Two years ago, a former detective set out to track down an uncle who’d been estranged for decades. But early in his search he made a disappointing discovery — his uncle Cesar Irizarry had died.
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Hart Island is a mile-long strip of land in the waters off of New York City. Since 1869, more than a million people have been buried there in mass graves with no headstones. Today we continue a series from Radio Diaries called The Unmarked Graveyard. Each story untangles mysteries about people buried in America’s largest public cemetery.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Neil Harris was last seen in Inwood, N.Y., on December 12.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There were thousands of questions. Where’s his people?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You can’t help but wonder what her life has been.
SUMMERS: Two years ago, a former detective named Angel Irizarry set out on a personal investigation to track down an uncle who’d been missing from his family for decades. But early in his search, he discovered that his uncle, Cesar, had died. This is his story.
ANGEL IRIZARRY: All right. This is Angel Irizarry. I just received the death certificate of my Uncle Cesar.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)
IRIZARRY: It says the date of death was July 19, 2020, which would have made Uncle Cesar 64 years old. And it says place of disposition is city cemetery at Hart Island. Everything else pretty much says unknown. The usual occupation, unknown, and parents are unknown. But the truth of the matter is he does have family, and he did have family.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
IRIZARRY: Uncle Cesar was estranged from our family I would say about 40 to 50 years. I’m 45 years old, and I only seen him one time. I think I was probably about 6 or 7, sitting on the floor playing with toys at my grandparents’ house. And then there was this tall, dark gentleman standing at the door. I looked and was like, who the heck are you? You know, you look like my dad – close to a spitting image – and I have never seen you before. I think I went to my dad and was like, you know, who is this guy? My dad was like, that’s your Uncle Cesar. But after that, I never seen him again.
From that point forward, I was asking questions like, well, where is he? How come I don’t see this guy? My aunts and even my grandparents wouldn’t want to speak a word of who Uncle Cesar was. My father did finally sit me down and told me that when Uncle Cesar was about 21, 22, he was hanging out with a very bad crowd who used to drink a lot. One day he came to the house asking my grandfather for money, and my grandfather was very mad at him because he was drunk. And Uncle Cesar punched my grandfather, and then my grandfather told him that he was banished from the family forever.
It’s sad, man, sad. I know it’s sad for me. I start, you know, relating to him more as a teenager. I was getting into some things that have to do with gangs, drugs, alcohol, to the point that I got kicked out of my house. But I became the man that I am now because of my father and the family who stood by my side. And I believe that Uncle Cesar, he was a man who needed to be forgiven, just like I need to be forgiven. And now that he’s gone, I started looking to see if anyone knew him, someone who can give me a little bit of insight on how he died but also how he lived.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLICKING)
IRIZARRY: OK, so today me and my wife, we just drove from Virginia to the Bronx, N.Y. We’re going to the last place where Cesar lived before he passed. We were able to locate his roommate who he lived with.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
IRIZARRY: Hi. Nice to meet you.
WILLIAM CALDERON: Yeah, yeah. (Speaking Spanish).
IRIZARRY: So I am the nephew of Cesar Irizarry.
CALDERON: (Through interpreter) My name is William Calderon. I lived with Cesar, I think, five, six, seven years. My mom and I – we rent out rooms so we can make rent. And he came and rented out a small room.
IRIZARRY: Would you consider him a good man?
CALDERON: (Through interpreter) Of course – great person. The only thing is that when he started drinking, he would become someone else. But, you know, he was good to me and my mom. We would talk. We would chat. He would talk to me about his family. He would say that he had a family, but he wasn’t in touch with any of them. And he said he knew he was the one who messed up with his family, and he was the one that strayed away.
IRIZARRY: Did he pass away in this house? Do you know when he passed?
CALDERON: (Through interpreter) I remember it like it was today. It was July 4, and he went out, as usual, to drink. And then from the park, they called the ambulance ’cause he couldn’t stand up or walk or handle himself. When I got the call from the hospital, I was told his organs started failing. They asked me if I wanted to say anything to him over the phone, and I told him, Cesar, remember there’s a God and that I’m with you. And I couldn’t continue speaking with him because I started tearing up, and I couldn’t say anything else.
IRIZARRY: That’s beautiful, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That’s beautiful.
IRIZARRY: This whole situation really shows you that time is short and you don’t have time to hold grudges.
CALDERON: (Through interpreter) Let me tell you something that might give you some peace. He wasn’t with his own family, but I can tell you that he was loved. He would even tell us, my mom and I, you’re my family. When he passed away, they called me from the hospital asking, what should they do with his body? And I told them that he himself, while he was alive, told me – for the government to take care of it. I don’t even know where they buried him.
IRIZARRY: Test one, two, one, two. We are here at the beginning of the ferry to go to Hart Island.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN HONKING)
IRIZARRY: He’s more alive to me now. He’s more alive to me now because I walked in the place where he walked. I talked to the people he talked to.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah, this is your spot.
IRIZARRY: Oh, this is it.
And I wanted to speak with him.
Well, Uncle Cesar, we’re here. I wish I could have known you more, but I never forgot about you. And everything that we have done as a family against you, we ask for forgiveness. And everything that you have done against us, we forgive you. Until we meet again, Uncle Cesar. God bless you, (speaking Spanish). In Jesus’ name, amen.
SUMMERS: This story was produced by Alissa Escarce, Daniel Gross, Tyler Brady and the team at Radio Diaries. To hear more stories from The Unmarked Graveyard, visit the Radio Diaries podcast.
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