PBS Documentary Focuses on Six Latino Students Who Made the Grade

By Mark Walsh — October 28, 2013 2 min read
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Not many documentaries can successfully juggle six individuals’ stories. But “The Graduates,” a two-part PBS documentary focused on six young Latinos and the roots of the dropout problem for that population, largely pulls it off.

Granted, the time we spend with the three young women (in Part One) and three young men (in Part Two) is relatively brief. But in those two hours, we visit Lawrence, Mass.; the Bronx in New York City; Griffin, Ga.; Chicago; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Diego, Calif.

We also visit many angles of young Latino America in this documentary that is part of the “Independent Lens” series. (It premieres Oct. 28, with the second part scheduled for Nov. 4, but check local listings.)

Darlene Bustos is pregnant and in a program for at-risk students. Stephanie Alvarado, whose family emigrated from El Salvador, attends a crowded urban high school with metal detectors at the doors. (“It feels like I’m going to prison,” she says.) Chastity Salas’s family is homeless, so she finds school an escape from that.

Meanwhile, Eduardo Corona was a gang member and enjoyed looking tough until the founder of a college prep organization known as Reality Changers challenged him to get back on the academic track. Gustavo Madrigal knew little English when his parents brought him from Mexico as a 5th grader; now the undocumented student is a well-spoken advocate for the DREAM Act that would allow students like himself to attend college. Finally, Juan Bernabe, who arrived from the Dominican Republic at age 11, soon realized he was gay. He finds comfort in high school’s performing arts program.

There is analysis, such as from Patricia Gándara, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles, who says, “How can we accept having huge swaths of the population marginalized, simply left out?”

There are also short observations from well-known Latinos such as Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio; Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American poet who did a reading at President Obama’s second inauguration; the actor Wilmer Valderrama; and Claudio Sanchez, the education correspondent for National Public Radio.

Castro recalls his mother taking him and his twin brother, Joaquin, to a public middle school where the academic expectations were so low, a teacher said only half of those in the school would likely to go on to graduate from high school. Mrs. Castro took the boys and left.

As the title of this documentary suggests, the six Latino students featured here have all defied low expectations and other barriers to academic success. Most seem to have caring parents as well as various forms of mentoring and other help.

My quibble with “The Graduates” is that the filmmakers have lots of interesting footage of the six students at school, at home, or doing other things. But most of it is used merely as visuals to accompany a constant stream of narrative reflection by the students from their interviews for the documentary. There are exceptions, but it would have been nice for the film to have just let the documentary footage run.

Still, “The Graduates” shows that “the Latino future” for the United States noted in the film by the sociologist Pedro Noguera is already here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.