"Julio died last week", my aunt said.
"Since you are in Miami, would you like to come by and help me with his papers? You can take his personal photograph stash if you want".
Julio Santana, whose brother was married to my aunt, was someone I barely knew. As a child, my parents would frequent his fancy parties. I would sit in a corner, eat wonderful food, and see all the glamorous couples dance, kiss, smoke, and eat cuban delicacies. Slowly, I would enter a hazy zone that would end in my falling asleep. As I grew up, my parents kept me away from him. He was gay, and thus, not a good influence.
I rarely saw Uncle Julio afterwards.
Now, 35 years later, as I walked, camera in hand, into this frayed but glamorous house, all these memories arose from the few times I entered this colorful world of fantasy and sultriness. I managed to take some interior shots of these "Cuban Baroque" style spaces before my aunt started regaling me with stories of his life: In the 1950's Julio had been a magician on board the SS Florida, a ferry that transported American tourists between Havana and Miami.
But after Castro took power in 1958, the SS Florida ceased traveling to Havana harbour, dropping off the American gamblers that would arrive for fun and excitement. Julio settled in Miami, and worked as a waiter at the big Miami Beach resorts. He did this for the rest of his life, his modest but fancy house becoming the center of his social butterfly existence.
As I was putting his stacks of photos in order, looking at his parties, his fancy, glamorous friends and his annual trips to NYC and Europe, my aunt dropped a loaded statement on me:
"You know, if it hadn't been for Julio, most of us wouldn't be here"
"Why?", I asked. "Well, as the first one to leave Cuba after Castro took over, he lived in a rented room for years. Every time he saved $500, he would get us an exit visa, eventually getting everybody out."
As a gay man, I never felt more proud of a family member as I did that day.