“I see myself in a lot of these students. They want to learn. They are very curious about everything and very aware of the long hours and the hard work their parents are doing. They don’t want that for themselves. They want something different, something better.” Oscar Ramos, Sherwood Elementary teacher in Salinas, California, as told in East of Salinas.
The documentary film, East of Salinas, tells the story of Oscar, a heroic teacher and his student Jose, both the sons of migrants. There are many powerful themes packed in this documentary: A devoted teacher, a precocious undocumented child, migrant families struggling to survive, and the effect of immigrant reform on all of their lives. As the documentary tells, Oscar has big dreams for his students and for Jose, a young 8 year old student that reminds him of himself.
He teaches his 3rd graders to dream big, to imagine a life beyond the lettuce fields. He, too, was born in Mexico. Ramos has been teaching children of migrants at Sherwood Elementary for 15 years.
Below, are excerpts from East of Salinas that capture the voices, thoughts and hearts of Oscar, Jose, Jose’s Mother Maria, and Jose’s Stepfather Jaime. Together, their stories take us to the fields of Salinas, and to the daily dreams that weave their lives.
“My students are mainly Mexican students. Half the class is migrant.”
Oscar Ramos on becoming a Teacher:
I was in the 4th grade when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. The students see me as their teacher, but my life could have ended up very differently. I was born in Mexico. My parents came here from Mexico, to give us a better opportunity.
Oscar grew up in the labor camps, working in the fields from a very young age, 7 or 8 years old. He worked in the garlic fields, onion fields, and chile fields.
I remember my mother’s hands, and my father’s hands but, mostly, my hands. Black finger nails cut up, bruised, bumpy and rough.
In the inspiring film, East of Salinas filmmakers Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow introduce us to the challenging lives of migrant families picking lettuce for all of us in the Salinas Valley. The poignant story follows the lives of Jose Ansaldo, a bright 8 year old student and son of migrant workers, and Oscar Ramos, Jose’s teacher, mentor, and friend.
Laura Pacheco was inspired to film the story after reading an article in the New York Times discussing the difficulties of educating migrant youth in America’s remote fields. Laura contacted Oscar Ramos who teaches migrant students at Sherwood Elementary in Salinas and through him, she met young Jose, and his family.
The story highlights the effect of current immigration legislation on young children and their hard working families.
Jose’s mother works ten hour shifts picking lettuce. Because she is undocumented, she cannot access health care. She suffers from asthma made worse by the pesticides she inhales every day as she works to provide for her family, and for us.
Every day I wake up at 3 a.m. Sometimes I sleep only 4 or five hours. Sometimes I don’t even want to wake up. Then, I remember all of the bills I have to pay, and I get up. I leave the kids with the babysitter and then I take the bus to go to work. We work 10 to 12 hours a day. My work is very hard. Cut lettuce all day and withstand the heat of the sun. I was 13 when I came to the U.S. I didn’t know it would be so hard. I have three children, and of the three, Jose is the only one that was born in Mexico.
He doesn’t know there will be problems. For Jose, every day is a good day. He is a good son and he loves school. But if the law doesn’t change, he won’t be able to study after high school.
Work and Health Problems:
I have asthma. It affects my work a lot. I can’t breath sometimes. I think my problem started with the stuff they spray in the fields. Makes it harder to breathe. What worries me the most is that if I get sick I won’t be able to work. I have Medicaid for Jaime and Daniel, but not for Jose or for myself. It’s good that Jose is never sick.
When step-dad, Jaime is Gone:
No work until April, even if I want it. Yes it’s very hard when Jaime is gone because it’s double the bills. Rent there, and rent here. Plus bills and food in both places. They had cut off my electricity. I rented a room and with that money I paid the electric bill.
A devoted teacher-a very special student
Mr. Ramos on Jose:
“Jose is a fantastic kid. He is extremely smart. Very Happy Student. He is always smiling and jumping around. He is one of those students who is eager to learn about everthing. Jose reminds me a lot of me growing up. We both love school. And even at such a young age, we were already thinking about the future.
The students in my class are only 8 or 9 years old. They don’t understand that if they are not U.S. Citizens they might get kicked out of the country. They do fear their parents getting deported because it’s in the news, and they’ve heard of some cases. But I think it’s more fear for their parents than themselves.”
Jose Ansaldo in his Mom’s Workplace
Mr. Ramos on picking up Jose and his brother to take them to school.
Jose’s family is constantly on the move to help pay the rent. The parents agreed to let him pick them up so they could finish the school year in his class with their friends.
“Jose, this is his 5th school he’s attended already. He came in the middle of the year. There is an adjustment period when a student has a new teacher, and when you have to do it 2 or 3 times in one year, well, that just sets you back a bit. We have to be very creative in the way we help these kids catch up. They can contribute great many things to this country, they just need to be given the opportunity.”
Jaime, Jose’s Step dad:
“When there is no more work here, I move to Yuma, Arizona. It’s a 12 hour drive from Yuma to Salinas. Minimum 200 dollars food and gas. That’s why it’s very difficult for me to come home. It’s far. Yuma, Arizona is on the frontier… Many patrol agents and migration checkpoints. There’s more work. But people don’t go there because they are afraid. As a father the most difficult thing for me is to leave them alone. I have to be separated from my family for 5 months. If something happens to them, to get to Salinas is 12 hours. The hardest part is closing the door behind me.”
Being migrant means that their parents follow the agricultural season. They have to constantly move following the harvest. Regardless of whether the whole family leaves, one parent, or both, it still affects the children, stresses Oscar Ramos.
Mr. Ramos on Parent Conference with Migrant Parents Who Want the Best for their Children
“Parents want to know, what can I do to help my child. Simply sit next to them. Have them read to you, and you listen to them. Ask them questions. Open their backpacks. Look for their homework. Talk to your child. We have to all work together so they can get ahead. Alone is much more difficult.”
Jose Ansaldo, 8 year old student, child of Migrant Workers in Salinas, California
“I’m 8 years old. I like to play and run, and study, too. I like to add and subtract and multiply and divide. When I grow up, I’ll be a fire-fighter or a cop.
When I wake up in the morning it’s 4 o’clock. I brush my teeth and my mom drops me off with the babysitter so she can go to work. The babysitter wakes me up at 6 o’clock.”
“I have to do my homework alone, because my mom and Jaime speak Spanish, not English. But I learn more when I try by myself. It’s important to me to work really hard, because if you don’t do good in school you are going to flunk your grade and then you don’t go to the next grade, or field trips or swimming.”
“It’s kind of hard getting food since Jaime is gone (to Yuma). Sometimes, we don’t have nothing to eat. We don’t have any food for my mom to make. So we have to sleep without eating. Until the morning, till we go to school. Sometimes if you don’t eat for a while, your stomach starts to hurt and starts growling.”
On being home alone:
“My mom and my dad work really hard so me and my brother have to stay home by ourselves. I would like to go outside and play. But, my mom says that I can’t go alone.”
Salinas is tough, tells Oscar Ramos, “way too dangerous outside. Parents worry about kids getting shot or gang activity.”
What does the immigration law mean in the life of an 8 year old who wants to study math?
Jose wants to be an engineer when he grows up, but as the filmmakers point out, “not everyone shares those dreams.”
Mr. Ramos and the Community:
“13 years ago a bunch of my friends who graduated from Berkeley, we got together and started donating money to start helping out less fortunate families; bring them a little joy during Christmas.” Today, these friends work in education, law, the medical field and are business owners. Together, they distribute Christmas gifts throughout the community.
We all do something different but we all grew up working the fields. We knew how hard it was so we all focused on doing well in school. We must not forget where we came from.
To Watch the Full Film, East of Salinas, click here.
East of Salinas was produced and directed by: Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow; edited by Rachel Clark; music by Joseph Julian Gonzalez. Additional Cinematography: Samantha Grant, Vicente Franco, Jason Blalock Sound Recordists: Laura Pacheco, Ray Day, Todd Dayton, Phil Turner, Mario Furioni Additional Editing: Jessie Beers-Altman Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer Executive Producer for LPB: Sandie Viquez Pedlow
Laura Pacheco is a filmmaker and anthropologist who loves to tell stories about spirited heroes rising against all odds. East of Salinas, premiered s on PBS Monday, December 28, 2015. Check your local listings to view the touching film and to meet Jose, the bright, undocumented son of migrant farm workers and his guardian angel- dedicated teacher Oscar, once a migrant kid himself.
Jackie Mow (Producer/Director) is passionate about science and education,and makes films with a great diversity of subjects.