Cherished Photo Opens Door to an Immigrant Family’s Past

A mysterious photo links a man to the older brother he never knew.

The ill-fated brother of author Gaspar González and his mystery date on prom night, 1967.
The ill-fated brother of author Gaspar González and his mystery date on prom night, 1967.
Photo courtesy of Gaspar González.

Gaspar González never knew his half brother, Nelson Ramírez, who died while serving in Vietnam in 1968, weeks before González was born.

When González was a boy, his family, which had emigrated from Cuba, avoided talking about his ill-fated half-brother. Ever curious, González filled in the gaps in Ramírez’s brief life story by gazing at a handful of photos carefully tucked away in his parents’ bedroom.

One photo in particular intrigued González. In the photo, a carefully groomed Ramírez—a graduate of Memorial High School in West New York—strikes a stiff but noble pose with his prom date at the Manor in West Orange. González pocketed a copy of the snapshot and carried it with him for nearly 20 years, always wondering: Who is the girl in the photo?

González eventually set aside the photo and embarked on a successful career as a journalist and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. But as Ramírez’s 64th birthday approached, the past ached to be found. On a whim, González typed his half brother’s name into Google. The search results changed everything.

A Hartford Courant article told the story of Marilda Gandara, a local leader who started the city’s annual Veterans Day Parade. In the piece, Gandara shared a memory about attending prom with a boy named Ramírez in 1967, shortly before he was killed in Vietnam.

“It was like a lightning bolt,” says González. “My mind immediately went back to the photo—I’m thinking, that must be her, it’s got to be.”

The article kick-started a two-year search by González into his family’s history—and resulted in his short work, The Girl in the Photo, released last year as a Kindle Single (Amazon’s platform to highlight novella-length nonfiction and long-form journalism).

The Girl in the Photo documents González’s journey through his family’s past. It tracks his mother’s early life—including her escape from Cuba and her struggle to unite with her two sons in New Jersey. It also explores the lives of several men who served with Ramírez in Vietnam, exposing hardships long forgotten. And it takes the reader back to the moment when González finally met the girl in the photo.

“Writing the single, finding those guys and meeting Marilda was a way for me to kind of feel like I had done everything I could to make sense of this thing that had happened before I was born,” says González. “The fact that all of these people and details you thought were lost to history are actually out there if you just look hard enough—I thought, That’s kind of an interesting story.

The Girl in the Photo is one of 20 singles named Best of 2015 by Amazon; it is available in e-book form.

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