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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

The Unmarked Graveyard: Angel Garcia

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today is the final installment of our series The Unmarked Graveyard from Radio Diaries, untangling mysteries from America's largest public cemetery.

SUSAN HURLBURT: Neil Harris was last seen on December 12, 2014.

ALI MAHMOUD: You can't help but wonder what her life has been.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Novelist and author of "Happy Island," Ms. Dawn Powell.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So many questions, man. So many questions.

DETROW: Hart Island is a narrow strip of land off the coast of the Bronx where over a million people are buried in mass graves with no headstones or plaques. When New York City gets hit hard by an epidemic, like the flu of 1918 or, more recently, COVID, Hart Island gets hit hard, too. During the 1980s, that epidemic was AIDS. More than 100,000 people would eventually die because of AIDS in New York City alone. Many were buried on Hart Island, and some of their families never found out what happened to them. Radio Diaries brings us one of their stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN BLOWING)

ANNETTE VEGA: Oh, my God. That's the island. It's crazy. There's not a lot of land for that many people to be buried. At first, I thought it was eerie. But it's kind of pretty 'cause the fog just, like, erases the city. It's just so beautiful. It's nicer than I thought.

My name is Annette Vega. I'm a registered nurse, and I am years old. I grew up in the Bronx. I lived with two of my younger sisters and my mom and my dad. Looking back, it was a great childhood. So when I was about 7 or 8, I found out that my dad wasn't my biological father. That's the first time I came to know that there was someone else out there. This is a picture of my biological father, Angel Garcia. He looks like he's in his 30s, and he has a long mustache and a DA - hair that's kind of brushed back. And I'm like, who was this person? Why hasn't he been in my life? Could he be looking for me?

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

VEGA: I just felt a persistent urge to find out.

JEANNE ORTIZ: Hello?

VEGA: Hey, Mom.

ORTIZ: Hi, Annette.

VEGA: Hi. So I wanted to ask you some questions, if you don't mind.

ORTIZ: Yeah. Go right ahead.

VEGA: OK. The questions are related to Angel Garcia, who's my biological father.

ORTIZ: No kidding.

VEGA: No kid - all right, Mother. So what do you remember about him?

ORTIZ: He was very sweet. He was good to me. He knew he was good-looking, and he was sure of himself. And who knows? He had this cologne. Oh, my God. It was the best cologne ever. He left that cologne in my drawer, and I used to spray it...

VEGA: My mom had me at 16. I was a mistake - not a mistake but, you know, I wasn't a planned pregnancy, you know? She was a teenager growing up in the Bronx. And there was a young man. Everyone called him Machu. You know, they had a little summer romance. He'd be working in the auto body shop, and she'd go home happily with grease on her backside of her shorts. And I'm like, Mom.

ORTIZ: He used to love to drive. He used to steal cars. And I think he used to steal cars just for the fun of it.

VEGA: Wow.

ORTIZ: He was a bad boy. So I guess maybe I was into bad boys. Who knows?

(LAUGHTER)

VEGA: Aren't we all? Do you remember the last time you guys saw each other?

ORTIZ: I seen him after I gave birth to you. We hooked up again, and then he used to pick you up, like, and talk to you. And we used to go on car rides with you and everything like that. And then he disappeared one day, and I went to his job, and they told me no, that there was another woman looking for him and all that. So I never went back, and I never looked for him again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEGA: I remember my mom telling me he was kind of a tough guy, and she thought that he was in a gang.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ROAD WARRIORS: THE BIKER BROTHERHOOD")

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: The South Bronx, one of New York City's roughest neighborhoods and, since the mid-'60s, home to an outlaw motorcycle gang who call themselves the Ching-A-Lings.

VEGA: I remember hearing about the Ching-A-Lings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

VEGA: They were a notorious motorcycle gang that people were fearful of. I thought he might be with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KURTIS: So what does it mean to be a Ching-A-Ling?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The religion we got is the Ching-A-Ling religion (laughter). That's the only religion we have. Ride our bikes, party, hang out. This is like a family thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

VEGA: So I literally walked up to the Ching-A-Ling's house in the Bronx. It's, like, painted in black and, you know, motorcycles all around. And a guy comes out looking rough. He comes over, he talks to me, and I tell him I'm trying to find my father. They call him Machu. He has green eyes. Oh, I haven't seen that dude in years. Another woman comes out and she's, you know, out on the stoop having a cigarette, and she goes, I remember him. I remember one night we were partying really hard. I got so messed up, and he helped carry me upstairs to the bedroom. That man could have done anything to me, and he put me in the bed and put a blanket on me and left. Nice guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEGA: They wished me luck. They said, I hope you find him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEGA: I felt kind of silly looking for so long without a real reason as to why I was looking for him. I didn't need him to be my father, but I still really wanted to find him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEGA: There were thousands of questions. Where's his family? Do I have brothers? Do I have sisters? Do I have a grandmother? Do I have an aunt? Where's his people?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEGA: It was late January. I got a message from someone on Ancestry who gave me names. I used the white pages, I used Facebook and I sent them messages. That evening, my phone rings. I hear this woman crying, emotional. She said, Annette, (speaking Spanish) - all this time, my niece, I've been looking for you. I was like, you have? You know about me?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)

MIRIAM GARCIA: Hola.

VEGA: Hi, Titi. (Speaking Spanish).

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

So I'm here. I arrived at my titi's house. My titi, Miriam, my father's sister. It's a really pretty home.

(Speaking Spanish).

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: Oh, OK.

M GARCIA: My name is Miriam. Miriam Garcia. My brother is Angel.

VEGA: Angel is your brother. He was younger than you or older than you?

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: Her younger brother. He only went to sixth grade. But there was something about him that he could just pick up things. Like, he learned how to work on cars. He can take a car that was destroyed and make it look like new.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: Angel was a good man, but he had a really, really hard life.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: There was issues in the home growing up because their father was an alcoholic

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: And my father went to the streets, and he started using drugs at the age of 13.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: He was arrested and in prison from selling drugs.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: But it wasn't a - like a traditional prison. It was like a camp.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: So she said in 1985 or '86, police came to their house to tell them that he escaped.

They don't know how he did it, and - someone had to have helped him (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRELI SNOW'S "THE SUN WILL RISE")

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: She said she received a phone call from him in the summer of 1989, that he was very sick with pneumonia, and he wanted to come home.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: Her and her husband went to New York.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: They walked through the streets looking for him.

M GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VEGA: But she never heard from him again. She hasn't seen him in 30 years. She said, I don't think he's alive.

OK. So this is what I find out. I received an autopsy report, and I actually have it with me. And it says Angel Garcia died August 3, 1989, at 11 p.m., 37 years old. Immediate cause of death - pneumonia due to AIDS as a consequence of chronic intravenous narcotism - IV drug abuser. It says he was buried in a place called Hart Island. People are buried there - people with no ID on them, people who haven't been claimed. And then I spoke to Titi Miriam. We went through it together, and she put it down, and she said, this is him. You found your father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ANGEL GARCIA: All right.

VEGA: What's up? Hi.

A GARCIA: Nice to finally meet you.

VEGA: Yes. Me too. I can't believe I'm standing here with my brother. Like, it's not - look, he's so cute. Look at him (laughter).

A GARCIA: Thank you.

VEGA: I'm like, this is so nice.

So I found out that I had a brother named Angel. I've never met him. He also didn't know where our father was.

A GARCIA: Block 201, Section 3.

VEGA: Right there - 201, grave 27.

A GARCIA: Yeah.

VEGA: So this is the plot where Angel was buried.

A GARCIA: Our dad.

VEGA: Our dad. Wow.

A GARCIA: I was always his biggest fan - like, rooting for him.

VEGA: Yeah.

A GARCIA: I must have been, like, 7 years old. And we went to the prison to visit him. And he gave me, like, a boat made out of, like, wood. And that's the last time that I seen him. Well, now I know where he's buried.

VEGA: The people that loved my father, whether it's my brother, my aunt, my cousins, everyone talks about how he was such a good guy. I think they were afraid to tell me the bad stuff, whether it's being in a gang or being in prison, being an IV drug abuser. You know, Angel was not an angel, but it's who he is. I mean, it's not a complete story without all of it.

VEGA: I'm putting flowers here at his grave - just planting and marking 'cause he's here. He's not lost.

A GARCIA: I'm happy to see where he lays and to, like, tell him, like, Annette found you. She found us, and we're here. And now we know where you are.

DETROW: That was Annette Vega and her brother, Angel Garcia. And a final note, after more than a century of Hart Island being mostly off limits, the New York City Parks Department started hosting public tours this week. This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries. Hear all eight episodes of The Unmarked Graveyard on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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