Documentarian Cecilia Aldarondo Tenderly Tells Her Uncle’s Story 30 Years After His Death from AIDS

'Memories of a Penitent Heart.' Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart is a family affair. The documentary, which is screening as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, was born out of Aldarondo’s desire to learn more about her uncle, Miguel. She had a hunch that there was more to his story than her mother and grandmother led on. In the late 1970s, Miguel left the island of Puerto Rico to pursue his career as a performer in New York City. By the time he died of AIDS in the late ’80s, his family in Puerto Rico knew, didn’t care to know, that much about his life in the city, only that he’d reinvented himself there and had, in a way, rebuked his mother’s strident religious teachings. As Cecilia asks around at the start of the film, no one can even remember his partner’s last name. All she has is a first name: Robert.

Robert, she knows, may hold the key to the mystery Cecilia is set on solving. Did her uncle really, as her grandmother told the family, really repent during his last days in a New York City hospital to a priest? Did he embrace religion and God, repudiating his own homosexuality in the process? Did he find find in that decision?

While making the film, Cecilia (who narrates her own investigative journey) finally finds Robert, though he’s since reinvented himself as Father Aquin, now living as a Franciscan monk who nevertheless still remembers vividly his long term relationship with “Michael” as he knew him. As Cecilia tries to bridge the stories she hears from Aquin with the ones her own family has told her, her film becomes a forceful attempt at getting us to think about the way a person’s history lives on in other people’s memories, in other people’s material archives. We see pictures and photos, we watch tapes and recordings, read letters and playbills, these objects trying to stand in for the person they all knew. “It’s a film,” she told us, “that’s trying to break down the division between past and present.”

We hopped on the phone with Aldarondo to talk about how her Fine Arts and academic background (she earned her PhD in 2012 and is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Skidmore College) informed this very personal film, how her own family helped shape it, and what she hopes the film teaches us about Latino AIDS narratives.

Memories of a Penitent Heart plays at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Check here for screening details and tickets.

UPDATE 9/27/2018: Memories of a Penitent Heart is now available to stream on Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

On the Doc’s Origins

The whole project started as a hunch. I wasn’t even sure at the beginning whether it would be a full feature length documentary because it was more about this suspicion that there was something kind of amiss about my family’s story. It started because my mom found a box of 8mm home movies in the garage in 2008. I was doing my PhD in Minnesota and she called me to ask me whether I wanted them. She didn’t really know what to do with them. Being kind of a film nerd I said, absolutely! And so she said she’d send them to me and that I could do whatever I wanted with them as long as I digitized them for her (which I did). So that started the whole thing. I would say that it became bigger and more complicated and just became what it became as I started piecing things together. I frame it as a detective story but in real life, in a lot of ways, it developed through serendipitous discoveries that kept confirming my feelings that there was something to pursue.

“I frame it as a detective story but in real life, in a lot of ways, it developed through serendipitous discoveries that kept confirming my feelings that there was something to pursue.”

On The Look Of Her Film

It’s a really important and deliberate choice on my part. I did my PhD before I even started this film and in part my dissertation was about memory and objects — how the serendipitous discovery of certain things can trigger human behavior. That we find a photograph of somebody and it triggers painful memories or things that we long have buried or the desire to tell somebody about it. And it was really important for me as a director to highlight this thing-ness of the thing. For me, this desire to understand my uncle’s life is in those things. It is very much like an archival sifting and it was really crucial to me to bring these two archives (that of my grandmother and Aquin) and bringing them into a productive conversation.

One of the things I love about documentary filmmaking is how profoundly important the role of editing is. In the case of this film the story really came together in the editing room in a major way. And part of that is that I sought an editor that I could have a really close collaboration and my editor [Hannah Buck] is not only an editor but she also has this Fine Arts background so we connected on that level, because I also have a background in Fine Arts and experimental film. So we applied and got residency at the MacDowell Colony in November of 2014. So basically we went to rural New Hampshire for a month and brought the entire archive with us. Everything we had. We spread it around our studio and we experimented a lot with, not just scanning images but scanning objects. It was a very experimental process. So a lot of the aesthetic backbone of the film came from that experience. We emerged from that residency not only with a structure of the film but we also had a much clearer idea of how we wanted to tell the story.

On Playing Detective

“My fear is that there’ll be more that turns up once the film premieres. I keep telling people: you need to stop finding things!”

I tried to track down anyone who could have had any contact with my uncle. I’ll give you an example: I tracked down a theater professor of his at Hunter College who still teaches there. He’s in his 80s. And when I found him he told me, Oh I have a photograph of your uncle in my house, I’ve had it since the 1980s and the only reason I still have it is because everything else from that time period was in my basement and it flooded. Over and over again I would find people in these strange ways and they would find out about the film and contact and they would have something. What was interesting to me was that they kept popping up in the unlikeliest of places. My fear is that there’ll be more that turns up once the film premieres. I keep telling people: you need to stop finding things! My mother found a letter that my uncle had written to my grandmother — just a few months ago and she found the letter and it’s in the film where my uncle talks in very intense Catholic language about the devil and the devil’s impact on him. And it completely changed my interpretation of my uncle. I had always thought of him as, not someone who had totally renounced his religion, but who had really set himself apart from his mother. And that letter is totally a young son who’s feeling in the realm of shame and Catholic guilt.

On Bringing Latinos To The On-Screen AIDS Narrative

In the past few years we’ve seen a spate of films about the AIDS crisis and they have been, by and large, by and about white middle/upper-middle class gay men. And while many of the films are doing something laudable there is a kind of danger in taking one or two histories and universalizing them as histories of the AIDS crisis. That’s dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly because it perpetuates the consideration that the crisis is over. I mean, for a lot of people it has ceased to be a crisis but disproportionately, especially for Latino people and people of color more generally, this is the group of people who continue to exist in the crisis. For whom it never really stopped being a crisis.

For me, the film — my uncle’s story — is a universal story of love and family that is not just a Latino story. But on the other hand, I feel like what he was dealing with is absolutely rooted in where he comes from. He is a product of not only homophobia but diaspora. He was negotiating a really complicated set of ways of trying to be accepted. Not just as a gay man, but also as a Puerto Rican man.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on and