‘Memories of a Penitent Heart’: A Heartfelt Portrait of Stigma and Shame

· Updated on May 29, 2018

Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo always knew there was more to her uncle’s story than what her family in Puerto Rico told her.

For years, she’d only known that he’d left for New York to make it as an actor. That the relationship between him and his parents had been terse. And, of course, that he’d died at a young age in the late 80s. And she knew Miguel’s lover Bob, had actually made it to the funeral but that was the last anyone there heard about him.

Now Aldarondo’s documentary Memories of a Penitent Heart, which airs on PBS Monday July 31 as part of their POV series, unearths Miguel’s story as she searches for answers about her late uncle.

At a time when Latino men who have sex with men remain disproportionately affected by HIV, despite cultural and medical progress, Aldarondo’s heartfelt documentary set at the height of the AIDS crisis emerges as a cautionary tale for younger Latinx generations, who could do well by heeding its advice when it comes to being frank about one’s sexuality and one’s sexual health.

On his deathbed, so Aldarondo’s grandmother claimed, Miguel found his way back to Jesus and sought penitence for a life lived in sin.

That contested narrative, which Memories tries to resolve once and for all to no avail, merely points out how this 31 year-old man’s religious upbringing still dictated much of how he saw himself and, for better and for worse, how his own mother saw him even in those final days. He had, after all, gotten letters from her all through his twenties, telling him how in her dreams she’d seen that while he wasn’t dead to life, he was dead to grace.

What his early onset illness revealed was the schism between his life as an out gay man in the city and the life his family wanted him to lead in the island. It only made those final months spent in hospital rooms all the more fraught with tension with buried antipathies and silent prejudices boiling up between lover and family.

Miguel’s story of family estrangement and of a life haunted by Catholic guilt instilled by his devout mother isn’t a relic of a time gone by. The kind of silence that still ruled over Aldarondo’s family when it came to talking about her uncle remains too common nowadays.

Jai Rodriguez, for example, best known for his work on the reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and supporter of the film, understands how much of that kind of hushed family history first pushed him to become an HIV/AIDS advocate.

“When I was 16, my aunt and my cousin died of AIDS-related issues at a time when it was so profoundly so overwhelming for us as a family,” Rodriguez told INTO. “But the stigma around itto this day my family rarely says the words ‘AIDS’ or ‘HIV’ when they reference my aunt.”

The family even struggled with being supportive when he raised funds for HIV causes. While at first he thought this was exclusive to his family, he soon saw that these were all too common reactions within the Latinx community, which, as the new campaign he’s championing, “Positively Fearless,” points out, contribute to a higher incidence of HIV infections within Latino men who have sex with men.

The numbers are sobering: one out of every four gay and bisexual Hispanic men will develop HIV in their lifetime if current rates continue.

“Although we have made some advances in the treatment of HIV in terms of prevention for the past 2 or 3 years we have seen a decline in the total numbers of newly-infected HIV infections.” Dr. Edwin DeJesus shared recently told INTO. “If you look at the numbers coming from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] from 2012 to 2014, we see the rate of new infections overall in the MSM population in the US were relatively stable.”

But those promising statistics don’t tell the whole story, though.

“When you look at the rate of new infections in the Latinx MSM population there was an increase.” In fact, according to the CDC, “in 2014, the rate of HIV diagnoses among Hispanics/Latinos was approximately three times that for non-Hispanic whites (18.4 compared with. 6.1 per 100,000 population).”

There are multiple factors that contribute to this disparity. There is, as Aldarondo’s film suggests, a long history of stigma that’s particularly prevalent in the Latinx community with regards to both homosexuality in general and HIV in particular.

According to Dr. DeJesus, while that stigma has slowly begun to dissipate, it remains disproportionately present in minority communities, and remains a strong predictor of patients not engaging in care or not staying in care.

Adrian Altamirano, who works at Street Works, an AIDS service organization in his current hometown of Nashville, shared how he’d struggled with finding helpful resources after being diagnosed back in 2015. He didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. It was only through endless Google searches that he found the CDC website that gave him the answers he was looking for, which is why campaigns like “Positively Fearless” are a step in the right direction.

As a spokesperson for this new initiative, Adrian hopes to educate and empower his peers to seek the help they need and encourage those getting treatment to have open conversations with their physicians and be honest about their meditations and any limitations they may be facing.

While Memories of a Penitent Heart tells a tale of a life that needed to excavated out of half-whispered family stories and shameful, Catholic-tinged gossip, it stands as an invitation to evaluate how certain cultural and religious doctrines continue to prevent open discussions about sexuality and sexual health. There’s still plenty to be done to get rid of these hurtful (and, in some cases, life-threatening) stigmas.

As Rodriguez stresses, we need to change the way we think and talk about HIV awareness. It’s time to think less in terms of them and us, and rally together instead. “We are all HIV equal. So if it’s our neighbor’s issue, it’s our issue too.”

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