Posted on Fri, Nov. 28, 2003story:PUB_DESC
Migrant children explore lives through lens of their own film
Twenty-four middle school students are making a movie about what it's like to grow up as kids of migrant workers.
EXCHANGE: Students trade phone numbers in broadcasting class at the ASPIRA charter school. NOELLE THEARD/HERALD STAFF
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EXCHANGE: Students trade phone numbers in broadcasting class at the ASPIRA charter school. NOELLE THEARD/HERALD STAFF


Esbeide Zepeda recites the circumstances of her life with no emotion.

Father, Jose -- dead when she was 6. Killed by her uncle.

Brothers Tony and Alfredo -- also dead.

Mother, Elvia -- gone. She left five years ago with a man and never came back.

Now 14, Esbeide lives in South Miami-Dade County with an aunt she calls mom. And the story of her turbulent young life is part of an unusual class project at a charter school in Leisure City. Esbeide and 23 of her middle school classmates -- many with life stories like hers -- are making a movie about what it's like to grow up as children of migrant workers.

Already, the project is turning into a voyage of discovery.

Ask Esbeide about the movie, and the mask of indifference drops. Her voice changes. She sounds happy.

''Other people will see what we're able to do, and they will see what I can be. It makes me smile,'' she said, the words tumbling out. ``I believe in myself, and I know that if I try hard, I could be something good and be somebody good.''

The movie will be a fictionalized version of the immigrant experiences of the whole class. And it will be a rare chance for the children -- mostly Mexican American, many living in migrant worker camps -- to create something of their own.

''It's stressful to be an immigrant child, coming from two worlds, and something like this will give them a sense of expression,'' said Lisandro Perez, a Florida International University sociology professor who has researched migration. ``The notion of creating a visual testimony is going to give expression to these kinds of conflicting expectations of their lives.''

With the help of their teacher, Carlos Salgado, the students in broadcast production at Aspira South Youth Leadership Charter School in Leisure City have enlisted a local film director, Jesus ''Chuchi'' Rivero; telenovela actor Ricardo Chavez, and other professionals to teach them the ways of Hollywood.

Tentatively titled My Culture, My History, the film will focus on the lives of three or four characters. The children will write, edit, produce, direct and act in the movie, culminating with a red-carpet premiere -- the location has yet to be negotiated -- in May.

''The students will realize that something that is unreachable is possible when they put their minds to it,'' Salgado said.

Salgado, a bearded, wildly energetic man, is one of the driving forces behind this project. A teacher at the school for 10 years, he is also an artist. And he has a vision for these children.

''This is what has me teaching,'' he said. ``I think it's no bigger reward than to see a student enthusiastic and see them participating and learning. That's what I teach for.''

The stories of these children's lives, sometimes grim, offer a glimpse into a world of people often forgotten, the lowest on the economic ladder, swept up in global currents that send them across borders seeking better lives.

For Esbeide and her classmates, the dreams of their parents are not enough. They want to go to school, have careers as lawyers and doctors, make money. A lot of it.

''I don't want to work in the sun,'' Esbeide said firmly.

For them, this film is a thrilling step toward that future.

''They will not only learn the process of making a movie but will increase their self-esteem and be able to take on whatever they want in the future,'' Salgado said.

For Esbeide, life hasn't offered much encouragement so far. She has experienced more than most people do in a lifetime -- one brother shot by drug dealers, another killed in an accident, both parents gone by the time she was 9.

The hardest part is living without her parents, she said. Most times, she feels like an outcast at home.

''I don't feel comfortable opening up and telling my auntie about my problems or when I feel bad,'' she said. ``I feel like she's going to get mad at me.''

Mostly, Esbeide focuses on the future. Somehow, she is an optimist.

``My life has changed a lot, and things here are better. I have so many opportunities here that I wouldn't have if I was in Mexico.''

She dreams of going into the Army -- she has a cousin who did that -- so she can go to college. She wants to study fashion design and travel the world.

''I want to get to be somebody,'' she said, ``and show my mom and dad what I could be without them.''




Her friend Elizabeth Morales has the opposite problem. She has family -- she lives with her mom and dad in a Homestead camp -- and they have caused her a lot of heartache. She came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, almost 11 years ago with her parents and older brother, Jose.

Her parents, seeking work in nurseries, took the family first to California, then to Texas and later to Florida.

At each stop, she said, her brother -- three years older -- became enmeshed in gangs, drugs and crime. Her father began to drink, and her mother became depressed at their inability to control their son, she said.

For Elizabeth, struggling to adjust to her new life, home had become a war zone.

''My dad couldn't control him,'' she said. ``I was stuck in the middle of the arguments. Sometimes I didn't want to go home.''

At the South Dade Camp where Elizabeth and her family live with other migrant workers, the neighbors asked them to leave.

''It was hard, they didn't want us there, because of him,'' Elizabeth said. ``My brother didn't respect us. He caused a lot of problems in our family. I won't make the same mistakes.''

But life has improved, Elizabeth said. Jose, now 17, lives with an aunt in Washington, D.C., and has straightened out his life. And Elizabeth is drawing inspiration from that as she works on the movie.

''Things can change, and you can always start a new life,'' she said. ``There's always a chance, and anything's possible in life.''

The movie should be faithful to reality, though, she added.

''I want parents to see that they're not the only ones suffering, we're suffering with them,'' she said.

''I not only want to capture people's eyes, but also their hearts,'' she said.




Classmate Wilibaldo Garduno is aiming at people's hearts, too.

One of his earliest memories of the United States is the family home -- a one-bedroom house at the South Dade Labor Camp in Homestead -- filled with 10 people sleeping on beds, floors, anywhere.

His grandmother, who owns a taco stand, helped the family as much as she could. She bought them beds and loaned them money.

The family had come to South Florida in 1990, his father returning to Mexico several times to bring relatives left behind. He remembers his mother's working on a farm, picking vegetables when she was six months pregnant with his younger brother.

''It was really sad that she was working, but we needed the money,'' Wili said.

Today his parents continue to work in local nurseries in Homestead. Wili, his parents and four siblings live in a four-bedroom house -- in the labor camp -- which they share with an uncle.

Wili, quick to volunteer when any of his classmates need help, hopes to go to college and become a computer engineer.

For the movie, though, he has his sights set on one job: editor.

''I like to correct things,'' he said, explaining that his English is better than others in his class. ``I'm planning on working as hard as I can and on helping anyone I can. I want everyone to see it.''

Film editor Wili? Actress Esbeide?

The movie could open all sorts of doors, said Kevin McHugh, a geography professor at Arizona State University who studies migration.

''Taking stock of themselves is an interesting process. Putting it in a form of film when they don't really see what's special or unique, to reflect on their own lives. It could have a lasting impact,'' he said. ``It will make them realize that their own lives are interesting and important.''