wears a wedding ring acknowledging his commitment to his partner Robert. A few days later, he dies—it is Easter Sunday. Cecilia’s grandmother is convinced it is a miracle. Not only has her son’s soul been spared, but he has also been resurrected alongside Jesus Christ.

The film is the account of one family, but its themes echo across the discussion of LGBT people and faith. Homophobia and religious dogma overshadowed Cecilia’s grandmother's profound love for her son, and gradually alienated Miguel's live-in partner from the family grieving process. With marriage equality currently dividing the country, these themes are more pertinent than ever.

Over the course of the last year, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has been the driving force behind anti-LGBT initiatives, including promoting the anti-marriage equality amendment which was defeated in Minnesota, as well as opposing marriage equality in Washington, Maine, and Maryland. Bishops have stated that supporters of marriage equality should be denied communion. Teenager Lennon Cihak, from Minnesota, was denied the rite of confirmation because he posted a pro-marriage equality photo on Facebook.

Memories of a Penitent Heart is still in production, and Cecilia Aldarondo is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to finish the film. She has already spoken with her family members, the doctor who treated Miguel, but is still searching for Miguel’s partner, Robert, who hasn’t been heard from since being cut off from the family.

Knowing someone who is LGBT is the most determining factor for whether someone will support LGBT equality. Besides the Friends and Family plan, or the Awkward Thanksgiving campaign, films like Memories of a Penitent Heart, invite families to have the conversation that has been hiding. It is perhaps through watching the story of another family’s struggle with regret that we can convince our own loved ones to support us when they are called upon to do so.