The Story of Remarkable Teacher Pedro Santana Hits the Screen

Sandra Bertrand


Great teachers don’t grow on trees, but thanks to director Lillian LaSalle, we can celebrate the story of one South Bronx Latino educator who planted the seeds for success in every student whose life he touched.


Pedro Santana was a “special ed” student from Puerto Rico who sensed early on that every student like himself, no matter the circumstances, can grow into his or her potential. 


With every encounter, the camera captures the magnetism of the man. Teaching in a Covid-free environment, he lights up the room with his smiles, kisses, and hugs. In the words of a colleague, “He always thought about the kid that was on the bottom.” But as one former student admitted, he “lets you know what he really thinks.”  “How are your grades?” became a familiar mantra to his charges.  He expected the best and to the amazement of his family, teachers, parents, and even nay-sayers, he got it.



Pedro was quick to let others know it wasn’t realistic to expect every child to follow the same procedures.  A boy who can’t function at 7:30 in the morning?  “Maybe he’ll be great from 12 to 5.” 


It wasn’t long before word spread about this maverick and his unorthodox methods. A New York Times profile, "Out Of The Box" detailing his teaching techniques thrust him into the spotlight.  Such attention rankled certain members of the local school board and despite the passionate entreaties of the community, the officials won the day. (He was ousted on the technicality of a missing course in his certification.) The filming of this combustible, highly charged clash between the public and the politicians is one of the highlights of this deeply personal film.


A creative use of animation to sketch out certain events in Pedro’s career spices up the storytelling.  A further enhancement are the students and parents themselves who don’t hesitate to share the dynamic effect he had on their lives.  One impoverished girl worries over her prom night, only to find that Pedro steps in to secure her the perfect dress. With a colorful cast of bit players in his life to remind us of his daily heroics, there’s no mistaking that it is Pedro’s own impassioned personality that fills the screen.



It’s no surprise that LaSalle has garnered a basketful of awards for such a humanistic tale. Judged the Best Documentary at the Golden Door International Film Festival, the Spotlight on Documentary Award from the St. Louis International Film Festival, the Audience Award from both the Chicago Latino International Film Festival and the Brooklyn Film Festival are only a few of the accolades she can claim.


Unfortunately, Pedro passed away at 47 from kidney cancer two weeks before the screenings. It seems, however, that the spirit of this renegade instructor was undauntable.  He confessed to a sibling that he simply wanted “to be something that flows through the universe.” Actress Rosie Perez reminds us in the film’s final moments that he possessed a childlike quality that never left him and will remain forever in the hearts of all who knew him.


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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