In 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, a ballot initiative denying public education and health care to all undocumented immigrants. Laura Angelica Simón, a Mexican immigrant and fourth grade teacher at Hoover Street Elementary School in Los Angeles was, in her own words, “devastated,” and felt motivated to a make film about the impact on her school. In a special Independence Day program filled with rare candor and surprising twists, POV, broadcast television’s only continuing forum for non-fiction film, will present Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, which will air nationally Tuesday, July 1 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings). Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
This 1997 Sundance Freedom of Expression Award winner, which Variety said “puts a human face on the bill’s current and future repercussions” explores California’s recently passed ballot initiative and its effect on students and educators caught up in a bitter clash of allegiances as they struggle to balance learning with the law.
Teacher turned filmmaker, Simón says, “The bill called for me to play the role of an INS agent, kicking students without immigration papers out of my classroom and reporting their families to the immigration department. About 70 percent of my kids are probably without papers. How could I bar them from my classroom? I made this film to show what happens when society has a public policy debate on the backs of children.”
Located in Pico Union, a neighborhood sometimes called the “Ellis Island” of Los Angeles, Hoover Street Elementary is the largest elementary school in the city. Some 2,700 students speaking 32 languages attend the school, and an estimated 90 percent of them are economic and political refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador living below the poverty line. “Most kids don’t know if they are legal or illegal,” says Simón, who was six when her family immigrated from Mexico, and remembers being called a “wetback” by her schoolmates. “They all just feel unwanted and scared.”
The battle over Prop. 187 rages on in the courts, but Fear and Learning addresses the bill’s real-life ramifications and the message it sends to children like Salvadoran fifth grader Mayra. This charming and outspoken nine-year-old leads the camera on a tour of the single room she shares with three family members. Frightened by the passage of Prop. 187, Mayra asked Simón, who was her teacher at the time, if she would be kicked out of school. Simón assured her she was safe, but the following year Mayra and her family disappeared, possibly returning to El Salvador.
Fear and Learning intertwines Simón’s story with those of two other teachers, one who voted against the bill and one who voted for it. Third-grade teacher Dianne Lee points to Hoover’s overcrowding, expressing concern that the school is equipped only to educate the children of citizens and legal immigrants. First-grade teacher Arcelia Hernandez, the daughter of illiterate migrant workers from Mexico, thinks angry voters are punishing parents by attacking the kids, an easy target. Meanwhile, Hoover parents complain that the teachers, most of whom speak only English, don’t understand their culture.
Fear and Learning incorporates many perspectives, illuminating the complexities underlying these issues. “When my family came from Mexico we were very, very poor,” the filmmaker says. “Education defines America for me, in a sense. It’s the ideal I subscribe to — that’s why I’m a teacher. If the whole world could see my kids or their lives, could see how great they are, and felt as inspired by them as I do, they would agree that they’re worth the investment and that these kids are definitely part of this country. They’re very, very American, and they will grow up to be amazing people in this country.”