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Teen's Hesitant Search for His True Identity

TV: 'POV' follows as he looks for his imprisoned mother and the reasons she gave him up.

July 27, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By all accounts, Ernesto Gomez Gomez was a happy boy growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. He did well in school, was popular with his classmates and played in the local Little League. But all that ended the day his parents took him aside and told him his whole life had been a lie.

His real name was Guillermo Morales, they told him. And he wasn't Mexican but rather a U.S. citizen, born in New York to a Puerto Rican freedom fighter who had been convicted of seditious conspiracy and imprisoned in the United States. Her son, she urged friends, must be smuggled out of the country for his own protection and raised in secret under another name, which is how he wound up in Mexico.

Heavy stuff for a 10-year-old.

And for five years, Ernesto tried to ignore his past. When that didn't work, he decided to confront it, setting off on an emotional quest in search of both his true identity and the mother who had abandoned him. His troubled journey of self-discovery will be told tonight at 10 on KCET-TV in "The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez," a striking self-portrait that not only explores the costs of profound political idealism in one family but that also touches on such issues as immigration, adoption, colonialism and love.

When Ernesto left Mexico for San Francisco to be near his mother, who is serving a 63-year sentence at the federal corrections institution in Dublin, Calif., he was confused and frightened, plagued by apprehension and riddled with self-doubt. For catharsis, he poured out his feelings to filmmakers Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, newfound friends who, at Ernesto's urging, filmed the sessions.

"With Ernesto, what you see in the film really does reflect what he went through," Ryan says. "When we started spending time with him, he was really a lost kid. He was angry and frustrated a lot of the time. He felt like he had made a big mistake. He shouldn't have come here, he should have stayed in Mexico.

"He went through feeling like he wished he'd never known. He was a child . . . struggling against feelings that for an adult would be torturous. And he was 15."

Yet despite the pain, confusion and anger, every Saturday morning Ernesto faithfully begged rides to the prison, about an hour southeast of San Francisco, to visit a mother he only recently learned he had.

That mother, Dylcia Pagan, was one of 13 members of a Puerto Rican nationalist movement sentenced in 1980 to between 35 and 105 years in prison in connection with a string of anti-government bombings. Her husband--Ernesto's father--was also arrested but escaped from police custody and fled to Cuba, where he still lives.

Out of options, Pagan left her 18-month-old son in the care of friends, who were instructed to spirit the boy out of the country as quickly as possible. Within weeks he was in northern Mexico, where he was given new parents and a new identity.

"The most difficult thing for me was to be separated from my son," Pagan, 53, said by phone from prison. "Having to give him up was the biggest sacrifice of my life, but I also knew that I wasn't about to risk his safety. I couldn't envision allowing my son to be out here and that the government would take him."

Nearly 19 years later, Ernesto still struggles to make sense of those words.

"I couldn't understand why she had done that," he says. "Why, if you have a baby, and you always wanted to have a baby and you felt you were prepared to have a baby--why you had to go out and do the things you did. I think we're still going to have to deal with it."

Dealing with that would be a lot easier if Ernesto's mother wasn't in prison. But her release isn't scheduled for 44 more years, a process the filmmakers hope their documentary will speed by focusing attention on increasing calls for a presidential pardon of the Puerto Rican nationalists.

The film, which took five years to complete, is airing nationally as part of PBS' 12-year-old "POV" series of documentaries with a point of view. And it's Ryan and Weimberg's view that Pagan should be free.

"As soon as we learned about this story, we wanted it out and wanted everyone to know about it, because we have this optimism that if people know, people will do something," Ryan says.

"This is a profound journalistic tradition: To get someone out of prison [to whom] you feel an injustice is being done," Weimberg adds. "There is sort of the fantasy that we all can change an injustice, right a wrong. Without a doubt, that was very important."

In the meantime, Ernesto continues to search for his identity. Is he Ernesto Gomez Gomez, the fun-loving Mexican boy who likes Aztec dancers and Cinco de Mayo? Or Guillermo Morales, the serious political activist who has come to adopt his mother's ideology, speaks a slurred Caribbean style of Spanish and struggles to find the rhythm in salsa music?

"I'm working on that," Ernesto says. "That has been the most confusing thing, you know, figuring out who I am and my nationality."

* "The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez," subtitled in Spanish, airs tonight at 10 on KCET-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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