High school is a uniquely formative experience in American life, evocative of "happy days" nostalgia on the one hand and the pitfalls of teen angst on the other. But for vivacious Liliana Luis, her debut as an all-American high school freshman is immeasurably complicated by the fact that her Mexican-American family makes its living following the harvests from Texas to California.
As shown in Escuela, a new film by Hannah Weyer, an entire system of educational support has emerged to facilitate the movement of migrant worker families across the Western U.S. But bureaucracy does little to shield Liliana and teens like her from the social and educational dislocations of the migrant economy, or the jarring contrasts between the middle class culture of high school and the stark realities of migrant life.
Escuela airs Tuesday, August 27, at 10 p.m. ET (check for rebroadcasts) on PBS. Escuela is the tenth program in the 15th anniversary season of POV, television's longest-running series of independent, non-fiction films. POV continues with additional fall and winter specials.
Many Americans assume that the field workers who carry out the backbreaking job of harvesting our fruits and vegetables are seasonal or recent immigrants to the U.S. But many migrant workers are, in fact, long-time citizens who work as family units in the fields. Their children, born in the U.S., often join them in those fields — leaving little time to pursue their education and a path to a better life.
The Luis family has come to realize that they must give their younger daughter, Liliana, the chance to complete high school and seek a life beyond the fields — a chance that Liliana's parents and older siblings did not have. But giving Liliana the opportunity to stay in school is not as easy as it might seem. The family has always depended on its members to work the fields in order to make ends meet and even more disruptively, the family must follow the seasonal clock without fail. This means that each year the Luis' travel between their permanent home in Texas to temporary camps in California— a series of upheavals that occur in the middle of the school year.
The challenges for Liliana are formidable. Bright, curious, and energetic — with a burgeoning interest in boys — Liliana must play constant catch-up in her studies as she switches schools. She also has to deal with a recurring "new kid" experience while navigating the treacherous social terrain of teenage cliques, first loves, and social acceptance. Compounding the already exhausting trials of adolescence, these obstacles create an added dimension of discomfort for Liliana as she struggles to bridge the gap between the harsh reality of field labor and the middle class gloss of American high school life.
"My approach to filming this story was to be as observational and conversational as possible," says producer/director Hannah Weyer,"and that was made possible by the close relationship I had with the Luis family. I would go and stay with them for extended periods of time without a crew, and with only a small Hi-8 camera and a mounted microphone. I felt this process of filming and the personal relationship we shared allowed Liliana and her family to share their stories with openness."