Ttwo years ago filmmaker Raquel Cepeda started looking for cassettes. Specifically, she was looking for remaining images of 80 blocks of Tiffany, a 1979 documentary about two gangs in the South Bronx: the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls. Cepeda was researching the life of former “First Lady” of the Skulls Lorine Padilla. But the film had long been MIA – never released commercially, it wasn’t available on DVD until 2010 – and the pictures even more so. The production company, a subsidiary of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, felt the tapes were lost. Much like the director of the film, Gary Weis. “I don’t know what happened to them. It’s somewhere in a warehouse, ”he told her. “We didn’t mark them.”
By chance, Cepeda ran into a former Broadway Video employee who spotted boxes next to Lorne Michaels’ old furniture in a Connecticut warehouse. When Cepeda got out in the car and searched the old sofas, she found dozens of cardboard bins – most of them dusty and disheveled, clearly intact for years. The company had agreed to release a single reel to see if any footage was salvageable. “I saw a box without a label,” Cepeda recalls. “It was like any other box. It didn’t even look good when I opened it, but I said, I’ll take this one.
Archival footage Cepeda found on this reel – the only one in the warehouse that featured Padilla – appear to be fully restored in his documentary, La Madrina: The Wild Life of Lorine Padilla, which made its virtual debut at the DOC NYC festival on Wednesday and will run through November 19. The uncovered scenes of Padilla’s mid-1970s New York life captured on 16mm film are worth seeing on their own. But the 82-minute film, which follows the First Lady from her time in the Skulls to her work as a community organizer, operates something like the search for Cepeda, tracing the female members of the Skulls who were still there, but the Mostly overlooked – sometimes to their advantage. “When I was there, you didn’t have any policewomen,” Padilla says. “So the women held the guns because the cops only arrested the men. We would continue to walk. The male cops couldn’t search us.
“… the women held the guns because the cops only arrested the men. We would continue to walk. The male cops couldn’t search us.“
The film functions as a piece of observational journalism – shaped not by storytelling, but by memories of Padilla. The result is a patchwork of scenes, partial memory, history and archives. Without naming it outright, La Madrina dialogues with documentaries like 80 blocks of Tiffany who took gang life from the 1970s, in its explicit effort to fill in what they often left out, both by focusing on female members and highlighting the material conditions that drove them to to join. “You have to look where these children are coming from,” Padilla says in a section of the archive tape that Cepeda found. “Just don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life. I will go to jail for the rest of my life. I’m going to take drugs. You know, I think I’m gonna join a gang. “
Cepeda traces Padilla’s path to the Wild Skulls, made up mostly of Puerto Rican and black members – including her abusive relationship with the gang’s founder, Felipe “Blackie” Mercado – but never makes it the film’s sole focus. In early interviews, Padilla describes growing up when, as Howard Cosell first said in the 1977 World Series, the Bronx was on fire. “While I was on the street, I walked past buildings that were on fire and that didn’t mean anything,” Padilla says. “It didn’t bother me.”
After property values plummeted in the economically stagnant 1970s, the city’s bureaucracy cut off countless public services in the Bronx, including half a dozen firefighters. The apartments have emptied – Padilla grew up in the only occupied house in a 50-unit building – and the owners have adopted a culture of arson, paying local children to burn down their properties.
“When you have a 13 year old who lives in an apartment where there is no heating, no hot water, barely food on the table, and you offer him three, four, five cents dollars is a lot of money, right? Padilla said. “So yes, I took it.”
The second half of the film focuses on Padilla’s turn towards activism. As Padilla gained authority in the Skulls, she also read leftist texts and pamphlets from the Black Panthers and Young Lords. A decade after she burned buildings down, she was rebuilding them – in collaboration with Father Louis Gigante, a Catholic priest and founder of the South East Bronx Community Organization, a Section 8 housing program that has built more than 1,000 subsidized apartments in the 1980s.
From there, the sphere of its influence widened. Around the same time, Padilla left her marriage and became a social worker, specializing in domestic violence. Later, when her brother died of AIDS, she advocated for the rights of prisoners living with HIV, joining aid groups that made home visits for patients and their families.
The film resists engaging in some of the more messy aspects of Padilla’s activism, slipping on the fact that Gigante’s two brothers, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Mario Gigante, were prominent in the family of the Genoese crime. He then defended his brothers, insisting that the Mafia was “an anti-Italian stereotype created by the media and the police”. The tenants of the buildings he helped build then organized themselves against him, accusing him of maintaining the same miserable conditions he had once insulted himself against.
Further complications emerge in the closing moments of the film exploring Padilla’s anti-gun advocacy, brought on after her grandson was shot at a playground. Her solution, which she pressured the New York State Assembly to introduce, would alarm some criminal justice organizers: implement mandatory minimum sentences of up to 25 years for discharge firearms near playgrounds (the bill was not passed). At one point, a lawmaker admits that the bill would likely increase mass incarceration, but the analysis ends there.
These complications, however, are counterbalanced by Cepeda’s obvious obsession and affection for her subject. “I wanted to stress that you don’t have to be an elite, an elitist, to have social capital or money to be aware, to make a change in your community,” Cepeda says. The goal, she wrote in her artist’s statement, was to make “a more layered and realistic depiction of vida on the margins.”
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