Every year in September Oscar Ramos, gets a new class of third grade students at Sherwood Elementary School, in the heart of Salinas Valley, California. For Oscar’s 3rd graders, it’s hard to imagine life beyond the fields that extend as far as the eye can see. Their parents work from sun up to sun down, cutting lettuce for American supermarkets. As a result, many of the kids have never been to the beach, even though it’s only twenty miles away. They see gang violence too often. They live in cramped apartments, often shared with other families. And they take on the day-to-day stresses of their parents: making ends meet, dealing with acute health issues often without insurance, fearing deportation.
Oscar knows first hand what migrant kids are up against. He was seven, a year younger than his students, when he came to the Salinas Valley from Mexico. One of eight children, he grew up in labor camps, picking onions and garlic in the fields with his family. In fourth grade his teacher told him if he worked hard he could have a different life. Oscar won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. The day he earned his degree, he bought a car and drove home to the fields. He’s been teaching ever since.
Jose Anzaldo is Oscar’s most gifted student. Jose’s parents work in the lettuce fields. He’s been in seven schools in three years, and he shares his one bedroom apartment with another family. But how do you teach students like Jose who have no place to do their homework? How do you teach a kid who moves every few months? This is what Oscar is up against every day. Oscar not only teaches his students reading, math and science, he gives them access to a world beyond their reach.
Oscar helps José imagine a future beyond the lettuce fields where his parents work. Despite the challenges of his migrant life, Jose excels in school. But José was born in Mexico–and he’s on the cusp of understanding the implications of that. As we watch this play out, we begin to understand the cruelty of circumstance–for José and many of million kids like him. East of Salinas asks: What is lost when kids like José are denied opportunities?
EAST OF SALINAS was shot over three years. As the nation debates immigration reform what happens to Jose tells a deeper story about America in the early 21st century.