With Great Appreciation to WILFREDO PEDRERO

by Brenna Cukier

“Describe Freddie in one word.”

This was the question I asked all of Freddie’s nearest and dearest, AKA: his co-workers at the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park.

Each time, the recipient of the question took a moment to reflect before carefully selecting a word. These were a few of their choices:





Their responses were included in a short video I made for CFL’s Celebrating Community fundraiser, which is an annual event that brings together CFL employees and benefactors to celebrate the non-profit’s impact on the community. Each year, one of CFL’s 250 employees is chosen to be honored at the event for their hard work and dedication. This year, that recipient was none other than Wilfredo Pedrero, who, of course, is the star of my documentary Super Freddie.

It was a Thursday night at the end of May. New York was just starting to get hot, but it was already humid enough to break a sweat on the walk from the subway to the event, which was held in a trendy for-rent loft in Soho.

Freddie certainly broke a sweat in his newly-purchased maroon suit, which was unforgiving in the city heat.

“I got a bunch of compliments on the train here,” Freddie told me, dabbing the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. “People thought I was going to a wedding or something like that.”

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After an unsuccessful attempt to procure a hot dog outside the venue, Freddie headed to the fifth floor of the building, compulsively straightening his bowtie using the reflection of the brass elevator doors on the way up.

Enter Freddie. A room full of CFL employees and supporters buzzed with chatter as they sipped on cocktails and nibbled hors-d’oeuvres. Julia Jean-Francois, the executive director of CFL, spotted Freddie out of the corner of her eye and immediately went to greet him.

“You look incredible, Freddie,” she beamed. Freddie humbly accepted her compliments before trying to find his closest friends, Smilie and Frank.

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Everyone spent the rest of the evening in anticipation of Freddie receiving his award. Not wanting to miss a moment, I mic’d up Freddie with a wireless lav as I captured video footage from across the room, so I was privy to his innermost thoughts for the duration of the evening. The thing is, Freddie has no innermost thoughts, because he says almost absolutely everything he thinks aloud.

“Is my bowtie on straight?”

“No, really — is it straight?”

“I wonder who all these people are?”

“Do you think I can get onto the roof?”

“How am I going to go to the bathroom with this microphone on?”

Another forty or so minutes went by with Freddie making his rounds in the room, all to the tune of his inner monologue and a mariachi band playing in the corner (Freddie: “why would they get a mariachi band for this event?”). About ten minutes before the scheduled presentation of Freddie’s award, he asked if we could go outside for a cigarette.

“I’m really overwhelmed,” he confided in me once we were in the elevator. “Nothing a cigarette can’t fix, though.” Outside, we stood in front of the building as Freddie watched more and more people dressed in suits (though none in maroon suits) enter the double doors.

“Who are all these people? Do I know them?”

He ran his hands over the many different pockets of his ensemble in a desperate search for his cigarettes. Relief washed over him as he located one, brought it to his lips and lit it in one swift motion.

“I never got an award like this before. I’m nervous.”

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We stood out there for what felt like a while, Freddie getting a puff of his cigarette in between mouthfuls of conversation, before someone had to come and get us because they had already started the presentation of his award.

“Oh, shoot!” Freddie said, as he stubbed out his cigarette and stowed away the remainder in his jacket pocket for later. We hurried upstairs and made it to the front of the crowd that had gathered to listen to Julia’s speech about Freddie.

For the first time all night, Freddie was silent as he listened to what Julia had to say about him and his work at CFL. At the end of her speech, Julia presented Freddie with a thick, glass placard engraved with the words, “CELEBRATING COMMUNITY AWARD…presented with great appreciation to WILFREDO PEDRERO.”

Then, the video I made for the occasion began to play:

When the screen faded to black, everybody angled themselves in the direction of Freddie (who had now sought shelter in the back of the room) and clapped. They clapped for a long time. Freddie humbly received their applause, followed by a round of hugs from his teary co-workers who had appeared in the video.

I had a hard time keeping tabs on Freddie for the rest of the night, because he was constantly being pulled into groups to take photos or shaking hands with people who were congratulating him. At one point though, just before the very end of the event, we ran into each other seeking refuge on a couch in the back of the room, which had a plate of obscure-looking appetizers placed on a small coffee table in front of it.

Freddie pointed at the plate, “What is this stuff? Some kinda vegetable?” He held up an ominous-looking mush on top of a cracker and inspected it.

“I can’t eat this stuff. I’m starving,” he semi-whispered to me. “I can’t wait to get back home and have some chicken parmigiana.” The crowds started to trickle out and not long after, Freddie decided it was OK to head home, too. But before he left, he obliged my request for one last interview (and cigarette) out on the street.

Freddie looked like he’d walked off a movie set; the cigarette hanging cooly between his fingers as he brought it to his mouth, standing in his maroon suit in front of candy-colored Soho buildings in the magic hour light.

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For a moment, he seemed like a completely different Freddie to me. Without his superhero t-shirt or his backpack of comic books, outside the confines of the food pantry without a box of groceries to shelve, it was like meeting Freddie for the first time in an alternate universe.

But the illusion soon faded when Freddie made a confession.

“I hope I don’t gotta wear another suit like this for a long time,” he said, backing up so my camera could take in the entirety of his outfit. “I know I look good but…these shoes are killing me!”

Super Freddie

By Brenna Cukier

“Here, that’s Fu Manchu…you know him? And that’s Spock from the Starship Enterprise…just came out of my head. This one I didn’t get to finish…”

Two tan and weathered hands flick through a stack of pen drawings on printing paper.

“This is our co-worker…she doesn’t work with us any more. This is Wonder Woman. This is Hot Stuff…I used to love Hot Stuff, you know the comic books? Oh, forget about it. Here, that’s supposed to be New York City. See the twin towers there?”

The hands and drawings belong to Wilfredo Pedrero, or “Freddie” for short. The drawings span more than a decade of his work, and nearly every single one is dated in the corner with the exact time and geographical location of its completion. While Freddie provides me with a detailed explanation of every drawing, it’s almost unnecessary. His pictures are like carbon copies of his muses, the majority of whom are characters from his beloved comic book collection. Freddie never leaves the house without at least half a dozen comic books in his backpack.

All images stills from video by Brenna Cukier.

“I’ve been collecting since I was eight years old,” he tells me, flipping through the pages of his most recent addition. Freddie is now fifty-five. He points out his favorite characters, the details in their costumes, and explains to me again why Superman has the best powers. “I love the stories; I love drawing from them. That’s the only reason I read my comics…to get ideas to draw.” Freddie places the stack of comics on the shelf beside us, right next to a box full of peanut butter jars that need to be stocked.

Freddie is the Superman of the Center for Family Life (CFL) food pantry.

The food pantry is just one of many services CFL offers. CFL is one of the original settlement houses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and it serves the neighborhood’s predominantly Mexican and Chinese immigrant community. Once every two months, any Sunset Park resident can come in and receive an emergency package of food that is meant to supplement their family’s diet.

It’s been twelve years since Freddie started running the show at the pantry. Not only is Freddie responsible for placing orders and handling donations, but once the food actually arrives, he is also in control of organizing it. This work is an exact science for Freddie. Every type of food has a particular place on the shelves and an even more specific way in which it must be stacked. More precise yet is the way in which the food packages must be assembled.


Freddie takes each client into consideration, and after reading over their identification sheet, makes specific food choices based on the ages and culture of the individual and their family members. The pantry operates Tuesday through Thursday, when residents are welcome to collect food between the hours of 11am-1pm. The rest of the time Freddie spends manning and preparing the pantry. When he’s not doing that, he’s doing custodial work.

“This place is clean,” Freddie tells me. “I do this. I keep it clean.”

Freddie and I are outside of the CFL main office on 39th Street. The thoroughfare is crowded, like always. The fire station across the street provides a constant soundtrack of sirens and hustle, along with all the noise from cars and passersby on the corner at 5th Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street. Freddie sweeps the pavement in front of the office thoroughly, pushing upheaved gravel over the curbside and back into the road.

“I try to tell people you’re supposed to think of this place as your home,” he says. “We try to make them think that this is their house, because everything we do here is for them.”

* * *


In his real home, Freddie is no less responsible. He lives in Coney Island in a neighborhood called the Marlboro Projects. He and two of his brothers, along with their girlfriends and children, live together in their mother’s old apartment. This is also where his mother single-handedly raised Freddie and his six siblings.

But Freddie spent his early childhood in Puerto Rico, where he was born.

“We lived in these little projects called Canales. It’s still there, but it’s bad now,” Freddie recounts to me. We’re sitting in his bedroom. Behind him on the wall is a huge bulletin board with pictures of his family, a few of his drawings and a certificate for perfect attendance at his job. “It’s so bad that the police don’t even go in there,” he continues, “but when we lived there, it was pretty nice.”

Freddie tells me he used to spend his mornings as a child asking for money on the streets; no shoes, just shorts. “No one’s gonna deny a little kid when they’re begging,” he says. He’d come home with pockets full of change and hand it all to his mother, who was raising their household on $21 a month through public assistance.   

When the family arrived in the U.S. in 1968, they settled in Coney Island. Freddie has never lived anywhere else since. Today, he’s more than comfortable with this fact. But as an adolescent, the neighborhood proved to be more than troublesome for Freddie and his friends.


“We always did stupid things outside in the neighborhood,” he tells me. We’re still in his bedroom. He’s staring out the window through the gap between the shade and the sill. The wind is howling against the pane, it’s the coldest day of winter yet. Nowadays, you’ll rarely find Freddie outside of his apartment after 8pm.

“I don’t hang out like I used to,” he tells me. “I used to go to Alphabet City at three or four in the morning. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with a friend. Now I won’t even go out of my neighborhood.” Today, a good night in Freddie’s opinion is one spent catching up on his favorite TV shows (almost all of which feature superheroes) or flipping through his comic books. But the peace is often interrupted. Specifically, it’s interrupted by gunshots, which Freddie says he can frequently hear coming from the other side of the projects in the early hours of the morning.

“That’s the young kids…they stay out all night selling drugs thinking it’s the fast money. They don’t realize that when you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with death. They don’t listen. Sooner or later, they’ll learn.”

While Freddie’s days dabbling in these same neighborhood activities may be long behind him, his status as a neighborhood hero is not. During the waking hours of the day, Freddie takes it upon himself to interfere when he witnesses activity like this in the projects. He will stop kids on the street – even ones he doesn’t know – and try to steer them in another direction. It’s his attempt at preventing them from taking the same road he did, which ultimately led him to multiple rehab stints.  

Freddie has no difficulty talking about rehab. In fact, he speaks about his stints as if they were as commonplace as going to college.

And he almost did go to college.

At eighteen, Freddie was offered a full ride to Pratt Institute to study art. He made it through the first week of classes, then he got arrested.

“I threw away that scholarship,” he says as we skim through more of his drawings. He’s pulled out boxes of them from his closet and they’re scattered across the bed, which is bare save for a beige bottom sheet. “I was too young. If I could use it now, I’d go. But I guess I’ll just develop art in my own way.”

I ask Freddie if he’d ever consider using his art professionally. He explains that while he often draws things with tattoos in mind, he doesn’t see it panning out. His work day is demanding, and when he gets back to Coney Island, his other responsibilities kick in.

Freddie has helped his ex-girlfriend – who lives in an apartment just a few buildings down – raise her two sons since they were five years old. The boys are now grown and have children of their own, whom Freddie refers to as his “grandchildren.” When he gets back to Coney Island in the evenings, Freddie heads straight to the family’s apartment. He first walks the dog, Maxi. Then he takes care of the three grandchildren, the responsibilities for which can range from cooking dinner to playing Barbies.


Not everybody in Freddie’s life is supportive of his unconventional situation. His brother often gives him grief for spending so much of his life with kids that are not his.

“I tell him a father is not the one who makes, it’s the one who takes care of,” Freddie says. “It’s easy to make kids. But if you’re not gonna take care of them, what kind of father are you?”

Freddie never met his own father. His one connection is a single photo taken when his father was seventeen. It’s black and white, his father is standing and looking straight into the camera.

“People tell me I look like him,” Freddie says. “I don’t see it.”

* * *

Back at CFL one day, I ask Freddie who his favorite superhero is. He launches into an explanation about why it’s Captain America. It has to do with a particular encounter Captain America has with Iron Man, in which Iron Man accuses Captain America of not being a “real” hero due to the fact that his powers are all thanks to a special serum.

“The serum is what gives Steve Rogers his power,” Freddie explains to me. “Without it, he’s just a regular guy. But it’s not just the serum that makes him a hero.”


Freddie is about to elaborate on this when Gladys walks in. Gladys is the other food pantry attendant. She’s ten years older than Freddie; she also has ten years on Freddie as a CFL employee. She has six sons of her own, but Freddie is her seventh. He refers to her exclusively as “Ma.” This has held even more significance since Freddie’s mother passed away three months ago.

Freddie continues.

“It’s his whole persona,” he says about Captain America/Steve Rogers. “He always wants to help people out. That’s what makes him a hero, not the…”

Gladys interrupts him.

“Yeah, Ma? What happened? It’s raining? Alright let me go get that for you…can we take a break?” Freddie asks me. “I gotta go get her something from the store…”




Brenna Cukier 2015-2016

Brenna was born in Tempe, Arizona but moved toBrenna_BioPic Auckland, New Zealand at age ten. She received her B.A. in journalism as a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she reported for the student newscast for two years until she became the executive producer. During her sophomore year, she participated in a component of the Robertson Program known as the “semester switch,” when scholars spend a year in residence at their sister campus. In an effort to find a way to combine her newsroom skills with her passion for creative storytelling, she enrolled in three CDS courses. From that semester onward, she simultaneously pursued these programs at both universities.

By combining videography with her love for travel and her interest in NGOs, Brenna spent her summers documenting the work of various education-focused non-profits around the world, from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Azores Islands to Bali, Indonesia. This summer, Brenna will utilize support from the John Hope Franklin Award with the AJC Goldman Fellowship to make a connection between the work she will be doing at her internship with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations in Warsaw, Poland with the story of her own family’s history. By re-tracing the steps of her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, she hopes to fill some of the gaps in her identity that she has been curious about since childhood.

Regarding the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship, Brenna says, “My past documentary experiences have validated that I thrive in new and challenging environments, and the Hine Fellowship is a new challenge in which I hope to produce meaningful and provocative work. If I have learned anything as a videographer, it’s that we don’t stop looking through a lens when we put the camera down, and I am excited to see how the Fellowship will contribute to my perception of the world and how my perception of the world will contribute to the lives of others.”

Brenna will be working with the Center for Family Life.

To see some of Brenna’s work, please visit her YouTube channel.