by Bernardo Ruiz, Director and Executive Producer
Many of us have heard the statement that Latinos are the youngest and fastest growing group of Americans. Yet all too often, this community is misrepresented—if represented at all. And rarely do we get to hear from Latino youth themselves. The Graduates/Los Graduados, a bilingual series focusing on the diverse experiences of Latina/o youth in high school, is a continuation of the documentary work I have done with my collaborators through Quiet Pictures since 2007. Our past projects have focused on stories of racial discrimination, immigration, and freedom of the press, with a common thread of representing struggles to achieve dignity and justice.
For this series, I teamed up with producers Pamela Aguilar, Katia Maguire and editor Carla Gutierrez (who I worked with on my last documentary, Reportero). All of us grew up in bilingual households. And three out of the four of us were born outside of the U.S. (Pamela in El Salvador, Carla in Peru and I, in Mexico.) I would argue that as filmmakers we were able to start the conversation with the students in the series at a deeper place than if we hadn’t had the experience of coming to the U.S. as children or teenagers; or hadn’t grown up in bilingual households.
As a team, we were interested in creating a series where Latina/o youth were at the center of the storytelling. In each hour of the series, we weave together three student narratives in which Latina/o youth themselves are the drivers of their own stories. Hour one deals with the experiences of three young Latinas and hour two examines the experiences of three young Latinos. The stories span six different school districts from across the country, in both urban and rural settings.
Through each individual story, we glimpse a larger structural issue such as poverty and inequality or a specific issue such as zero-tolerance policies in urban high schools or the banning of undocumented students from state universities. Rather than have an outside narrator tell us what to think about these issues, in The Graduates, Gustavo, Stephanie, Eduardo, Chastity, Juan and Darlene tell us about these and other challenges in their own words. When we do hear from outside voices, (writers, activists, and elected officials) they are providing context or talking about their own experiences.
In the series, we also hear from parents, in most cases, speaking to us in Spanish. The parents are a key part of the narrative constellation of these stories—and if there is a recurring theme with the parent stories, it is one of sacrifice for their children. I attended a recent press event where a journalist wondered aloud if there was something in the culture of “Hispanic immigrant families” that didn’t value education enough. I took a deep breath. I explained that all too often people confuse “culture” and economic reality. Of course, when parents are busy working long hours, or even more than one job, they do not have the same amount of free time to support their children with homework help, or encouragement to attend extra-curricular activities. Where there are community resources, they are not always made accessible to Latino families, especially non English proficient families. Parents may want to help their children but often don’t know where to turn.
The series celebrates projects and programs—and there are many others like them, not covered in this series throughout the country—started by dedicated teachers, community leaders or youth themselves, that seek to empower Latina/o youth. At the same time, the series illustrates the need for school administrators, legislators, community leaders, and others to put forth institutional and legislative advancements that will give Latino students the best possible opportunities to succeed in their education.
One key theme, running throughout the series is that students are successful when they have the opportunity to become involved in their schools and communities. It is crucial both that they have a say in their own futures, and that they have community partners and supporters ready to listen to them.
Watch the full trailer here and don’t forget to tune in on October 28 and November 4 at 10pm EDT on PBS.