If you asked me about my tío Tito, I couldn’t tell you much.
We were close enough for me to memorize his unique “Ho Hoy” laugh and were distant enough for me to not have a single photo of us together.
I can tell you that he was my mom’s little brother. He used to be a street food vendor in Mexico with a reputation of selling deliciously dressed corn on the cob. And I know that his father used to beat him when he was little because Tito was unapologetically flamboyant and — perhaps the biggest source of his father’s anger — he was gay.
When Tito died last weekend surrounded by his sisters and my dad, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much of a mystery he was to a Mexican gay kid like me.
My dad never hit me. But I quickly caught on to the shame I brought him if I walked with my legs a little too close together, if I sat with the girls during family barbecues or if I laughed a little too much with a boy.
“You get mad when he talks to girls on the phone. You get mad when he talks to boys on the phone. What do you want him to do?” I remember my mom asking my dad in Spanish before coming to comfort me in my room on tough days when I tried to figure out who he wanted me to be.
The best and most effective solution was for me to stay quiet, and not talk or sit with girls or boys at family barbecues. If I was alone, there was no one to tell my dad about a feminine gesture I let slip out.
And having a relationship with my gay uncle? Forget it.
What if we laughed at the same thing? What if people realized we have something in common? What if Tito asked me about boys in front of my family? Sadly, it was best for me to avoid him, too, because of who he was. And because of who I didn’t want to be.
Now, as a 30-year-old gay uncle, I know he would have never put me through that situation. While others wondered why I suddenly became the quiet kid at age 5, Tito knew. He knew of the worst-case scenario that could come from ashamed macho parents.
So, yes. Tito was a mystery. How could he be so brave? How did he convince his traditional Mexican family to accept him — for better or for worse — for who he was? Could I ever be like him?
A few months before Tito died, I got the courage to tell my dad to his face that I am gay. It was right after he was making rude gay jokes. My statement was more of a reminder. Because he knew, too.
Five-year-old me could never bring myself to do that. Five-year-old Tito did it every day.
My dad and tías were fortunate to be with him on his deathbed. They were fortunate to cry with him as he said his goodbyes and apologized for moments of his life he wasn’t proud of. And they were lucky to have known the real him.
Tito also left me with an answer to a question I have always been scared to ask: Will my dad be by my side at a time I need him the most?
I can hear my tío Tito telling me, “If he was there for me, he will be there for you.”
Ismael Pérez is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.
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