The movie, based on actual events that took place in the California city that gives it its name, tells the story of a down-and-out coach who finds himself stuck in a farmworker community in California's San Joaquin Valley, coaching Mexican-American kids who are mostly filling time in school between their shifts picking crops. Coach White -- yes, he happens to be white, but it's his real-life name, as well -- doesn't want to be where he is, but he has no choice. He's been fired from every previous job. His family, a blond wife and two lovely daughters, finds the place alien, from the next-door neighbor who raises chickens in her backyard to the lowriders who parade through the downtown streets in their classic cars after dark. An early scene shows the family exiting a taqueria, where they've unsuccessfully tried to order hamburgers, and then encountering a group of lowriders who have just pulled up. The coach rushes his wife and daughters to the family station wagon and peels out of the parking lot to gales of laughter from the presumed gangbangers.
Much of the movie is about exploding stereotypes -- didactic, to be sure, but entertaining in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor filled with the finger-pointing that often accompanies such efforts. The boys in the film -- seven featured characters -- have difficult lives. But they are not victims, and they do not sit around blaming others or feeling sorry for themselves. They get up every morning at dawn and head to the fields to help their families pick crops. Then they run to McFarland High School to attend class. Then it's back to the fields to finish their jobs. It is while driving outside town that Coach White -- after seeing Thomas Valles running across fields at breakneck speed on his way to work -- comes up with the idea to form a cross-country team of runners for the school.
As I watched the story unfold, I was reminded of my tenure as chair of the National Commission on Migrant Education. From 1989 to 1992, I and my fellow commissioners, which included four members of Congress, held hearings across the country in communities like McFarland. The stories we heard were often heartbreaking, but they were also inspiring. I have never encountered a community with the work ethic of farmworkers. These are people who perform work none of the rest of us can imagine, in conditions that we could not endure.
At one point in the movie, Coach White accompanies his runners to the fields to put in a day's work after one of the families decides they can't let their three sons participate on the team because practices after school and on the weekends are cutting into the family's income. White ends up lying facedown in a cabbage field while one of his students massages his aching back, reassuring the coach that the body takes a while to get used to stoop labor. White's experience that day teaches him that there is nothing these kids can't accomplish.
But the film is about more than the resilience of one group of kids; it's about a whole group of people who are hidden from most of us yet touch our lives every day. If you eat vegetables or fruit, if you consume poultry, beef, pork, eggs or milk, chances are that your food reached your table thanks to a worker like the boys in the film. And chances are it was either an immigrant or a child of an immigrant who was doing the work. Indeed, more than 1 in 4 of those workers today are undocumented immigrants.
With talk of deporting immigrants who are here illegally and shutting our borders dominating the presidential election, I wonder: Who exactly do the supporters of those positions think would take these jobs in a "Make America Great Again" society? The actual boys who were the basis of the story "McFarland, USA" are all grown up now. Most of them finished college -- thanks to running scholarships -- and are teachers or administrators, and there's even a police officer among them. This is America's real greatness, a ladder of opportunity for all.