Trawling in Silences: Finding My Uncle, From Pandemic-to-Pandemic
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.