Sunday, September 18, 2016

Truth Seekers: How 35 Awesome Fifth Graders Brought the History of Mexican Repatriation to School Curriculum

Olga García Echeverría

"The repatriation of Mexican men, women, and children from the railwaystation in Los Angeles on March 9, 1932.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Historical Collection."
Footnote for photograph from Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation of the 1930's 

Back in 2010, I interviewed Los Angeles poet Gloria Enedina Álvarez here at La Bloga. In that interview, she shared that her father's family had been repatriated in the 1930s. “Although they were US citizens, they were forced to leave the country because of the racism and anti-Mexican climate of the time. My grandfather came to the US to work for the railroads and then ironically his family was sent back on the train to Mexico. My grandfather lost everything he had worked for here—his job, property.”

Gloria's paternal family was not alone. By conservative measures, it is estimated that up to 1 million Mexicans, many of them US citizens and legal residents, were unconstitutionally deported from the US to Mexico in the 1930s. Scholars Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Ramirez, in their groundbreaking book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, highlight this ugly chapter in US history that has too often been minimized or completely omitted from textbooks, school curriculum, media sources, and by extension the nation's collective consciousness.

Chicanx Studies courses in college offer access to this “forgotten” history, but what about the younger generations? This is, after all, American history that unfortunately mirrors contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation. Shouldn't K-12 students be entitled to learn about this historical period of extreme xenophobia, racism, and unconstitutional policies that severely impacted the lives of so many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans?

Enter AB 146, a 2015 law that promotes the teaching of this subject matter in grades K-12. How this law came into existence and the inspiring story of the fifth grade class in Bell Gardens that spearheaded the campaign are at the heart of Dr. Lani Cupchoy's documentary Truth Seekers, which will be screening at Cal State University Los Angeles on Friday, October 7th, from 6-8 PM at the University Student Union Theater. The event is free and open to the public.

Here is a synopsis of the film (from the film's press release):

On October 1, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) Assembly Bill 146, which calls for courses and history books in California schools to include the account of the unconstitutional deportations of over 1 million U.S. citizens and lawful residents of Mexican descent throughout the 1920s-1930s, also referred to as the “Mexican Repatriation.” A Depression Era Mexican Repatriation policy, initiated by President Herbert Hoover, allowed for the indiscriminate sweeping up of Mexican American citizens and immigrants from dance halls, markets, theaters, hospitals, and homes, and deported them to Mexico - a gross violation of human rights and to date no apology has been offered by the federal government. With overwhelming majorities, Assembly Bill 146, which was the brainchild of 35 fifth-graders and their teacher Leslie Hiatt from Bell Gardens Elementary, took two years to pass. Shot on location in Los Angeles by filmmaker Lani Cupchoy and narrated by students, their teacher, a survivor, education experts, community members, and public historians,Truth Seekers takes an introspective view of a student-driven social justice movement beginning in Bell Gardens, California.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cupchoy and asking her a few questions about her film.

Can you share a little about the creative seeds of your film? What was the primary inspiration? Did you seek out this story or did this story find you?

I currently serve as a member-elect on the Montebello School Board of Education, the district where this story emerges from.  Prior to the film, I had already been collaborating with teacher Leslie Hiatt (film narrator) and her students for a couple years as a guest speaker-historian-artist while supporting their efforts to champion Assembly member Cristina Garcia’s AB146 into a law.  Leslie and I had always discussed the importance of documenting the story and she had identified another filmmaker who had accompanied the class to Sacramento.  However, when that commitment fell through, Leslie (re)approached me and asked if I could take on the project.  At the time I was preparing to defend my doctoral dissertation as well as balancing teaching commitments, personal responsibilities and service on the school board.  Despite this schedule, I agreed to create the film because I was there at the beginning of the journey and truly believe in the work and significant message that these children are trying to communicate to the world.

What were the primary challenges of making this film? 

This documentary came together organically and embodies a labor of love since everyone who participated, including myself and Kenneth Del Rio who recorded original music, volunteered.  This documentary was very self-contained: I filmed, conducted interviews, and edited; the entire process took 3 months.  Logistically, there were a couple of challenges.  I utilized my own cameras and sound equipment to conduct 50 interviews and a camera gave out mid-way through the process forcing me to reinvest in another.  Also, I had to modify my approach to interviewing 35 minors because for some students, it was their first time participating in an oral history interview.  I find myself navigating through uncharted waters as a first time filmmaker-woman of color.  My hope is that my documentary experience will demonstrate the power of collaboration and volunteerism, more important that with all of the new available technology, one does not need a big Hollywood budget to create a quality film.

Your film documents the activism of 35 fifth graders in Bell Gardens and their teacher, Leslie Hiatt. Their story and what they were able to accomplish is pretty remarkable and inspiring. The victory also seems highly significant given the current anti-immigrant and anti-Ethnic Studies climate of our time. Can you briefly speak to the impact that such a victory will have on future students? 

The accomplishment of these students and teacher is very empowering.  AB146 has laid a groundwork for creative impact in K-12 classrooms so that teachers can integrate the topic in their lesson plans.  Connected to the broader ethnic studies movement in California, an ethnic studies requirement was passed in Montebello Unified in 2015, and this type of policy creates a space for youth activism.  Beyond curriculum, the bill continues to fuel the ongoing work of Leslie’s current class who are seeking a federal apology.  The larger experience from the passing of AB146 to the documentary and students seeking a federal apology are a testament to the fact that this has been a symbiotic collaboration across generations.

How has the making of this film impacted you and the students involved? 

The effort exhibited by students, educators, academics, legislators, filmmakers, and community members is both interconnected and ongoing.  For me, the documentary plays an important role in the healing process and impacts us multidimensionally.  The film seeks to break through a collective historical and societal amnesia by recognizing how youth activism in California honors the memory of over 1 million victims of Mexican descent who had their rights violated.  I am hopeful that this story will urge society to move in a direction of collectively working toward to rectify what happened.

It's wonderful that the film will be screened at Cal State University LA. What can attendees expect from the movie? Will some of the students featured in the film be present? 

Many of the individuals who took part in the AB146 journey, including Leslie Hiatt, students, parents, and others, will be present at the Cal State LA screening.  CSULA Chicana(o) & Latina(o) Studies Professor Emeritus Francisco Balderrama , Leslie Hiatt and three of the students will be participating on the panel.

Where is your film going next and where can we find out more? 

The City of Bell Gardens will host a free community screening for Bell Gardens students and their families next week.  Also, the documentary was selected to participate in the Social Justice Film festival, October 13-16, in Seattle Washington.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Truth Seekers represents a full circle moment for me.  I feel blessed to have the opportunity to showcase a highly personal film at Cal State LA, where I am both an alumni and current faculty member.  My deepest appreciation to CSULA’s Latin American Program, Chicana(o) Latina(o) Studies Department, History Department and Phi Alpha Theta for supporting the film.

Lani Cupchoy, Ph.D.

A public historian, Lani Cupchoy earned her B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, M.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine.  Her research focuses on public culture, oral history, gender, and community engagement, particularly through social and cultural expressions by people of color.  She is an artist-photographer-filmmaker and an elected member of the Board of Education at Montebello Unified School District, the third largest public school district in Los Angeles County, where she helped initiate an Ethnic Studies requirement TK-12.  She has authored several publications including “Fragments of Memory: Tales of a Wahine Warrior” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2010: 35 and “Youth Fight Childhood Obesity and Diabetes Through School-based Gardening and Student-Run Farmers’ Markets” in Community Greening Review, Vol. 16, 2011: 8.  Her article, which appeared in Yes! Magazine entitled “The Fifth-Graders Who Put Mexican Repatriation Back into History Books,” captures the story of Bell Gardens Elementary school teacher Leslie Hiatt and her students who inspired Assemblymember Cristina Garcias’ AB 146 into a law requiring that the unconstitutional deportation of Mexican-Americans during the 1930s be included in California textbooks.  Focusing on Hiatt and her students, Lani’s latest documentary, Truth Seekers illuminates the power of youth activism, community engagement, and ethnic studies.


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