‘Memories of a Penitent Heart’ explores Latino family’s rejection of gay son, his boyfriend

For Cecilia Aldarondo, it all started with a hunch — A hunch that her family had kept her uncle’s sexuality locked in the closet and hijacked his memory.

“Something smelled wrong in the family history — The kind of romantic way people were talking about my uncle and the casual way they seemed to be ignoring his sexuality,” Aldarondo said.

‘HIJACKED MY UNCLE’S MEMORY’

For example, her uncle had a boyfriend for 12 years, who was a paramount figure in his life, but the family refused to acknowledge him.

“In a way, my family had sort of hijacked my uncle’s memory,” Aldarondo said. “It became a quest to right the wrongs of history on his behalf.”

Miguel Dieppa, right, was self-conscious about being gay, and his family refused to acknowledge his 12-year relationship with Robert Darigol, left. Dieppa’s niece, Cecilia Aldarondo made the documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart” in an effort to reclaim his memory. Photos: American Documentary, Inc.

‘MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART’

Aldarondo’s documentary, “Memories of a Penitent Heart,” is her effort to reclaim her uncle’s history. The film debuted on PBS’ POV site.

In the documentary, Miguel Dieppa’s family remembers him as an accomplished actor searching for Broadway fame who left Puerto Rico for New York City.

For Robert Darigol, Dieppa was a young and charismatic man, who was self-conscious about his sexuality, but found comfort living in the Big Apple with artists. Darigol and Dieppa were in a 12-year relationship until Dieppa’s death in 1987 at the age of 31 from AIDS complications.

These family memories also bring to the surface issues and emotions associated with people who have survived the AIDS crisis and gay Latinos trying to navigate what sometimes might feel like a minefield for family acceptance.

FINDING A LONG-LOST LOVER

Aldarondo spent two years searching for Darigol, Dieppa’s long-lost lover and a key figure in her uncle’s life, eventually finding him living in Pasadena. He had legally changed his name to Father Aquin Darigol.

In a phone interview with Q Voice News, Aldarondo, 37, talks about bringing her family history out of the closet, finding her uncle’s long-lost boyfriend, and trying to reconcile past pain.

Here are some excerpts.

Miguel Dieppa’s family remembers him as an accomplished actor searching for Broadway fame who left Puerto Rico for New York City. His Dieppa’s story is told in the documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart.”

Searching for her uncle’s chosen family

“When I started making this film, I wasn’t only looking for his partner. I had a feeling my uncle had a chosen family, like so many queer people do,” Aldarondo said.  “I was really convinced there was a whole community of people that knew him as a gay man and lived alongside him in New York.”

Listening when nobody did

“One of the things I think is true for Aquin is he had been waiting for over 25 years to be heard by a member of my uncle’s family. He felt so marginalized in the wake of my uncle’s death and effectively erased from my uncle’s life,” Aldarondo said.

Sharing unresolved grief, resentment

“It was 25 years of unresolved grief, resentment, bitterness, and all of that. He relished the opportunity to get his side of the story out there. It took zero convincing,” Aldarondo said. “As soon as I picked up the phone, it was like he was fighting with my grandmother, totally cathartic and unloading of his feelings. If you think about where he was coming from and what he went through, it’s not that surprising.”

Trying to reconcile

“It’s meaningful for both my mother and Aquin of re-encountering one another. The story of what happens after that reunion is one they have to write,” Aldarondo said.

“A big theme of the film is that life is not black and white. Life is grey. We might want to apologize for something we did in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll sail off into the sunset and become best of friends.”

This collage of memories and personal artifacts belonging to Miguel Dieppa is featured in the documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart.”

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Stephanie Thai

Hailing from San Francisco, Stephanie Thai is a Southern Californian transplant. She spends her time writing, reading, and eating wherever she can, though not in that order. On her downtime, Thai takes 12-hour cat naps, hikes urban trails, and frequents travel websites to entertain her expensive hobby of traveling the globe.