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"East of Salinas" Documentary Puts a Face on the Immigration Debate

California is home to more than two-million undocumented immigrants, some of them children. The life of one of those kids is featured in a new  documentary called East of Salinas, airing locally Monday on PBS.  Salinas teacher Oscar Ramos also plays a key role in the documentary. 

I met Ramos in his third grade classroom at Sherwood Elementary on the east side of Salinas when students had three weeks off for the holidays. 

It’s a time of transition when farm worker families follow the harvest to Mexico or Yuma Arizona.  It also used to be a time when this school would lose half its students.

But  teachers during parent conferences started talking about how important it was for them to stay here, and not take the entire family to Yuma and or to Mexico.  So over the years we don’t have entire families leaving anymore.  It’s mostly the fathers who leave, and the mothers and the children who stay.  And that has helped the kids a lot in terms of  catching up and being at grade level,” says Ramos.

That life changing role teachers can play in the lives of their students is seen in the new PBS documentary featuring Oscar Ramos and one of his undocumented students Jose Ansaldo. 

The filmmakers followed the pair for three years beginning here in Ramos’ third grade classroom.  It shows how Ramos connects with students like Jose because he knows where they’re coming from.

Jose’s parents work in the lettuce fields and I, as a child, worked in the lettuce fields, in the onion fields, in  the garlic fields.  I mean you name it, I worked it.  And at that time I was seven and eight years old, and as long as no one saw it was okay for children to work. Well Jose doesn’t have to deal with that, but he still has to deal with everything else that comes with parents waking up at 3:00am in the morning to go to work and having to come back at 6:00, 7:00 at night during the peak season,” says Ramos.

So how does that affect them in the classroom? 

“It’s not uncommon for some of our students to wake up at 3:00 in the morning because their parents have to take them to the baby sitters so they can go off to do their job.  And when they are at the babysitters they take a nap.  They might get breakfast, they might not. 

During the peak season we have students who are sleepy, who are hungry, yet we are expecting them to be at grade level. We’re expecting them to enjoy the book we’re reading when all they’re really thinking about is I need sleep I need something to eat,” says Ramos.

Despite these obstacles, Ramos finds students eager to learn.  He says the East of Salinas documentary puts a face on immigration with Jose, one of the estimated one million undocumented children in this country.

“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.  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,” says Ramos.

It’s an opportunity that made the difference in his own life.

I grew up with a group of undocumented friends, and we all worked out in the fields, but we were given an opportunities to become US citizens.  For me and my friends we were given the opportunity through an amnesty program.    And now we have people who are attorneys who are in  the medical field, business owners, teachers and who are in law enforcement.  If Jose and his friends, who are just like him, aren’t given that opportunity, well our communities they lose great minds, they lose what they can contribute, they lose what they can give back to our communities,” says Ramos.

Oscar Ramos is a third grade teacher at Sherwood Elementary in Salinas.  He’s featured in the new documentary East of Salinas.  It premiered late last month, and will air for the first time locally Monday, January 18th at 10:00pm on PBS.    The documentary was produced and directed by filmmakers Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow.