Dylcia Pagan on the set of MACHETERO
Today being International Women’s Day i’d like to share this story that came from my film MACHETERO about a very strong woman, Dylcia Pagan. The role that women play in the ongoing revolution to make the a world better place than when we came into it is something that i think is completely exemplified here by Dylcia. This is the story of how Dylcia Pagan, a former US held Puerto Rican political prisoner of war who served 20 years in US prisons for fighting to free Puerto Rico from US colonialism came to be in my film and in the process gave the film a much need dose of feminine power that brought into focus what it was that MACHETERO was really all about.
MACHETERO started out as a short film but as i worked on it, it began to take on it’s own life and i needed to respect that and allow it to take me where it needed to go. As an artist i believe that the ego is a dangerous thing and the more you get in the way of the ideas that are flowing the greater the chance there is for polluting what needs to be said. i think the artistic process is really a process of creative meditation and that as the ideas flow through you they take on your own unique shape. The danger is in the ego wanting to take those ideas as they flow through you, claim them for their own purposes and shape them for their own selfish desires. The hard part is being able to recognize the natural shape that the ideas will take as they flow through you, from the ideas that the ego wants to distort. This is the artistic and creative battle i feel every artist faces.
While in the midst of my artistic struggle with MACHETERO i found myself in the Brooklyn studio of the great Puerto Rican painter Juan Sanchez talking to him about this particular creative journey that I was on. He had seen the short version of the film and was going on and on about how much he liked it and how bold and courageous a work MACHETERO was, not just in terms of its political stance but also in terms of it’s artistic aesthetic value. Although I was flattered because Juan’s opinion is something that I greatly respect and appreciate it made me think how I had better stay on track and not let things get out of hand.
While talking to Juan he suggested that i call one of the Puerto Rican political prisoners that President Clinton released at the end of his second term in 1999 for the role of the mentor. This was a really amazing idea and we started to talk about who we thought would be a good natural fit for the role. We came to the conclusion that Dylcia would be perfect.
Dylcia Pagan was born in the Bronx and raised in East Harlem to Puerto Rican parents. She was a child actor on a show called The Children’s Hour on NBC in the 1960’s. As an adult she continued to work in television as a producer working for ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. As a member of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – Armed Forces for National Liberation) she fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. While pregnant with her first and only child, the father of that child, William Morales was arrested for seditious conspiracy to bring down the US government after an accidental explosion in garage in Queens. While recovering from his injuries in a hospital bed, William escaped custody.
Shortly after that Dylcia gave birth to her son Guillermo. The FBI began was not pleased with William Morales escape and suspected Dylcia of also being involved in the FALN. They were looking to arrest her for seditious conspiracy to overthrow the US government as well. Dylcia felt that the FBI was closing in on her and she was forced to give her son to sympathetic supporters of the Puerto Rican independence movement in Mexico and go underground. That Mexican family raised Dylcia’s son as their own. A short while later Dylcia was arrested and convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 55 years. She served 20 years until her pardon by President Clinton in 1999. There was a documentary produced for PBS about the hardships that she and her son Guillermo endured called The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez. It’s an interesting film that people should definitely check out.
i needed to get in touch with Dylcia to talk to her about the project. Not4Prophet (who plays the lead character Pedro Taino in the film) got Dylcia’s phone number from Jesus Papoleto Melendez one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets movement and a life long friend of Dylcia. At the time my main concern was that Dylcia was still on parole and i was worried that her being involved in a project that dealt with the question of political violence as a means of liberation could get her put back in jail. i don’t mean to over inflate MACHETERO’s importance but the US Federal Parole Board needs very few excuses to bounce you back into the joint and i didn’t want in any way to supply them with that excuse.
When i called Dylcia and re-introduced myself (we met briefly when she first got out in ’99 and came back to El Barrio, NYC) i told her about MACHETERO and what it was that i was trying to do. i let her know that i knew she was still on parole and that i didn’t want this project to in any way jeopardize her hard-won freedom, she’d done enough time as it was already. She then laughed and told me that the phone call she had received just minutes before i called. It was a call from her lawyer telling her that she was no longer on parole and that she was legally, (Dylcia has always been spiritually free) completely and without restriction a free woman. i was totally relieved to hear it and she said that she couldn’t refuse the role because it was too much of a coincidence. A few months later we flew down to Puerto Rico and shot this scene on the beach in Loiza a short walk from where Dylcia lives today.
In this scene the Young Rebel is dreaming of Puerto Rico and he dreams that he is at the grave of someone he loves. It’s not clear who the person is but as the dream goes on he dreams of his mentor (played by Dylcia) and the idea is that it’s her grave that he’s visiting. The grave is actually in the cemetery of Loiza and is the grave of a famous Puerto Rican mother and grandmother Doña Adolfina Villanueva who was killed as she stood outside of her home with a machete in her hand to defend against an eviction that police were sent to enforce. The killing of Doña Adolfina Villanueva was meant to send a message to other poor landowners in the area who were also being evicted.
His dream then moves onto a memory of himself as a child (played by Francisco Sanchez Rivera, Dylcia next door neighbor’s son) bringing a coconut to Dylcia. The “FUTURE” title that comes up on the screen as we see the Young Rebel as a boy is not so much a chronological representation but one of character. In the film Pedro Taino “the terrorist” is the “PAST” and Jean Dumont the journalist is the “PRESENT” while the Young Rebel represents the “FUTURE”. So when these titles appear on the screen throughout the film they are not chronological representations but characteristic representations. As the young boy comes running through the tress with his machete and his coconut Dylcia is sitting on the beach smoking a cigar (as older Puerto Rican women will) and proceeds to tell him the history of Puerto Rico’s 500-year struggle for autonomy. She tells him that he must one day continue to carry on that tradition of struggle when he grows up.
i never wrote any dialogue for this scene. i spoke to Dylcia about what it was that i was looking for and what it was that the story needed in terms of tone and intent. She took it from there and improvised all the dialogue compressing 500-years of history into a 3-minute story. It was amazing to watch.
The role that Dylcia Pagan played in the film although small (she’s only in two scenes) was crucial. Her specific role was as a mentor but her specific relationship to the Young Rebel and to Pedro Taino however was intentionally left open to interpretation. In Puerto Rico as in the African tradition a village raises a child and so i wanted Dylcia to be mother, grandmother, aunt and neighbor. Her role also helped solidify two concurrent ideas in terms of the relationship that the Young Rebel and Pedro Taino share with Dylcia.
One interpretation that could be drawn from these scenes was that both characters are sharing flashback scenes that incorporated the same grave and memories of this mentor that Dylcia played because she influenced them both as two separate characters. Another interpretation that is inferred is that the Young Rebel and Not4Prophet are the same character living in the same time. This is physically impossible in real life but completely possible in cinema and makes for an interesting idea that only served to further illustrate the cyclical themes of violence presented in the film.
This scene takes place pretty late in the film and it’s the scene that really illustrates what it is that’s at stake in terms of revealing the natural beauty of Puerto Rico. Up until this point the film has been full of rage and anger and although that rage and anger may be completely warranted and justified i wanted to switch gears with this scene and have the emotional core of the scene be one of sadness. i wanted that sadness to be the seed for all the rage and anger that is felt throughout the rest of the film. It was difficult to pull off, the scene had to be played with a certain subtlety and without an air of nostalgia. The way to do this was to have this dream scene be a scene in which the Young Rebel remembers who he is and what he must do going forward. This took the nostalgic edge off the scene and gave the scene a relevance to his future.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for the creative generosity of Dylcia Pagan. MACHETERO would not be what it is, had it not been for Dylcia bringing a strong, rebellious, nurturing feminine energy into the film. Although her scenes take place late in the film, those scenes set the stage for everything we have seen that comes before them and after them. They become the lynch pin by which everything else hangs. It was a true honor to have Dylcia be a part of this film. Looking back now MACHETERO would not have the power that it has without her participation and i wanted to take this moment out to honor her on this International Women’s Day.