Fast forward a few years, says Bernardo Ruiz, and we will be seeing even more first-generation Latinos changing the political, economic and cultural landscape of this country. But what does it take for students to transcend obstacles, graduate and help change their communities? The Mexican-American filmmaker explores this issue in his new documentary, “The Graduates.”
“Oftentimes we don’t get to hear from Latino youth directly,” says the filmmaker. “If you hear about them at all, they seem to be painted with one brush, a presence that’s often represented by other people. I’d like to let them speak for themselves, and what they want for their futures…It’s no longer a Latino issue, it’s an issue for the country as a whole.”
The two-part series follows the intimate details of the lives of three Latina and three Latino students from different regions of origin, geographic areas, and socio-economic status. The documentary, created by an all-Latino and bilingual production crew, will air nationally on PBS on October 28.
Currently, studies show the high school dropout rate of Hispanic students is on the decline and college enrollments are up, yet they are still less likely than other groups to enroll in a four-year university, finish a bachelor’s degree, or attend a selective college. When Bernardo Ruiz became aware of this demographic shift, and that one in four students in the U.S. today are Latino, he decided he had to tell their stories to pinpoint their challenges and what helps overcome them.
From a Boricua-African American who is homeless in New York to an undocumented Mexican student in Georgia, the film shows the biggest resources for young people are good non-profits as well as role models who are committed to helping Latino youth.
“I can definitely relate to a lot of the stories,” says the filmmaker born in Mexico, who moved to New York when he was six. “I arrived in the middle of my first grade year, so I had to play catch up. I definitely struggled with language.”
Perhaps that is why as a documentary filmmaker, he says he just really likes to listen carefully to others’ stories. He says, in the end, documentaries end up being “the best teacher.”
“If you’re really listening to people, it really shows what’s happening to the country,” says Ruiz who is no stranger to overcoming obstacles himself.
When he was 17, Ruiz says he attended three different high schools in four years. Finally, at the end of his junior year, he says he heard about a project called the Urban Journalism Workshop.
“For me, it was an introduction to the world of journalism — it got me on the path to documentaries — it got me engaged in a way I hadn’t been engaged before,” says Ruiz. “We are really looking for those projects that are sparking creativity and engagement in students.”
One of the things this documentary taught Ruiz however, is that there is no magic solution to getting students engaged.
“What it takes is parents, and people in organizations, to commit to students for the long haul,” says Ruiz. “Just like the challenges facing the students are multi-dimensional, the solutions are multi-dimensional. What we need is increased support.”
He says the extraordinary civic engagement of the Dreamers is already shaping the future of the country.
“If that is any clue to the political future, it’s definitely emblematic of huge change,” says Ruiz. “Latino students are a huge part of our future, and we still have a lot of work to do in supporting them.”