What does a documentarian do when the story she’s telling turns out to be bigger than she expected? In My Name is Pedro, director Lillian LaSalle mostly manages to stick with the twists and turns of the unfolding life of Pedro Santana, an educator and school administrator who spent most of his career in the South Bronx.
Santana is a figure who could easily fit into one of those “Superteacher” films — Dead Poets Society, Lean on Me, etc. — born into relative poverty, he struggled in school due to a learning disability and a speech impediment. He eventually convinced Columbia University’s Teachers College to admit him as a student, which launched his career as a teacher, a principal, and eventually an assistant superintendent in New York’s East Ramapo school district. It’s clear that Santana has that special touch with students; they see in him someone who respects them as human beings, not behavioral problems to be managed or test scores to be raised.
Eventually, circumstances begin to change and, due to the convoluted and sometimes confusing machinery of local government, Santana is removed from his post, much to the dismay of the community.
In a narrative film, Santana would return triumphant in the third act. But My Name is Pedro isn’t a narrative film, so as Santana’s story continues, LaSalle is faced with managing not only a third act, but a fourth and a fifth. For the most part, she succeeds. Certain things could have been tightened up (a section at the end of the film where celebrities discuss the importance of education are interspersed with schoolchildren talking about the important teachers in their lives could and should have been cut), but for the most part LaSalle keeps things tight.
LaSalle is lucky to have the gregarious, talkative Santana as her main subject; she also has a gift for interviewing more recalcitrant personalities, getting subjects ranging from Santana’s mother to former students to open up. A big miss was not mentioning how Santana’s admitted workaholism affected his relationship with his wife and children — one has to think that a woman subject would have been specifically asked about her work-life balance.
Still, even though Santana’s story must have been much longer, more involved, and in some ways more compelling than LaSalle could have imagined at the outset, she keeps the horse from entirely running away and manages to create a through line that, even though it has to skim over some things, still paints a complex and engaging portrait of a man who inspired thousands to — in his words — “not let their circumstances define them.”