Last April, award-winning director and filmmaker Betty Bastidas set out on an important project. She flew from New York City to violence-ridden Detroit, a city where only 4 out of 10 students graduate high school, to shed light on the many youth shrouded in hopelessness.
One teen stood out from the rest. Eighteen-year-old Fernando Parraz was the first in his family on his way to completing his high school degree, and he completed it magna cum laude this past June.
Bastidas, 34, chose him as the subject of her 16-minute film to highlight the urgency of increasing high school graduation rates, sponsored by the Independent Television Service. “Can’t Hold Me Back” is one of the 25 films currently in the PBS 2013 Online Film Festival, and it is also one of the five films from the American Graduate Latino initiative participating in the festival. Additionally, it will air on PBS in the fall of this year.
“I thought his story was remarkable,” says the Ecuadorian-born director. “There was a youth that’s clearly determined to graduate…but it’s lined with obstacles, and the more we kept meeting Fernando, and his friends, and family, it showed community was an important factor of why he’s succeeding…That was, for me, part of the solution that needs to happen in a lot of inner cities.”
She says his focus definitely didn’t stem from the quality of education he was getting, in a school where teachers have to buy textbooks with their own money, or the rampant gang violence surrounding him.
“It was my dad,” says the Mexican-American teen about his father who used to be in a gang when he was his age. “He pushed me a lot. I wasn’t doing well in school, and one day, I just sat back and realized how much my parents struggled, and I didn’t want to go through that. I wanted to get a high GPA so that I could get as many scholarships as I could.”
He says that one of his earliest memories was that of his dad telling him on the first day of first grade that he was going to go to college.
“I don’t care if you graduate and become a rodeo clown, just as long as you have a degree,” Parraz remembers his dad telling him.
Today, Parraz is at Wayne State University, armed with a $60,000 scholarship, and taking his pre-requisites to major in business.
“I want to graduate college…Then get a steady job and focus on film, and do what I can to help my community more — maybe open up a youth center,” he says. “One of the major problems is the students are not being pushed. A lot of them don’t have two parents, so they don’t have that family structure. No one is telling them you can do whatever you want.”
Mr. Agemy, Parraz says, was that person for him.
“He reminded me a lot of my dad,” says Parraz about his all-time favorite teacher. “He has special connections with his students, and talks to them as if they were his own kids. He really helped me out with scholarships and wrote recommendations…”
And Parraz’ success also depended largely on the support of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation youth program, which has been in existence for 16 years. Youth director Xiomara Torres says she’s known Parraz since he was 11.
“Fernando [was always] interested in music,” says Torres. “We taught him the basics…he can record, make beats, mix and master…We have a family atmosphere. It keeps [the kids] engaged in their community.”
She says a consistent network of support is crucial to a young person.
“If we stay invested in their lives, they will stay invested as well,” says Torres. “Fernando is at the point where he’s our junior staff. He mentors kids in music and leadership.”
She says Parraz has been socially conscious since a young age, and in his own music, he chooses to rap about things with substance.
“He inspires adults and youth,” says Torres. “He pictured where he wanted to be and went and got that. He decided at a young age.”
Parraz says he had heard a quote in an underground rap song by Logic, that became his mantra.
“‘Why is the sky the limit, when there are footsteps on the moon?’” says Parraz. “I heard him say it really fast, and I kept rewinding it. “I said, ‘Yeah man, I’m living by this.’”
Bastidas says she’s proud that her film showcases a community that’s working hard to make Detroit rise again.
“It comes back to hope,” she says.