La Madrina Review: A Survivor’s Savage Story

La Madrina: The [Savage] Life of Lorine Padilla recalls an activist’s story with salty insight.

3 mins read

Some characters lead lives that demand to be celebrated and commemorated on film and Lorine Padilla, is surely one of them. The Puerto Rican-American “Madrina” (Godmother) of Raquel Cepeda’s La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla (winner of the audience award at last year’s DOC NYC festival), has led a complicated life: A former “First Lady” of The Savage Skulls gang, a spiritual counsellor, abuse survivor and spirited community activist, who is now in her sixties, she recounts her battles with frankness and salty insight.

From the start, Padilla seems to have been built for drama. As a child, she says, she regularly saw ghosts at the local funeral home where she played near her East Harlem home. At 12, she was assured by the apparition of a dead priest that she would survive her rheumatic heart disease. Later, she grew up to be the head of the women’s division of The Savage Skulls gang, married to its leader, Felipe “Blackie” Mercado, who she met when he was an inmate. The archival material here is surprisingly rich, thanks to two previous documentaries, in 1979 and 1993, about Bronx gangs, street-made families that sometimes fought against neighbourhood drug dealers as well as each other.

Many of the most intriguing scenes here are simple table talk, as she sits around with her grandmotherly friends, discussing who carried a gun, and the brutal things that happened to them, with the casualness of war veterans, which, in a sense they were. (In an odd reunion, a former anti-gang cop tells her there was a better chance of a gang member dying on the streets of the Bronx than a soldier in Vietnam). As well as participating in rumbles, Padilla herself took money to set dilapidated houses on fire in insurance scams.

“Did we know we were destroying our community?” she asks? “No.”

When the abusive Blackie left, she says, “my life began.” After getting her GED and attending college, and eventually emerged as a domestic abuse counselor and community leader, campaigning against gentrification but also, after her grandson was grazed by a stray bullet, pushing for long mandatory incarceration for anyone shooting near a playground. While the latter campaign may not jibe with some of her progressive values, it has the ring of rough street justice.

La Madrina premieres at Hot Docs on April 29 at 10 a.m.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!


Courtesy of Hot Docs

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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