Women Rule the Bronx in ‘La Madrina: The [Savage] Life of Lorine Padilla’ (Tribeca 2020)

In the 1970s, the Bronx faced mass unemployment, poverty, grasping landlords burning their own buildings, and intense gang rivalries. At the center was Lorine Padilla, the “First Lady” of notorious street gang The Savage Skulls, and the subject of a documentary now showing at Tribeca. Through her life story, her hopes, desires, spiritual and religious beliefs, and intense activism for the future of her children, grandchildren, and the South Bronx itself, La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla reveals not just the narrative of a single remarkable woman, but the complexity of a New York neighborhood and the women who shaped it.

La Madrina successfully breaks down some of the stereotypes, gendered and otherwise, that form our understanding of gang culture, as it focalizes through Padilla herself, and the words of several of her contemporaries. This isn’t a redemption narrative – Padilla is a formidable presence, tough and intelligent and fantastically loving to her extensive family, biological and otherwise, which comprises most of the neighborhood. As a teenager, she moves from Harlem to the Bronx, where she and her brothers fall in with the gangs who live in the same building. Eventually, she marries Blackie, one of the leaders of the Savage Skulls, and has several children with him. But as times change across the Bronx and New York City, so does Padilla, eventually leaving her abusive husband, struggling to raise her children, and becoming involved in political and social activism to this day.

But this isn’t a redemption narrative, or a story of suffering; it’s a dissection of the specifically Latinx gang culture of the South Bronx seen through the eyes of a woman who lived through it and helped shape it. It tells of a combination of gang and family loyalty, a fierce defense at once of the neighborhood that supports them and the rising need to make a safe home, free both from violence and drugs on the one side and encroaching gentrification on the other. Much of the film is told via Padilla’s reminiscences, as she shapes her story and the stories of those that surround her, supporting and protecting them as the godmother of the South Bronx. It’s this side of the narrative – the nurturing, loving side – that most effectively highlights the dichotomy of women existing within violent masculine spaces and also shaping them for the better.

There are gaps to the story, though these seem to be more about Padilla’s comfort in telling about sections of her life than about any weakness in the filmmaking itself. How she went from one of the focal powers in The Savage Skulls to getting her GED, attending college, and becoming increasingly activist is somewhat elided over. The most powerful sections deal not just with Padilla herself, but with her friends, a group of now-aging women who grew up with her, and acted as dealers and gang members themselves. They provide wonderful insight into the danger and violence of the gang’s culture, and also the closeness between and support among the women, telling jokes and laughing about their pasts one minute, recounting harrowing experiences the next. One casually relates her experience being kidnapped by Columbian gang members; another remembers hiding joints in her hair rollers.,

Padilla here is many things – a woman schooled in violence and in caretaking, who becomes the godmother partially because it’s forced upon her as a woman, and partially because it’s her way to make a positive difference. The film pulls no punches, even if it doesn’t go into some of the darker aspects of women existing in gang culture (which is a relief, in its own way, as it avoids exploiting female suffering in a narrative that’s ultimately about care and love). By juxtaposing archival footage and interviews with contemporary conversations, it develops the contrast and continuity of the people it chronicles and the neighborhood it covers. It also exposes the dangers of gentrification, as the Bronx undergoes shifts similar to those of the other boroughs, driving out the families that built the neighborhood, shutting down playgrounds and parks to build high-end apartment blocks.

But Padilla remains, a towering matriarch who has shaped her life and the lives of others for the better. The film’s director Raquel Cepeda helps to guide the narrative from a feminine and ultimately feminist perspective, and provides us insight into a world of women from which a male filmmaker would be forcibly locked out. La Madrina is a testament to the enduring power of Latina femininity and the importance of that story outside of male control.

La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla is now showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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