José Anzaldo is a bright, cheerful third grader in Salinas, Calif. He loves school, he's a whiz at math, and, like lots of little boys his age, he wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. He also entered the country illegally, and his parents are migrant farmworkers who harvest lettuce.
What will become of this promising young boy? That question drives "East of Salinas," a documentary premiering Monday on PBS' Independent Lens. It's a story we rarely hear about the families helping to put vegetables on our dinner plates.
"Farmworkers are also parents, and they're also struggling with all the issues all parents are struggling with, on top of backbreaking labor: worrying about the grades their kids are getting, and are they doing their homework, and unpacking backpacks and all of those things," says Laura Pacheco, who co-directed and produced the film with another filmmaker, Jackie Mow.
Pacheco and Mow spent three years following José and his family – through seven schools and several moves from one cramped living space to another (sometimes in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence).
For half the year, José's stepfather heads off to toil in the fields of Yuma, Ariz., while José and his mother and two siblings stay in Salinas. The family struggles to maintain these two households – in Salinas and in Yuma – on a single income; José sometimes goes to bed hungry.
But "East of Salinas" is also a story of hope. There's José's teacher, Oscar Ramos, who also grew up working in the lettuce fields, then went on to attend college at the University of California, Berkeley. He and his fellow teachers at Salinas' Sherwood Elementary School go to extraordinary lengths to give their students a support network: They hold clothing drives, deliver Christmas gifts and conduct seminars for parents on how to help their kids with homework. When José's family moves outside the school's area, Ramos volunteers to pick the child up every morning, so he can finish up the year in the same school.
And the kids give back, too, says Ramos. "These kids don't have much, but they want to give us something [at Christmastime]. So we get lettuce, we get strawberries, we get fruits, and vegetables — fresh from the fields. And I love it. That's our gift, and I wouldn't trade that for a Starbucks gifts card."
I recently spoke with Mow, Pacheco and Ramos. Highlights from our conversation follow, edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: José is clearly a bright kid. And despite incredibly hard circumstances — often moving house, exposure to gang violence, food insecurity, predawn drop-offs at the babysitter so his mom can go work in the lettuce fields – he does very well in school. That's a lot for a little guy to overcome. Does that make him an exception among the migrant kids you teach, Oscar?
Oscar Ramos: It should. But he's like a lot of our kids. They see what's going on. They're very aware of everything, and they don't want that life. So a lot of them, just like José, they persevere. The do need a lot of help at home, though, because most of our parents have a third, fourth, fifth grade education. So they have to rely on what they get at our school, with a lot of caring teachers. I'm one of many who do the same thing. That's the school we chose to be at for that particular reason – because we know we can influence these students in a positive way. We can be role models for them because of who we are and where we came from. A lot of the teachers went to Sherwood school as children. Our current principal went to Sherwood school, then came back as a teacher and now he's our principal.
Q: Oscar, most of your students' parents are migrant farm laborers of Mexican origin who follow the agricultural harvest and take their families with them. How many students do you keep up with after they leave your classroom?
Ramos: I keep up with a lot of them. These kids come back after Christmas vacation. They come back for summer school... They want to come visit their teachers, they want to say hello. Now with Twitter and Facebook and other social media, it's a lot easier to keep up with students and see what they're doing. They find us. Just two days ago, I got a friend request on Facebook. The name sounded familiar — he was one of my students in third grade. He's currently at [the University of California,] Berkeley.
Q: What becomes of most of these students? You mention a student that ended up at Berkeley — that's impressive. Do you think that's a result of the efforts that you and your fellow teachers are making, Oscar?
Ramos: Oh, I definitely believe that. Every teacher has a dedicated space in the classroom where they put up banners and photos and postcards of the college they attended. So mine is a UC Berkeley college wall. And we talk about the experience of college and what it's like. Every teacher has that, and every teacher emphasizes higher education.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
Jackie Mow: For me, making the [film] about one child brings the issue of migrant families and undocumented kids in focus. You hear a lot of political rhetoric. But when you walk into that class of third graders, they're so full of hope. What we want people to see is who those people ... really are.
Laura Pacheco: We really wanted to break down the stereotypes of undocumented kids, of migrant kids and migrant families. We've done a lot of [documentaries] around the world, and I don't think we've ever met anyone who tries as hard, who works as hard as José's family. The only thing they want is for José and his siblings to have a better life than they had. And you see that in José — he wants to give back – he wants to be part of that school, part of that community. He wants to belong.
Mow: You know, he's not unique in that class. There are a lot of kids like José.
Ramos: I wasn't going to do this [film] but my wife convinced me. I told Jackie and Laura I'll do it but I'm kind of tired — everything [in the media] that has to do with migrant families is so negative. You know, how many end up dropping out, that sort of thing. That's not who we are, but that's what they show the public. But there's something bigger and better and amazing going on [with these kids]... These kids want to be in school. They want to learn. They want to contribute to society and the community.
Q: How old is José today?
Ramos: He's a seventh grader, he's in middle school. So he's 12.
Mow: We just went back to shoot him — just a little snippet. I think our plan is to [continue to] go back and shoot him until he goes to college. ... It's going to be the "Boyhood" of Salinas.
Q: Does he still want to be a police officer or firefighter?
Mow: No, an engineer.
Ramos: You know, when we went on that field trip to UC Berkeley, José did meet other people from Salinas, from the same area ... that were attending college at the time. To see his eyes go – whoa, more people from Salinas here [at Berkeley]. I think that was very inspirational for him.