Filmmaker Gary Weimberg is a two-time POV alum. His film, Soldiers of Conscience, premiered on POV in 2008. An earlier film, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, was on POV in 1999. Gary writes in with a moving update on the lives of the characters from that film and reminds us about the power of documentaries — for subjects, filmmakers and viewers..
Gary Weimberg: On July 27, 1999, our film, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, premiered on POV Let it never be said that TV accomplishes nothing. Less than two months later, Ernesto’s mother, Dylcia Pagan, received executive clemency from President Clinton and she walked out of the U.S. federal prison, a free woman, after having been incarcerated for 19 years of her 55-year sentence.
Dylcia was and is a Puerto Rican patriot, and the injustice of her lengthy prison sentence was one of the major themes of the film. Catherine Ryan (my wife and co-producer), myself and Ernesto drove to the gates of the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California, to pick up Dylcia and travel with her to Puerto Rico for her first 10 days of freedom.
For me, nothing can compare to the moment when she walked out of the prison and into freedom, nor could I imagine anything equaling the ecstatic celebrations during the following days as we traveled with her.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans flooded into the airport in San Juan just to greet her and the 10 other Puerto Rican former prisoners who had also been freed by Clinton’s clemency. The joyous Mardi Gras-like celebrations never ceased that whole time we were there, and everywhere we went with Dylcia, someone would either embrace her, or greet her with tears and hugs and declarations of love, or give her a gift: a book, a meal, a painting. One family gave her a car, a restaurateur offered a catered meal for 20, someone else gave her a free apartment for a year (Yes, really!).
It wasn’t even that all these people agreed with her devout belief in Puerto Rican independence. It was that she had held to her beliefs against all odds and across all those years in prison, so much so that even the president of the U.S. had shown her respect. The world could see her strength, could see that she was a Puerto Rican woman — and her fellow Puerto Ricans were proud.
And we too were proud to be there and be part of it all.
2008 — 9 years later:
Ernesto is getting married, a boy no longer. For my wife and me, the Ernesto who entered our life as a documentary subject has become our ahijado, our godson, a true member of our family.
The teenager who was 15 when we started the film has grown into an adult — a handsome and still often emotional man of 29.
The wedding is in Chihuahua, Mexico, where Ernesto (from age 2-15) grew up in the home of Alma and Gabino Gomez, the Mexican parents who raised him while his birth mother Dylcia was in prison.
The wedding — five days of fiestas and food — is another unforgettable celebration, gathering for the first time in one place this intimately connected international family of Ernesto’s: his Mexican parents, his Puerto Rican mother and myself, the gringo godfather and filmmaker.
For every documentary filmmaker, it is a strange and thrilling feeling to experience the intersection of life and media. Ernesto’s life story had merged with my own. At the wedding, we could all simply enjoy each other as friends and family, and look back on the drama of the past as something that was past. Now the hard work of daily life and the delight of life’s more usual celebrations could bring us together.
But in addition to the famous Mexican hospitality and revelry at the wedding, there was an unexpected surprise — a screening of the documentary for all who wished to see it, hosted at the auditorium of a local Human Rights for Women organization (which Alma, Ernesto’s Mexican mother, now runs as executive director). For one hour, we were transported back into that far more painful past, with Ernesto still a confused teen, his mother still in prison, his Mexican parents left behind as Ernesto struggled with the truths of the beginning of his adult life.
But even as the images on screen explored those painful times, the actual reality of the day was that we sat together as an audience of friends and family protected by our wedding bliss. To watch the film, and sit beside Dylcia, but now free — to sit and remember all those old wounds, but knowing that not only was a happy ending coming, but that we were living that happy ending on that very day: Ernesto now a grown man, Ernesto now beginning his own family, was a change that felt so deeply real and valid and simply… worth it.
Documentaries are not just films, they are real peoples’ lives. It is an honor to be let into those lives and tell those stories, and in the end when their lives have been changed… my life, without a doubt, has been changed too. What a joy and what a blessing.
Thank you, Ernesto.
Thank you, Tania Delgado, his new bride and a woman I expect will be the primary author of the next chapter of their life together.
Thank you, POV
Thank you, PBS audience.