"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 stash of personal photographs 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 croquetas, and observe the glamorous couples dance, kiss, smoke, and eat cuban food. Slowly, in the din of La Lupe singing ballads of loss and disrespect, I would enter a hazy zone that would lull me to sleep.
As I grew up, my parents subconsciously 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 into this frayed but glamorous house, all these memories arose from the few times I entered his colorful world of fantasy and sultriness. I started snapping away, making images of these "Cuban Baroque" spaces and realizing that I was capturing part of my childhood as well.
Soon enough, 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 1959, the SS Florida ceased traveling to Cuba.
Julio fled Havana and settled in Miami, working as a waiter at the Carillon Hotel. He did this for the rest of his life, his modest but fancy house becoming the center of his social existence.
As I was putting his stacks of old photos in order, looking at the parties, his artistic, 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 after Castro took over, he lived in a rented room for years. But every time he saved money, 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.
The "Pajarito" was actually the "Macho de la Pelicula".
Julio's House, the book, was published by KGP+ NY in 2016. To purchase, click here.