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He went looking for his uncle — and ended up seeking forgiveness at a mass grave

The Hart Island public cemetery in New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Radio Diaries
The Hart Island public cemetery in New York.

This is the fourth story in The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island series from Radio Diaries. You can listen to the next installment on All Things Considered next Monday, and read and listen to previous stories in the series here.

Angel Irizarry is a former detective who worked on missing persons cases. In 2021, he set out on a personal investigation: to track down his uncle Cesar, who had been estranged from his family for decades.

Irizarry's search was triggered by the death of his beloved grandfather — Cesar's father — who died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Irizarry wanted to find Cesar and tell him the news. So he plugged what little information he knew about his uncle into a database, found an address in the Bronx, and asked a relative to stop by.

But when the relative reported back, she had disappointing news: Cesar had died.

Uncle Cesar had been a shadowy but intriguing figure to Irizarry since his early childhood. Irizarry had seen him only once, when he was about six or seven years old. In his memory, he was playing on the floor at his grandparents' house when a tall, dark gentleman appeared at the door.

"I looked and was like, who the heck are you?" Irizarry remembers. The man looked like Irizarry's father — close to a spitting image — but Irizarry had never seen him before. Irizarry went to his father, who told him the man was his brother and that his name was Cesar.

After that, Irizarry never saw Cesar again.

Cesar Irizarry, right, with his father and stepmother in New York City in the 1970s.
/ Angel Irizarry
Angel Irizarry
Cesar Irizarry, right, with his father and stepmother in New York City in the 1970s.

That brief encounter triggered a curiosity in Irizarry that would persist for years. But whenever he asked his relatives about his uncle, he was met with evasive answers or silence. Irizarry remembers looking through old family photos as a child, pointing out Cesar, and asking, "Who's this guy?"

"People would say, 'That's nobody,'" he says.

Irizarry's father finally explained to him that, in his teens and early twenties, his brother had fallen in with a rough crowd that would drink a lot, and that he developed an alcohol use disorder. When he was drunk, he said, Cesar would sometimes become violent.

One day, his father told him, Cesar showed up drunk at their father's home, asking for money. Their father got angry, and Cesar punched him. Then their father told Cesar that he was banished from the family.

This altercation, Irizarry was told, triggered the long estrangement.

Irizarry started relating to his uncle as he entered his own teenage years, when he started having troubles of his own involving gangs, drugs and alcohol. At one point, he was kicked out of the house.

"I was like, 'Well, I can see how people would get banished, because I feel like that's kind of like what's happening to me,'" he says.

Irizarry turned his life around as a young man, joining the Marine Corps and then becoming a police officer and detective. Now, at age 45, he is married with children and grandchildren, and is an observant Christian. He attributes his success to the family members who stood by his side during his troubled years, and this made him want to extend that same grace to his uncle Cesar.

"He was a man who needed to be forgiven just like I need to be forgiven," he says.

When he first set out to find Cesar, Irizarry had hoped to bring him back into the family. But after learning he was gone, he pivoted — to try to learn what had become of his life, how he died and where his body had been laid to rest.

In June 2023, Irizarry traveled from his home in Virginia to New York City, to meet Cesar's former roommate, William Calderón. Calderón, who is also 45, lives in an apartment in the Bronx with his mother, and Cesar had rented a room from them for the last several years of his life.

Calderón told Irizarry that Cesar's struggles with alcohol had persisted over the years. In fact, early in their time living together, his drinking had caused problems between them, and Cesar decided to go to rehab. When he returned, he was sober for almost a year, but then started drinking again.

Despite this, Calderón said, he was a responsible roommate, and they developed a close relationship. Cesar didn't work, and the men spent many hours talking. Calderón says Cesar spoke often of his estranged family. "He said he knew he was the one who messed up with his family, and he was the one who strayed away," Calderón told Irizarry through an interpreter.

The day Cesar died, Calderón said he'd gone to a nearby park to drink, and was soon unable to stand. Someone in the park called an ambulance. Calderón later got a call from a hospital and was told that Cesar's organs were failing and that he didn't have much time left. The doctor offered to let Calderón speak to Cesar over the phone.

"I told him, 'Cesar, remember there's a God and that I'm with you,'" Calderón said. "And I couldn't continue speaking with him because I started tearing up, and I couldn't say anything else." The doctor told Calderón that Cesar moved his hand as he spoke.

"This whole situation really shows you that time is short and you don't have time to hold grudges," Irizarry told Calderón.

"Let me tell you something that might give you some peace," Calderón said. "He wasn't with his own family, but I can tell you that he was loved. While he lived here, he had that love of a family."

In fact, Calderón said, Cesar would tell him and his mother, "You're my family."

Angel Irizarry outside the last apartment building where his uncle Cesar lived before he died, after speaking with Cesar's former roommate in June 2023.
/ Alissa Escarce/Radio Diaries
Alissa Escarce/Radio Diaries
Angel Irizarry outside the last apartment building where his uncle Cesar lived before he died, after speaking with Cesar's former roommate in June 2023.

Calderón said Cesar had told him to let the government deal with his body when he died. He didn't know where Cesar was buried.

Irizarry learned that his uncle was buried on Hart Island, America's largest public cemetery, after reaching out to Missing Them, a COVID-19 memorial and journalism project of the nonprofit newsroom The City. Irizarry had initially believed that his uncle died of the coronavirus, though that later proved not to be the case.

More than a million people are buried on Hart Island, and most end up there because their families don't claim their bodies after they die. Stories of estrangement are not uncommon.

The marker indicating the mass grave where Cesar Irizarry is buried on Hart Island.
/ Angel Irizarry
Angel Irizarry
The marker indicating the mass grave where Cesar Irizarry is buried on Hart Island.

Irizarry decided to visit the island with his father, to see where Cesar had been laid to rest. Standing in the open field above the mass grave numbered 412, he spoke to his uncle directly.

"Uncle Cesar, we're here," he said. He told Cesar that he wished he'd gotten to spend time with him, but that he'd never forgotten about him.

"Everything that we have done as a family against you, we ask for forgiveness," he told his uncle.

"And everything that you have done against us, we forgive you."

This story was produced by Alissa Escarce of Radio Diaries, Daniel A. Gross and Tyler Brady. It was edited by Joe Richman, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Interpretation by Ramon Mendez.

The story was reported in collaboration with Missing Them, a project of the nonprofit newsroom The City. Thanks to Editor Anjali Tsui. Missing Them is supported, in part, by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University.

Thanks also to Nellie Gilles, Mycah Hazel and Lena Engelstein of Radio Diaries.

This story is the fourth in a series called The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island. You can find other stories from Hart Island on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alissa Escarce
Daniel A. Gross
Tyler Brady