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On PBS, a Look at Educating the Children of Migrant Workers

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As the immigration debate rages on, especially among the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, anything that puts a human face on that debate is most welcome.

 A short documentary premiering Monday night on PBS does that twice. In "East of Salinas," a 53-minute film airing Dec. 28 at 10 p.m. Eastern time on "Independent Lens" (check local listings), we meet a California teacher and one student with a lot in common.

Both were born in Mexico and are now in the United States. Oscar Ramos, a 3rd grade teacher in the Salinas City Elementary School District in the heart of Salinas Valley, was once an undocumented youngster himself whose parents were migrant farm workers. Ramos had dreams of a college education and a career as a teacher. Because of U.S. immigration and naturalization policies that are different from today, Ramos was able to attain U.S. citizenship as well as his other goals.

Now, his students are mainly Mexican, with about half of them the children of migrant farm workers.

"They follow the harvest wherever it goes," Ramos says in the film by Laura Pecheco and Jackie Mow. The teacher knows all too well that many of his students will trickle away during the school year.  

As the film begins, José Ansaldo is one of the students in Ramos' 3rd grade classroom at Sherwood Elementary. The boy is wide-eyed and inquisitive. A young brother and sister were born in the United States, but José was born in Mexico. That makes his future less certain in this country. There is a short section of context about efforts such as the proposed federal DREAM Act to guarantee that undocumented students here may attend college. We also hear some ugly remarks from immigration opponents (none from anyone running for president).

José's mother, Maria Gonzalez, works 10 to 12 hours a day in the lettuce fields. "There's no escaping the sun," she says. José's stepfather also works the fields, and is more of a migrant than the rest of the family. He will later head 12 hours away to Yuma, Ariz., for months to harvest other crops while the family stays behind in Salinas Valley.

The first of the family's homes that we see appears modestly nice, but as the stepfather heads to Arizona, the family moves to a series of smaller and less-inviting apartments. In one, there are lizards and mice. 

Even as José transfers to a series of schools in other districts. Ramos keeps tabs on him, trying to keep up support. Field trips to the Exploratorium and to the University of California, Berkeley, (where Ramos attended) seem to spark the imaginations and aspirations of José and others.

"These kids can contribute a great many things to this country," Ramos says in the film. "They just need to be given the opportunity."

The film follows José and his family for three years. There are elements of John Steinbeck's work here (hence the title), labor history (one of José's schools is named for farm worker and labor leader Cesar E. Chavez ), and even "McFarland U.S.A.," Disney's fictional film from last year about the children of migrant farm workers who seek to use cross country running as a path to a better future.

The payoff in "East of Salinas" comes from having the film crew there with the family at 4 a.m. when the mother wakes up to get ready for her shift in the fields, or when she has only milk in the refrigerator, or when José is left to sit around the apartment watching cartoons because the new bike he got from Ramos and other benefactors was stolen.

The payoff continues when José, on his field trip to Berkeley, sits in a lecture hall and plays with the little note-taking desk, clearly imagining—and hoping—that he might return there one day as a college student. I'm sure that Ramos will be there to help him achieve that goal.

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