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PBS film ‘East of Salinas’ features local teacher, student


The special bond between a Salinas teacher and one of his students will be in the spotlight Monday when the documentary film “East of Salinas” premieres on national television.

The PBS film is four years in the making and follows the relationship forged by Oscar Ramos, a third-grade teacher at Sherwood School, and Jose Anzaldo, the son of a migrant farmworker family.

On Tuesday, Jose and Ramos met with a reporter and photographer in the teacher’s classroom at Sherwood. Jose said he isn’t doing anything special during the winter break, mostly staying at home or hanging out with some friends.

When asked what stood out to him about Jose, Ramos said, “He reminded me of me.”

“I was always sleepy and hungry” in class, he said.

The film shows Jose and his two siblings being awakened most days by 4 a.m. to go to a child care provider’s house before school as his parents leave for work. He loses a lot of sleep, Ramos said. And there is little to eat at home.

Yet Jose remains determined, resilient and good-natured, said Ramos.

Their story may not be as unique to the Salinas Valley, where many teachers are home-grown, return to their communities to try and make a difference and take students under their wings. In fact, Ramos acknowledges that Jose is one of many students he’s connected with over the years.

But for viewers in the East Coast and rest of the nation, their story is poignant and can shed light not only on the plight but the perseverance of the migrant farmworker.

“It’s a heartwarming story about a young boy who really wants to succeed,” said Laura Pacheco, one of the film’s directors. “I hope people will fall in love with Jose and say, ‘Of course he should be given a chance.’ He wants to become an engineer and wants to give back to his community and I think the American Dream is to help him do that.”

Pacheco has done some bonding of her own with Jose — and his community.

“After filming him for four years, he feels like part of our family,” Pacheco said during a telephone interview Monday from Boston.

She and co-director Jackie Mow have been coming to Salinas since Jose was 8 years old and a third grader in Ramos’ classroom.

Today, Jose is 12 and a seventh grader at Washington Middle School. He has a high aptitude for math.

Ramos said Jose “is a natural,” in front of the camera. Over the course of making the film, “he wasn’t shy about having a camera in his face.”

Pacheco and Mow were back in Salinas a few weeks ago. They spent three days here to film a trailer and shorter spots for promotional purposes.

They hadn’t seen Jose in a while.

“He’s exactly as expected,” Pacheco said of his cheerful, polite manner. “The biggest shock … is that his voice changed. We were so used to a cute little boy saying ‘Laura, hi!’ Now it’s like ‘Hi’ (in a deeper voice). He’s still doing great in math.”

Jose’s stepfather is in Yuma for the winter harvest there. He, his mother, brother and sister remain in Salinas.

His mom, a seasonal farmworker, is idled for the winter.

“Money is really tight,” said Pacheco. “There was hardly any food in the house, a bit of what we’d expect for this time of year. Yet everybody seems happy.”

The film opens with Ramos’ story. He grew up in a farm labor camp outside of Hollister, attended local schools and eventually graduated from UC Berkeley. His goal was to become a teacher.

Ramos has taught third grade at Sherwood for 19 years. Himself the son of migrant farm workers, he begins each school year by telling his students about his background. He is from where they are from — the fields.

“East of Salinas” isn’t the first time Ramos has shared his personal story. In fact, Pacheco learned about it from a newspaper article.

“I was reading the New York Times (in 2011),” she said. “There was a story about Oscar Ramos. It talked about migrant kids. It touched me and I kept talking about it. It didn’t really stand out to me as a documentary. I think the thing that really intrigued me is that I really never thought about farm workers as parents. And I was really upset by it.”

So she called Ramos and explained her interest. She came out to Salinas. Ramos introduced her to a few families.

“We started filming three families and ended up using just one,” she said.

Ramos agreed to be a focus of the documentary, he said, only if it conveyed a positive story.

“I’m tired of reading stories about dropouts, violence and gangs,” he said. “There are students like Jose with the deck stacked against them who are succeeding. I hope (the film) enlightens people out there who are in the dark about our community and families.

“You enjoy your salad but there’s a whole (human) story behind it,” said Ramos.

Prior to this project, Pacheco had never set foot in Salinas. Though her filmmaking has taken her to Mexico, Guatemala and parts of South America, she said she never has filmed the migrant lifestyle.

“Before ‘East of Salinas,’ I’ve never done anything before on food justice and farm workers,” she said.

The film is not meant to preach one point of view or another, said Pacheco.

“It ended up being a little political but not polarizing,” she said. “We’re not hitting you over the head with politicians arguing pro or con on immigration reform.

“Kids like Jose, all they want is to study hard and not end up working in the fields. That’s also what their parents want. They’re trying harder than kids I know in Boston. I thought maybe there was a chance to break down some stereotypes” … such as migrant kids don’t try or that their parents don’t care or they can’t achieve because they’re not smart or they don’t have the ambition.

“I’m not from Salinas and I never thought like that but as we were filming I heard people reference things like that. I found that incredibly disturbing,” Pacheco said.

Currently, “I’m in Vermont and we have a huge migrant population because of the dairy industry here. They’re plagued by many of the same challenges that the families in Salinas have. They are very isolated, they move around from farm to farm, they don’t have legal status. Whether it’s New Jersey or Arizona, Texas, Michigan or California there are a lot of migrant populations and people have a lot of preconceptions of what migrant families are really like.

“(East of Salinas”) is a film for everybody to get more insight into the realities and also just thinking about where our food comes from. We have families who pick our food and work hard. They should be given opportunities, and their kids should be given the opportunities that my children have as well.”

The director said in making “East of Salinas” she didn’t want to add to the body of films exhausting the topic of child labor.

“I preferred to follow a family and give a deeper look at a family and what the lost opportunities are,” she said.

In the process, Pacheco said she gained a fondness for Salinas.

“Oscar is one of so many great teachers doing excellent work … and we met so many great kids and for me that’s one of the points I want to get across.”

What does Jose want people to get out of the film?

“How hard my life has been and how I’ve managed to live my life, no matter how hard it is,” he said.

“I want them to appreciate how well they have it. I didn’t have much but I still made the most out of it. … And to stay positive,” he said.

Pacheco vows to return to Salinas to have her children meet Jose and take in the sense of community she’s observed. It feels like home, she said, to the point of mentioning the salsa at El Zacatecano restaurant on East Alisal Street.

“I found everybody we worked with or came into contact with intelligent and helpful. The most impressive thing for me was the community spirit. It felt like people in Salinas seem to really look out for people in Salinas. I think it’s something we can all learn from.

“I love Salinas,” she said. “I feel like I have so many friends here now. We will be going back to Salinas at least twice a year. I fully plan to be at Jose’s graduation.”

What’s next

“East of Salinas,” a PBS documentary, will air nationally except parts of California on the “Independent Lens” program at 10 p.m., Dec. 28.

The film will be broadcast on KQED for the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area at 10 p.m. Jan. 18.