‘East of Salinas’: How a farmworkers’ son grew up to teach farmworkers’ kids

Oscar Ramos picked garlic and lettuce and strawberries and grapes as a young boy, laboring alongside his parents and seven brothers and sisters up and down California before settling in Hollister. He always knew he didn’t want that life for himself. But it could have been, if not for a school counselor who cared — as well as the right friends, a supportive family and his own hard work.

Instead, he came to UC Berkeley, became a teacher —and for the last 20 years has been there for the children of farmworkers in Salinas. “It’s here that I can make a difference,” he says.

Now, the new documentary film East of Salinas tells his story, intertwining it with the life of one of his students, José, a third-grader whose family works the fields today. In the Bay Area, KQED broadcast the documentary as part of the Independent Lens series on Monday, Jan. 18.

“José reminds me a lot of me,” Ramos says in the film.

This short film, Jose and Mr. Ramos, was directed by Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow; footage is from their documentary East of Salinas. Edited by Sowjanya Kudva. Produced by Stephen Talbot.

The filmmakers, Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow, build a vision of hope through the lives of young José and his teacher, who tells each new class of students his own story so they know he knows who they are, and that they can do what he’s done.

Growing up, Ramos never heard about college until he was a sixth-grader, reading Sports Illustrated magazine. “The football helmets caught my attention,” he told Berkeley News. They were Pac-10 helmets, and Ramos learned about USC and Cal and UCLA. But college was just a dream, he said. “For someone like me, I just didn’t think it was possible.”

Now at Sherwood Elementary School in Salinas, Ramos makes sure his students know all about college, and especially about Berkeley. Like the other Sherwood teachers, he has a “college wall” in his classroom where he displays university banners and posters — many of them from his alma mater. A football season ticket holder with friends around Berkeley, Ramos finds reasons to visit twice a month or so and brings pictures back to class. “They all know Cal. They know the Golden Bears.”

About two years ago, Ramos organized a trip to campus for about 25 Sherwood students  — sixth-graders, plus José. The filmmakers went along, and East of Salinas shows Ramos taking the youths to his old room in a residence hall, as well as José trying out a seat in Wheeler, his eyes big. They spent the day soaking up Berkeley — riding the Campanile elevator, eating lunch in a dining commons.

“I think I want to be an engineer,” José says in the film. “There’s always a chance to do what you want to do as long as you don’t give up.” He saw a Berkeley student who was born in Mexico, he adds.

Things were different for Ramos back in the 1980s. He was a good student, like José — he says all his friends were. They didn’t have to be reminded to do their homework; they knew what their parents went through, and from a young age knew they didn’t want that for themselves, Ramos says. The friends competed with their schoolwork, motivated each other. And then there was Mr. C, the counselor. He wasn’t even Ramos’ counselor, but his friends got Mr. C to make sure Ramos took the right courses — the college prep ones.

When it came time to apply to college, Ramos had great grades — but he almost missed the application deadline, because of his after-school job, because of a lot of things, he says.

Oscar Ramos

Oscar Ramos

“Mr. C called me in and said I wasn’t going to leave until I filled out a bunch of applications,” Ramos recounts. “I said no. He called my mom and asked permission to keep me there as long as it took. She said ‘Keep him all night; don’t let him leave til he’s done.’ “

Once the applications were done, Ramos again tried to leave. And again, Mr. C said no; there were financial-aid documents to complete, and then a trip to the post office. After a stop for ice cream, Mr. C finally set him free.

The friends got in everywhere they applied. Ramos thought he’d go to UCLA but his friends had already decided: They were all going to Berkeley. They all did, supporting each other through four years; Ramos graduated in 1996 with a degree in history, inspired by the great historian Leon Litwack. “He opened my eyes to U.S. history — the true history, not the sugar-coated history.”

The friends are all still tight, but Ramos is the only one who went back to Hollister. He taught high school history for one year, and then fell in love with the lower grades, landed at Sherwood in Salinas, in California’s farm belt just east of Hollister.

“It didn’t take me long to realize this is where I need to be — this is where I’m needed the most — though I could probably get a job in any school in the U.S.,” Ramos says. “Those other schools don’t need me,” he adds, not the ones with more resources, with educated and well-connected parents. “The kids in our school, they don’t have that.”

Ramos says the filmmakers came to him after he was featured in a 2011 New York Times article on the hard lives of farmworkers’ kids. He agreed to take part, he says, one one condition: “Everything I read or see on TV (about his community) is so negative — they’re always talking about violence and dropout rates. That’s what people think because that’s what everyone reports.”  Ramos told them, “You have to talk about what’s really happening. These kids don’t want to be a part of that; they want to go to school.”

Sherwood students are ending up at colleges and universities all over the United States, Ramos says he told them, adding: “Make that film, and maybe it will end up changing ideas.”

That film is East of Salinas. Ramos says he didn’t plan to hold a viewing party when it airs, thinking he’d be embarrassed. But his wife had other ideas. They’ll watch with their 7-year-old son (another Cal football fan) and friends. Already, Ramos is fielding media calls and girding for the public reaction and “social media trolls.”

But he and his childhood friends are focusing more on the farmworker families they adopt at Christmas. It’s their way of paying it forward: They shower the families with gifts, and gift cards to supermarkets and other stores. These gifts come with strings attached, they tell the families. “They come from people you don’t know but who know you — and they believe in you,” Ramos says. “And when you go to college, you will do the same thing.”

For more information about the film, visit http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/east-of-salinas/.

The film can be streamed online through January on the PBS website.