Not just a filmmaker but a trained anthropologist, Laura Pacheco has traveled the world to tell the stories of people overcoming the odds of their rough circumstances, including for the Emmy Award-winning series Rx for Survival (PBS), where she followed a young woman dying of drug resistant TB in the slums of Lima, Peru, and in Renewal, where she followed evangelical Christians protesting mountaintop removal in Kentucky. Filmmaking partner Jackie Mow, meanwhile, began her career producing news in France, chasing ambulances for TV news in New Mexico, and reporting for the BBC in Boston, before more recently exploring the psychology of adolescent girls and women in films like A Girl’s Life. Together Pacheco and Mow have brought their passions for telling personal coming of age stories in their Independent Lens film East of Salinas.
East of Salinas brings us into California’s “Steinbeck Country” to meet Jose, a bright young student who tries to remain optimistic about his future despite being the undocumented son of migrant farmworkers. Jose [who spells his name without accent mark] is helped greatly by his caring teacher Oscar, once a migrant farm kid himself.
Pacheco and Mow spoke to us about making this film, and as a bonus they returned to Salinas to film an update with both Jose and Oscar [which we put together in a separate post].
Why did you want to make this film? And how did you first find and connect with Jose and his teacher Oscar, specifically?
Laura: A few years ago I read an article in The New York Times that talked about the challenges of teaching migrant kids in America. I couldn’t sleep after I read the article. I had thought a lot of farmworkers, but never about realities of farmworkers who are also parents. The article really touched me. It profiled Oscar Ramos and the work he does with migrant students at Sherwood Elementary [in Salinas]. This story combines so many important issues of today –immigration, education and food justice.
I called up Oscar and talked to him about making a documentary. When we found Oscar and his student Jose, we knew we had a great story. Jose’s gives us a youthful perspective to the questions: what is the impact of America’s immigration laws and farming practices on children?
Once we met Jose and his family, we knew we had a story that would speak to a larger audience. His family was very open with us about their situation, their struggles, their hopes for the future. And we just fell in love with Jose. He’s such an amazing kid.
Jackie: Laura and I are always looking for a good stories to make a film about. One day she showed me [the NYT article]. Oscar would lose students for several months. When they returned, he had to catch them up. However, when we met Oscar, this was [no longer] the case. His school had worked very hard to convince families not to move the kids. Today, generally the fathers go to Arizona and the mother and kids stay behind. But this also created all kinds of other problems for families. This meant that during the months that the father was away, they had to live on one income and pay two apartments, one in Salinas and one Arizona. And as we see in the film, this is the life that Jose experiences. Oscar had introduced us to three families, but we felt it was stronger to tell the story through the eyes of one person. And once we met Jose, we knew we had a story. It is hard not to connect with him, he is the most positive person I know. He is always thankful for our visits. He once said to us, “I try to stay positive because if you only see the bad things in life, you don’t see the good things.”
And how did you gain the trust of Oscar, Jose and his family?
Laura: We spent a lot of time earning the trust of our characters. Undocumented communities are careful about who they speak with — filmmakers and journalists are typically not high on their list. Oscar Ramos, the teacher in our film, introduced us to a few migrant families. When we found Jose and his family, we knew they would be great characters in the film. We spent many weeks talking with them, listening to their stories, and gaining their trust. I think because we were willing to spend time without, without video cameras, becoming friends first, they began to trust us. That is what allowed us the access into their lives.
In researching and shooting East of Salinas, what surprised you the most about what you learned?
Laura: I think one of the things that surprised us the most — was just how hard-working migrant families are. These are families who literally work from sun-up to sun- down seven days a week. Their hands pick a lot of the food that feeds America. And yet, they live with so many insecurities. It’s heartbreaking. The other thing that surprised us was all the stereotypes surrounding migrant kids – that they aren’t smart, that they can’t achieve, that their parents don’t care. There is nothing further from the truth. The only thing migrant parents want for their children is that they continue their education and don’t end up in the fields. Jose, like all the kids Oscar teaches want a better life for themselves and their families. They are smart, dedicated, and they try really hard.
Jackie: It surprised us how hard this family works and yet it is so difficult for them to make ends meet. During the growing season, they are working 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. It is always a struggle. But Jose’s family is also very resilient. The kids are never unhappy about how they live — that is just their life. They are very adaptable.
And what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
Laura: Migrant families are always moving — they work in different locations weekly, they change homes and schools often, and even move cities. One of our biggest challenge was trying to find people when we had scheduled to film them. Often Jose’s parents would have to work on their days off (when we’d scheduled an interview) or they would leave to work in a far away city for a few days and simply not be there when we came to film. We’d get permission to film in one school and then Jose would switch schools. We were travelling from the East Coast – and no matter how much planning we did beforehand, we had to be flexible. We had a plan B, C D, and E! The upside is it allowed us to spend a lot of time getting to know Salinas and with Oscar and Jose without a set shooting schedule.
Jackie: In addition to what Laura said, we also found ourselves filming the kids just sitting around a lot! How do you make that look interesting to viewers? I felt those scenes that we shot of him riding his skateboard in the tiny living room or just sitting around watching television or looking at his Pokemon cards said a lot about the way they lived. And editing multiple scenes like that gives you a sense of being trapped inside. We didn’t quite know where we were going with all those scenes, but in the end I felt it was powerful to see that. The other big challenge for us was to leave them after every shoot. We would buy them food or clothing before we left, but then after a few weeks we were always wondering if they were okay. Laura and I became very close to them and that continues to be the case today. The difference now is that we are able to communicate with them more easily so if they have any problems, they can get a hold of us or Oscar. We often write to Jose to check in.
What part of the film especially moved or resonated with you?
Laura: There are two scenes that really touch me in the film. The first is the repetitive scenes of Jose and his siblings alone in their apartment staring at the television with nothing to do and no access to go outside and play. Salinas is the youth homicide capital in the country. It is incredibly violent and Jose’s parents don’t want the kids to go outside. Their parents work from sun up to sundown, often seven days a week. So Jose is never allowed to go outside. They sit in their house every day after school and all days on the weekends, watching TV because there is nothing else to do.
When Jose’s siblings go to Mexico and he is left alone, it’s heartbreaking. Now, he doesn’t have anyone to talk with all day. The other scene I love is the Christmas scene. When Oscar and his friends deliver surprise Christmas presents to migrant families in Salinas — it’s beautiful. The parents were so grateful, to be able to see their children receiving a gift for the holiday. It was so sweet.
You have kids yourself; did that make it more difficult or easier to make a film about a young boy growing up in difficult circumstances?
Laura: I think filmmakers regardless of whether they have children or not, approach every new subject with curiosity and compassion. That said — Jackie and I are both moms as well as filmmakers, and while I don’t think that affected our decisions for the film, we were always making sure Jose and his siblings had enough food to eat and clothes to wear to school. We spent a lot of time (after our shoots) taking everyone to the grocery store.
Jackie: Being a parent didn’t make things easier or more difficult to make the film, but we had to spend long days with Jose and his two siblings, so being a parent did make us better equipped to do that! Laura and I spent a lot of time taking them out to eat or buying groceries and clothing for them. I think anybody who spent some time with them would have done the same whether they were parents or not.
Ultimately, what do you think will happen to Jose?
Laura: The unfortunate answer is, we don’t know. Despite all his hard work and passion for studying — if immigration laws don’t change in the US — Jose may never be given a chance to fully participate in our economy. That is a loss on so many levels — to our communities, our country and our economy.
But if you had to imagine, where do you see Jose (or what do you imagine him doing) in 10 years?
Laura: In 10 years Jose will be 22; I fully expect he will be in his last year of college and looking forward to graduation. I think he will become an engineer — just like he wants to be. I have no doubt he will still be friends with Mr. Ramos. He’ll still be helping his family and his community. He is such a smart and hardworking student.
Jackie: Jose is the caretaker in that family. There is one point in the film when he talks about how he feels the need to get a job to support them because he doesn’t want them to end up in the streets. He carries that weight on his shoulder. Now that he is 12, more than ever he is determined to be successful when he grows up. He is talking about taking leadership classes so he can be assured a spot in a university. Also, Oscar meets with him regularly and always encourages to do well in school. Jose has quite a few advocates now! 10 years from now, we will be at his university watching him graduate.
Given immigration is such a hot-button issue in the United States right now, even more so on the precipice of a presidential election, how do you think this film can be used in national conversations around immigration?
Laura: I think East of Salinas should be required viewing for every candidate! Immigration is indeed such a hot topic now – and finding a path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented is more important now than ever. But what we really hope is that people who see the film are able to put aside their politics for an hour and settle into Jose’s story. His hope for his future is heartwarming.
There are 2 million kids like Jose in America. They all want to contribute and make their communities a better place. America is full of opportunities and I hope after seeing East of Salinas, the door to providing these opportunities to kids like Jose will open a bit wider. I think because we’ve focused on one story and stayed away from polarizing politics, the film can be used to encourage a different conversation around immigration reform.
What projects are you working on next?
Laura: There are so many good stories out there. I think we may do something on the upcoming election and the Hispanic vote — but we’ll have to see.
Lastly, name three favorite films.
Laura: Cary Fukunaga’s beautiful and honest film Sin Nombre, about young children trying to cross the US/Mexican border; the documentary When We Were Kings; and anything by Errol Morris.