The Ballad of ‘La Madrina’: A Once-Feared Gang Leader Cleaning Up New York City
In the 1970s, Lorine Padilla was “First Lady” of the Savage Skulls, a South Bronx gang. Then she took a different path. “La Madrina” is the story of her incredible journey.
Two years ago, filmmaker Raquel Cepeda started looking for tapes. Specifically, she was searching for leftover footage from 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, a 1979 documentary about two gangs in the South Bronx: the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls. Cepeda was researching the life of the Skulls’ former “First Lady” Lorine Padilla. But the movie had long been MIA—never released commercially, it wasn’t available on DVD until 2010—and the footage was even more so. The production company, a subsidiary of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, figured the tapes were lost. So did the film’s director, Gary Weis. “I don’t know what happened to them. It’s in a warehouse somewhere,” he told her. “We didn’t mark them.”
By chance, Cepeda ran into a former Broadway Video employee who’d spotted some boxes next to Lorne Michaels’ old furniture at a warehouse in Connecticut. When the company finally retrieved the cardboard bins—most dusty and disheveled, clearly untouched for years—they agreed to release a single reel to see if any footage was salvageable. “I saw a box that had no label,” Cepeda recalls. “It was just like any other box. It didn’t even look good when I opened it, but I said, I’ll take this one.”
The archival footage Cepeda found on that reel—the only one in the warehouse that featured Padilla—appears fully restored in her documentary, La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla, which debuted virtually at the DOC NYC festival Wednesday and runs until Nov. 19. The uncovered scenes from Padilla’s mid-’70s New York life captured on 16 mm film are worth seeing on their own. But the 82-minute movie, which follows the First Lady from her time in the Skulls to her work as a community organizer, operates something like Cepeda’s search, tracking the female Skulls members who were always there, but mostly overlooked—at times, to their advantage. “Back in the days when I was out there, you didn’t have female cops,” Padilla says. “So, the women held the weapons because the cops would only stop the men. We would continue walking. The male cops could not search us.”
The movie operates as a piece of observational journalism—shaped not by narration, but by Padilla’s recollections. The result is a patchwork of scenes, part-memory, history, and archival footage. Without naming it outright, La Madrina dialogues with documentaries like 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s that took on 1970s gang life, in its explicit effort to fill in what they often left out, both by focusing on female members and in highlighting the material conditions that pushed them to join. “You have to look at where these kids come from,” Padilla deadpans in a cut of the archival tape Cepeda tracked down. “You just don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to land in jail for the rest of my life. I’m going to shoot-up drugs. You know, I think I’ll join a gang.’”
Cepeda traces Padilla’s path into the Savage Skulls, made up of predominantly 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 put it in the 1977 World Series, the Bronx was burning. “While I was out in the streets, I walked past buildings that were burning down and it meant nothing,” Padilla says. “It didn’t faze me.”
After property values plummeted in the economically stagnant ’70s, the city’s bureaucracy cut off countless public services in the Bronx, including half a dozen fire units. Apartments emptied out—Padilla grew up in the only occupied home of a 50-unit building—and landlords adopted a culture of arson, paying local kids to burn down their properties.
“When you have a 13-year-old who lives in an apartment where there’s no heat, no hot water, barely food on the table, and you offer him, three, four, five hundred dollars, that’s a lot of money, right?” Padilla says. “So yeah, I took it.”
The second half of the film focuses on Padilla’s turn to activism. As Padilla gained authority in the Skulls, she was also reading leftist texts and pamphlets from the Black Panthers and Young Lords. A decade after she’d been burning buildings down, she was rebuilding them—working with Father Louis Gigante, a Catholic priest and the founder of the South East Bronx Community Organization, a Section 8 housing program that built over 1,000 subsidized apartments in the 1980s.
From there, the sphere of her influence expanded. Around the same time, Padilla left her marriage and became a social worker, specializing in domestic abuse. Later, when her brother died of AIDS, she advocated for the rights of incarcerated people with HIV, joining aid groups that paid house visits for patients and their families.
The film resists engaging with some of the messier aspects of Padilla’s activism, gliding over the fact that Gigante’s two brothers, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Mario Gigante, loomed large in the Genovese crime family. He later defended his brothers, insisting the Mafia was “an anti-Italian stereotype created by the media and law enforcement officials.” The tenants of the buildings he helped construct later organized against him, accusing him of maintaining the same miserable conditions he once railed against.
Further complications emerge in the final moments of the film exploring Padilla’s anti-gun advocacy, brought on after her grandson was grazed by a bullet at a playground. Her solution, which she lobbied the New York State Assembly to introduce, would alarm some criminal justice organizers: implement mandatory minimum sentences of up to 25 years for discharging firearms near playgrounds (the bill did not pass). At one point, a legislator concedes that the bill would likely increase mass incarceration, but the analysis ends there.
Those complications are counterbalanced, however, by Cepeda’s obvious obsession with and affection for her subject. “I wanted to highlight how you don’t have to be elite, an elitist, 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 render “a more layered and realistic portrayal of la vida on the margins.”
This article has been updated to clarify that it was Broadway Video, rather than Cepeda, who retrieved the cardboard bins in which footage from 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s was salvaged.