PBS documentary ‘East of Salinas’ highlights struggles of immigrant children

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PBS documentary ‘East of Salinas’ highlights struggles of immigrant children

A quote from John Steinbeck's

A quote from John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" shares similarities with "East of Salinas."

A quote from John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" shares similarities with "East of Salinas."

A quote from John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" shares similarities with "East of Salinas."

Michael Preston, CU News Corps

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California’s Salinas Valley is typically known throughout the world as an agricultural hub, or as the backdrop of several of the most famous John Steinbeck novels, where the setting can become a character in and of itself. Filmmaker Laura Pacheco combined these two perceptions to create a new story, which focuses on the daily life of third-grader Jose Ansaldo and his teacher Oscar Ramos.

Pacheco’s documentary “East of Salinas” harkens back to the title of the famous Steinbeck novel “East of Eden,” and follows Jose and Oscar for three years as the student and teacher connect over their shared immigrant experiences.

Ramos and his family migrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 7 years old. He grew up picking crops in the fields of Salinas with his family. Inspired by his fourth grade teacher, he eventually received a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied to become a teacher himself.

East of the Salinas River lie opportunities for migrant workers –but those opportunities are harder to come by these days, especially for undocumented children like Jose Ansaldo.

Now, Ramos uses his experience to help guide children that were in the same position as he was growing up. Jose is an undocumented child from a migrant family, and has attended seven different schools in three years because his family follows the seasonal harvests. He is one of an estimated 1 million undocumented children in the United States, which has a total of around 11.3 million undocumented immigrants.

Despite the troubles he faces, Jose is one of Oscar’s brightest students. The student-teacher relationship that the two develop helps Oscar teach Jose about the world beyond math or science. Even after Jose passes the third grade, Oscar continues to mentor Jose and keep in touch with him as he continues through school.

The documentary follows Jose as he learns more about the opportunities and prospects for his future, as well as the harsh realities of immigration in America. Now in seventh grade, Jose better understands the situation he was raised in.

“Becoming a U.S. citizen is not going to solve all his problems obviously, but it’s going to make things a little bit easier for him,” Ramos told Monterey radio station KAZU. “Becoming a U.S. citizen is going to allow him to get financial aid. It’s going to allow him to go to college that he chooses. It’s going to allow him to find a job and work legally when he is finally able to work.”

Pacheco wants to put a face on the American immigration debate, and hopes that viewers will learn about the education opportunities for migrant children and about the origins of our fresh food and produce.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope Jose lives in people’s hearts,” Pacheco told NBC News. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“East of Salinas” premiered on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on Dec. 28, 2015. Clips from the documentary can be found here, and a review by the New York Times can be found here.

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