‘The past does not define you’: a gang member turned activist looks back

"티his is a story about how the past does not define you,” says Lorine Padilla, community activist, mother and former “first lady” of the Savage Skulls gang, about a new documentary on her life. She speaks bluntly, and with an understated, yet undeniable strength that has come from a lifetime of asserting herself in inhospitable spaces. She continues: “It’s how one person making one small change in their community can inspire many to find strength in their voice. It’s also about the strength of women.”

La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla is absolutely a story about the strength of women, delving deeply into the female side of a South Bronx gang culture that has largely been eclipsed in the media by sensationalized visions of hyper-masculinity. It is the result of close collaboration between two exceptionally strong women: Padilla and Raquel Cepeda, a film-maker and journalist who also lived through many of the realities that Padilla shares as she tells her story. “I was compelled the minute I met Lorine to tell her story,” Cepeda says. “She reflects the archetype of the women who raised me.”

에 80 tense, drama-filled minutes Cepeda takes viewers into the unpredictable life that Padilla lived while growing up within South Bronx gang culture, and how she emerged to become an agent of change in the community that created her. It’s largely a story of resilience against incredible odds. 그의 동료와 가족에 따르면, Padilla runs through a list of the dozens of people she has personally known who have died, tallying the men and the women. She seems sobered and at a loss as she tries to come to grips with the fact of her own survival in the face of so much death.

Through archival footage, photographs and outtakes from Flyin’ Cut Sleeves – a three-decades-long documentary on Bronx culture that featured Padilla – as well as hours of interviews with the woman herself, Cepeda vividly evokes the era that the titular godmother lived through. Padilla’s reminiscences can be brutal: at one point she recalls baking a birthday cake for her mother as a child, only to have her mother smash it and throw it away. Another time she recalls her mother telling her: “You’re gonna be a bitch, because it was a bitch giving birth to you.” From a near-death bout with rheumatic heart disease to gang warfare, an abusive husband, and horrifying events that her close friends lived through, Padilla’s story verges on overwhelming.

아직, throughout these painful events, Cepeda is determined to go beneath the cliches and stereotypes of gang life to create a very honest portrait of Padilla, as well as a very feminist one. This provides a degree of balance and nuance that makes La Madrina’s harsh realities more complicated and interesting to engage with as a viewer. “Most stories documenting this culture tell it from a male point of view,” Cepeda says, “and they don’t give you a full picture and full story, aside from what people on the outside find sexy. I don’t see these [female] stories being told. Especially when it comes to the American Latino experience.”

Central to telling these stories is the connection between the film-maker and her subject, which helped to penetrate beneath Padilla’s many protective layers. Padilla explains: “When you put lights, cameras and all of that, it becomes more difficult for me to tell my story. But because of Raquel, it became a lot more comfortable for me. It was like sitting at a table and having tea and reminiscing about my life.” In addition to offering her presence as a way of helping Padilla open up, Cepeda also places her subject in a number of comfortable environments, from a back-patio gathering with her girlfriends to folding chairs in the bustling middle of her neighborhood. Frequently, in these friendly surroundings Padilla is swept up in the moment, offering insights into a less-protected, more free-flowing version of herself.

Although Padilla generally comes across with a forceful world-weariness that obscures more vulnerable sides, she also feels very authentic and searching, as though she trusts the film-maker and is doing her utmost to go to difficult places and tell a full story. Often, something emerges, seemingly in spite of herself. 예를 들어, while speaking on the work she has done with survivors of domestic violence, Padilla declares that “a woman should never be asked, ‘why didn’t you leave?'”, then lists the reasons a woman would stay with an abusive man: “economics, fear, 어린이, culture, religion, immigration, they’re undocumented.” She pauses for a moment of reflection then thoughtfully adds: “There’s also love, you really think you love this man.” Watching her deliver this litany, it seems as though she’s speaking it to herself as much as anyone, still trying to forgive herself for the time she spent with her abusive first husband, questioning how the love could have felt so real. The weight of this question is underscored elsewhere in the film, when Padilla tells Cepeda that when she finally left her first husband, “my life began”.

These kinds of moments speak to the intense connection between film-maker and subject. “It’s kind of shocking to meet somebody from the hood,” says Cepeda, “of a similar experience and shared values, so it was kind of effortless.” Padilla rushes in to add: “Like meeting your tía [aunt].” Cepeda continues: "응, like your tía. It was very effortless. In many ways, the more I got to know her, the more I got to know myself, and I felt like kismet was a work. I had more confirmation that I was supposed to tell this story.”

Undoubtedly, Cepeda is the right film-maker to tell Padilla’s story, in part because these women recognize each other as authentic insiders who share a belief in the vital importance of their community. After moving on from gang life, La Madrina worked with those around her who were suffering from Aids and domestic violence, and today she continues to work in political advocacy and restorative justice, while living in the same public housing that she was instrumental in getting built decades ago. Although La Madrina does not present a full picture of the social work and activism that would come to dominate Padilla’s post-Skulls life, we do see many glimpses of it, and the importance of remaining true to her home resonates throughout the movie.

“In making this movie, I learned that our stories matter,” Padilla says. “And that out of necessity women can be the warriors in our community and the voices. I’m just hoping you remember that for me it’s very important that one person can make a change, and you don’t have to leave your community to make your life and your surroundings better.” La Madrina definitely does show the possibility of staying close to home and the rewards that can be reaped by doing so – some may choose to deal with a difficult past by moving away and moving on, but for Padilla it is clear that her own form of resolution comes from engaging with the world that made her.

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