"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 croquettes, and observe the glamorous couples dance, kiss, smoke, and eat.
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 older, my parents subconsciously kept me away from him. He was gay, and thus, not a good influence on the kids.
I rarely saw Uncle Julio afterwards.
Now, 35 years later, as I walked into his frayed but glamorous house, all these memories arose from the times I entered this colorful world of fantasy and sultriness.
I started taking pictures, 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. He did this for many years, supporting his mother and sisters.
But after the revolution 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. He saved his money, and would buy 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**.
*Pajarito (little bird) is a cuban pejorative term for a gay man
** Macho de La Pelicula (manly movie protagonist) is a common cuban term for the hero in a story.
Julio's House, the book, was published by KGP+ NY in 2016. To purchase, click here.