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Love, Religion, and AIDS with ‘Memories of a Penitent Heart’
July 31, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

Like most big stories, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was also a tragically large number of small stories, and director Cecilia Aldarondo has found a compelling one in Memories of A Penitent Heart.

Penitent Heart, which airs at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) Monday on PBS’s POV series, tells the story of Aldarondo’s uncle Miguel Dieppe. He died in 1987, almost certainly of AIDS.

Aldarondo only met her uncle once, when she was a child and he returned from New York to the family home in Puerto Rico for a visit. She remembered him as lively and fun. Six months later he was dead.

As she grew up she became curious, the more so because Miguel’s story had serious jagged edges.

Miguel was gay, a fact that produced great consternation in the family. His mother Carmen, in particular, declared that he was “not dead in this life, but dead to grace.”

Her Catholic faith told her Miguel was a sinner in the eyes of the Lord and would never be received in heaven. Accordingly, it was of paramount importance to her that he repent and renounce his transgressions. After he fell ill, this became her crusade.

One of the reasons Miguel left Puerto Rico in the first place, however, was that his family considered his sexual preferences an abomination, At 17 or 18 he moved to New York, where he plunged into his passion of acting.

One of his first roles was reinventing himself. Miguel of Puerto Rico, who tried hard and apparently failed to be a good son, reemerged in New York as Michael, the fun-loving center in a tight group of friends.

He entered into a long-term relationship with Robert (below, with Miguel), a former clergyman who had come out and worked in a gay bar.

Aldarondo tracks down Robert, who is now back in the priesthood and offers a rather different perspective on her uncle’s life. Besides making everyone laugh all the time, he became a regular on the late-night bar and club scene, dressed in leather and apparently ready for action.

That makes it unsurprising that he came down with all the symptoms of AIDS – though he never submitted to an actual diagnosis, because he felt that had become a blacklist.

Memories of a Penitent Heart touches on the fear that swept both the gay and straight communities during those early years. It also notes the dilemma for the LGBT community at a time when coming out still could mean losing your job and destroying a significant part of your life.

The practical reasons for staying in the closet are powerfully brought home by the film’s revelation about another member of Miguel’s family.

Penitent Heart’s primary focus, though, falls on the struggle between Carmen (below with Miguel) and Robert, two people Miguel loved and neither of whom he wanted to displease.

Problem was, he couldn’t live honestly and satisfy both his Puerto Rican family and his adopted New York family.

How he resolved this at the very end, that matter of such importance to Carmen, ultimately feels less important than the fact her demands were a constant pressure during his life.

Aldraondo serves as a voice herself during the hour-long film, asking why we can’t just take care of each other.

If someone had a better answer to that eternal question 30 years ago, it probably would not have saved uncle Miguel’s life. It would have made that life more pleasant.

 
 
 
 
 
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