San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
At the end of 2019, I quit a job that did not serve me for the first time and moved back home with my parents to reset – a career in higher education meant I had, so often, moved for the job and for the first time, I wanted to choose where I lived. My father had encouraged the decision, your safe place is here. Come home.
My best friend, who had supported me through the six-month long debate of leaving the job, had spotted an offer from Apogeo Collective. The bed & breakfast haven for travelers of color, LGBTQIA+ travelers, and allies was offering a room in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua free of charge after a cancellation – you just had to get there. I can only imagine what my friend said to the stewards of Apogeo, but they offered me the room.
The stay began the next day.
I didn’t even have time to overthink, nor to dodge my parents’ probing questions about safety, which stemmed, no doubt from mythic conceptions of the Global South. My mother looked at me for a long moment, her eyes full but lips unmoving before saying, that is my homeland. I nodded, said something about how I wish we were going together, and bought a flight out of MIA, arriving in Managua on the afternoon of February 13.
Apogeo arranged transportation from the airport, and another guest was arriving at the same time, so we shared a ride for the two hours it took to get to San Juan del Sur. The woman with whom I shared the ride radiated a lust for life; she asked our driver, Alex, for the aux chord and immediately queued up a list of my preferences. She convinced the driver to make a 30- minute detour to Masaya, an active volcano, and we gasped taking in the fiery, and surprisingly splashy contents in the deep cavern below.
My trip to Nicaragua was largely characterized by these intimate moments of new experiences with strangers: my first time seeing and putting my feet into the Pacific Ocean, drunkenly falling off a small boat into the same Pacific Ocean, laughing nervously at a protective herd of monkeys guarding the entrance to a beach, and the best food I’ve had in a while. I was surprised by how familiar the people, the places, the air felt. Unlike some of the other guests at Apogeo, I speak and understand Spanish, and spent a lot of time speaking to people, hearing about their experiences, and explaining that my mother is from Nicaragua, that she left during the revolution. I felt strangely connected to a place that seemed to barely exist for my mother anymore, that I had previously come to associate with racism and her family’s rejection of my father.
Of course, Nicaragua exists vastly beyond what I have constructed in my imaginary.2
Beyond the histories of violent colonization, genocide, and displacement that characterize the histories of North, Central, and South America, Nicaragua has not been spared from the U.S.’s legacies as an occupying, destabilizing force.3 According to the UN, it is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. The U.S. formally occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and the occupation had a primary objective of furthering a project that would have created the Nicaragua canal; these plans were abandoned. After the formal occupation, the U.S. backed the repressive Somoza dictatorship from 1936 to 1979. As I understand it, my mother was gone before the violent campaign to oust Somoza began in the late 1970s. Nicaragua has never really recovered from these decades of political turmoil, and the legacies of occupation and sociopolitical and economic destabilization were evident to me during my visit in the nation’s infrastructure and overwhelming poverty.
When my friend asked about my experience, I said, truthfully, I had a wonderful time, but I could not turn my brain off, and mostly, I thought of my mother. I kept in touch with my family via WhatsApp, tracing my movements for my mother, telling her where I was, what I saw. When I told her we were going to Playa Hermosa, she recalled that the sand was very fine there, and for whatever reason, this visceral memory brought me to tears. I stayed in Nicaragua for a week, realizing each day how little I know about my mother’s life. In my journal on the third day in San Juan del Sur, I started to list what I knew: they left during the revolution, the children came first, except the youngest, my mother was 16 or 17 when she left her home, they had lived in a haunted house in Managua, my Abuelo was an arson investigator.
I returned rested, but voracious, and greeted my mom with a barrage of questions: give me your stories. Help me understand. When did you leave? Why did you leave? Why haven’t you been back? Tell me about the family. Unspoken in these questions was a mourning, an outrage: why did you not tell us? How could you?
My mom either missed or ignored the subtext, answering my questions as best as she could and explaining to my sister and I that her two older brothers had come over initially, and pausing before explaining that they had come over illegally.
My mother ended up in New Mexico, while her two eldest brothers settled in L.A. sharing an apartment for a while. The eldest still lives in L.A. He has visited South Florida many times, often staying for a couple months to care for my Abuela.
My mother’s second oldest brother, closest to her in age, has always been a mystery to my sister and me. I learned of his existence at 17, when a round of spring cleaning at my Abuela’s house unearthed yellowing newspaper clippings and family photos, including a portrait of my uncle. In the photo he is wearing a burgundy shirt, and he stares directly into the camera, unsmiling. His deep-set, dark eyes and penetrating gaze are striking, even with 1970s photography, and I look exactly like him.
Who is that? I remember asking. J, my brother, my mother had answered. 4 And that was it.
Now, though, with the fine sand from Playa Hermosa still decorating my suitcase, I pushed. And where was J?
They (her brothers) didn’t live together anymore, but he was in California when he died of AIDS.
I remember the “with our eyes only” conversation I had with my sister after my mother said this. We had barely known our uncle existed, let alone that he had died of AIDS and my mother gave us this groundbreaking news as though we had spoken about it dozens of times before.
How could you?
I recovered quickly.
So, he’s buried in California? A pause.
Yes, said with an air of finality – we were done.
My sister and I texted about this exchange later that afternoon, and I wondered to my sister: Was our uncle gay?
I came out to my family a little over six years ago and it was met with the emotional volatility and silence I had anticipated. My father cried; his way, I think of apologizing for a lifetime of anti-queer comments. I stood across from him, eyes and mouth agape, my under-developed emotional intelligence preparing me to do little else. My mother asked a series of cliché questions about my sexual history, why I had said homophobic things as a pre-teen (I came out at 23), and if I was sure this wasn’t a phase. I answered, then got on a plane, having strategically told them the night before heading back to Nashville where I was a 2nd year graduate student. My father wrote me an email saying he has a hard time talking and that he loved me. And we never spoke of it again.
My sister wrote back: I was thinking the same thing when you brought him up yesterday.
Ask, I replied, then a lag.
And then, me again: I asked. He was gay and out to Abuela and Abuelo. Trying to take this in.
Wow, my sister replied.
Mhm. Partner also died of AIDS.
Wow, my sister said again, I can’t believe we didn’t know this.
How could you?
It took time and patience with my mother, but eventually I learned that what happened was this: J was not so much out to his parents as he was outed without his consent by his older brother with whom he lived in Los Angeles. My Abuela was disgusted and appalled – she would never see or speak to her son again. My Abuelo would see his favorite son one more time, at his eldest’s graduation. My mother recalled that when he arrived in California, my uncle had “gone wild” (or maybe was just openly gay), and my eldest uncle didn’t know what to do. I’m skeptical of this iteration of the story, but it’s what I have.
My mother attributed her parents’ response to her brother’s sexuality to the times, to “back then.” Regardless, my eldest uncle’s violation ostensibly severed his brother’s relationship with his family. He moved out from the apartment he had shared with the brother who betrayed him, and then lived with his partner in a place from which they could see the Hollywood sign.
Somehow, my eldest uncle learned of my uncle’s hospitalization with AIDS-related illness and told the rest of the family. My mother spoke to my uncle on the phone. She thinks he was in the hospital already. He was not, she said, in his right mind.
No member of my family went to see him, nor did they claim his body after he died. My mother will regret this for the rest of her life. Her brother/my uncle was helpful, a caretaker, kind. He would have helped her care for his mother when her other siblings have abandoned her in this dreadful task. This she knows, despite how my Abuela treated her second son. That’s just who he was.
A caring, compassionate man left to die alone because he was gay.
My mother told me that my uncle loved to dance. That they had won a dancing competition in Nicaragua they were not supposed to be at because they were underage. She said he had had a girlfriend who died during the devastating 1972 earthquake and speculated that he had had a boyfriend shortly before leaving for the U.S., but she had only realized in hindsight.6 He was very tall, about 6’4, and by whatever genetic happenstance, his face is on my face.
COVID-19 Appears on the Horizon
I don’t share my mother’s opinion on the futility of finding my uncle. I understand too well what erasures of this sort can do, have done. Shame thrives in silence, in the things you try to disappear, and the way the traces softly shape the present.
Using my skills as a researcher, I started at the end.
Details from my mother’s story led to the discovery that my uncle had not died in 1992, but in early 1993. I used his birth date (my mother remembered) to confirm that it was him, then ordered his death certificate on March 5, 2020, hoping it would arrive before a work trip to Los Angeles at the end of the month.
Sometime between requesting the document and my flight on the 30th, the murmurs about COVID-19 became shouts, turned shutdowns, turned despair.
It is not lost on me that my uncle died of a virus during a pandemic, nor that I am imagining his life and death while COVID-19 destroys communities of color and lays bare asymmetries that predispose Black, Brown, low-income, dispossessed, and disregarded people to premature death. Like COVID, the AIDS crisis made clear who is valued, worth saving, and who we are willing to let die and blame for their own deaths. Like COVID, the AIDS crisis was apocalyptic, simultaneously destructive and revealing. It eradicated entire communities and offered lessons about our healthcare system, our socioeconomic disparities, and our humanity that have largely been ignored.
This newest pandemic meant that I canceled my March 30, flight to LAX, my rental car for my ride to Santa Barbara, my hotel reservations, my trip to the ONE archives at the University of Southern California where I had planned to learn more about Latinx queer life in L.A. when my uncle lived there. My April 1, interview was moved to Zoom. It went well, but the search was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-related budgetary constraints. My job search, meant to come during a time of rest and curiosity, was now haunted by a sense of dread as each cover letter submission generated an automatic response about delayed or cancelled searches: “we hope you understand,” “in these challenging times.” I did. They are.
I vacillated between practices of gratitude for the privilege I had to be home, fed, healthy, to utter panic and dread about whatever future we stand to inherit in COVID-19’s wake. Every day during this crisis, though, I think of my uncle.
I was surprised that his death certificate was delivered to me in early April; I hadn’t expected it to be processed given the shutdowns in California. I watched the UPS driver approach the door and locked eyes with him through our front-facing window. He pointed to his mask, and then to the envelope. I nodded. His message was clear; please, don’t come outside.
I’m not sure what I expected, but the two pale blue pages confirming my uncle’s death floored me. The certificate is full of unknowns, abbreviated in some places as UNK. His place of birth (Nicaragua) UNK, and though the certificate notes that he was “Hispanic,” it wrongly identifies his background as Mexican. The full name of his father (my Abuelo) is UNKNOWN, his mother (my Abuela) UNKNOWN, his occupation, his social security number (he likely did not have one), all UNKNOWN. There is something devastatingly appropriate about the clinical mystery surrounding my uncle’s personhood.
What was known was that his body failed him. His immediate cause of death is listed as cardiorespiratory arrest, a result of multi-system organ failure, due to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The attending physician, the one who signed his death certificate, is a nephrologist, so I can speculate that of the multiple organs that failed, my uncle’s kidneys were included. The doctor has not returned my phone calls or emails.
Like on that third day in Nicaragua, I wrote down what I knew:
My uncle died at 9:34am on January 13th, 1993. He had been in the hospital, noted on the certificate as LAC/KING DREW MED. CENTER, since November 15th, 1992; he was in the hospital for two months, almost to the day. On February 1st, 1993, his body was moved, and temporarily stored at the LAC/USC mortuary at 1200 N. State Street in Los Angeles. On February 19th, 1993, his body was moved again, to the LA County Crematory/Cemetery at 3301 E. First St.6 My uncle loved to dance and was good at it. My uncle once took my mom on a ride from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. His face is on my face. The certificate notes his last known residence, but beyond a Google Maps tour, I can’t do much with this information yet.
Los Angeles, CA
I started with the hospital. Los Angeles County Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, or King/Drew as it was sometimes abbreviated, had earned the pejorative nickname of “Killer King” before it was shut down in 2007. The moniker and closure did not bode well. Nancy Pastor’s Politico article “How ‘Killer King’ became the hospital of the future” was the second link that came up in my initial search. Pastor writes:
The old King/Drew hospital opened in 1972 with the best intentions. Born out of the 1965 Watts race riots, which left 34 people dead and more than a 1,000 injured in an area that had no medical facility, the King hospital and its affiliated medical school, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, served as a source of pride for the neighborhood just south of Watts, which at the time was predominantly African-American. It was named after two African-American icons – King, the civil rights leader, and Drew, a pioneering physician who developed blood banks.
In my research on King/Drew, it seems that the center’s Black origins, Black staff, and Black constituencies were cause for celebration, and were cited as complicating factors in holding medical personnel accountable for their mistakes and wrongdoings. County officials largely avoided criticizing the management of the hospital; they did not want to be accused of racism. The long debate about improving the center can be boiled down to this: Black and Brown communities have long been denied life-giving and preserving resources. King/Drew served systematically neglected communities, and critiques of the institution were perceived to threaten its existence. We will take, and are proud of, what we have, folks seemed to say, rather than have nothing at all.
I have no doubt the hospital served many of its constituencies. People also died there who did not have to.
The Los Angeles Times investigated a series of horrifying events at the hospital that seemed to stem from the Center’s inception in 1972. The Pulitzer-prize winning series documented fiscal mismanagement, drug-addicted hospital employees, irresponsible and perpetually late doctors, and lawsuits – so many lawsuits.
The series featured stories from around the time of my uncle’s hospitalization and ultimate death. In 1989, a shooting victim’s throat was mistakenly slit by trauma surgeons. In 1992, a deputy who had been shot on the job was admitted to the hospital. He was awake when admitted and was joking with nurses. Attending physicians mistakenly administered a lethal combination of medication intravenously and he died two days later.7 In 1994, a woman went in for a routine hysterectomy and was transfused with blood from a donor who had AIDS.8
It’s risky, verging on specious, to make claims about my uncle’s experiences at King/Drew from these events. I don’t have enough information about his experiences yet, and he is not alive to provide testimony. But the portrait in my head has brought me to tears, and I cannot help but wonder how an already struggling hospital managed a pandemic that disproportionately affected marginalized people. I cannot help the overwhelming sense of grief as I learn more about my uncle’s final days in a hospital that came to symbolize centuries of systemic failure to care for communities of color. Systemic and familial neglect seem to have compounded in my uncle’s final months and if he was alone, as it seems he might have been, two months is a very, very long time to die.
If procedure was followed by the LA County Crematory/Cemetery, and I have no doubt it was, his remains would have been kept for 3 years (I think his ashes, but I am not sure) before being buried in a mass grave, by year, in a plot of land in a state I have never visited. I would have been 2 years old when he died, and between 5 and 6 when he was buried. As far as I know, no effort, up until now, has been made to find him. To claim him. In moments of acute resentment and mourning that punctuate this empty space and time while I shelter in place, I ask silently to my family, how could you, how could you, how could you?
I don’t know how to mourn a person I have never met, nor how to forgive decades of secrecy, shame, and the abandonment of a favorite son. I keep my uncle’s death certificate on my desk so I can look at it and remember him every day.
I ask myself: what debt do we owe the dead and disappeared? Perhaps, debt is the wrong framing. Perhaps, this story is my uncle’s bequest to me.
In this year of upheaval, with shame, guilt, masks, sanitizer, and various ways to cope with mortality and isolation, I have largely maintained quarantine, leaving my home only for groceries and delaying all travel. When I can, Uncle, Tío, I will make my way out to you in Los Angeles. I will see where you lived, I will try to find people who knew you, and I will try to imagine moments of joy and light in your life in contrast to what my knowledge of King/Drew has left me with. I will sob at your grave, for you, and the other unclaimed dead who rest with you. I will try to forgive the legacies of hatred and shame that kept us apart for so long, for forever. I will take the ride you took years ago with my mother, from L.A. to Santa Barbara.
It looks beautiful there.
1 Nicaraguan diasporas are stunningly underrepresented, but work by Luciano Baracco (The Historical Roots of Autonomy in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, 2016), Marco A. Mojica ( “Los Nicaraguenses en Miami: Forjando una Politica Transnacional,” 2008), and Tatiana Arguello “War and Its Implications for Central American-American Literature” (2018) have provided invaluable insight into the Sandinista Revolution and socioeconomic and political aftershocks of this history.
2 Indigenous populations have been traced in the rich, biodiverse region from as early as 12,000 B.C. Christopher Columbus invaded present-day Nicaragua during his fourth voyage to a world new to him in 1502, ushering in a wave of invasions from Spanish conquistadors that decimated the indigenous population through a potent combination of murder, war, and disease. Among these conquistadors was Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who formally colonized Nicaragua in 1529; the Nicaraguan currency, córdobas, are his namesake. At the time of my trip, the conversion rate was about 34 córdobas per 1 U.S. dollar.
3 Michel Gobat’s Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua under U.S. Imperial Rule explores legacies of intervention, control, and meddling in Nicaraguan political and economic affairs. He begins his book: “U.S. intervention has marked few nations as profoundly as Nicaragua.”
4 I will not be disclosing my uncle’s identity here. He exists to me in this photo, my mother’s stories, and through state records through which I uncovered and hope to uncover his life and the events surrounding his death. He cannot authorize the telling of this story, and in death, that authority and privacy is all I can give him.
5 According to a Los Angeles Times article published in 2014 (“At L.A. County cemetery, unclaimed dead await a final resting place”), this is where the remains of the unclaimed dead are laid to rest.
6 See Ornstein and Landberg’s reporting in “Deadly errors and politics betray a hospital’s promise” originally published in the Los Angeles Times on December 5, 2004.
7 See Ornstein and Landberg’s reporting in “Deadly errors and politics betray a hospital’s promise” originally published in the Los Angeles Times on December 5, 2004.
8 See Weber and Ornstein’s reporting in “One doctor’s long trail of dangerous mistakes” originally published in the Los Angeles Times on December 7, 2004.