Monday, July 12, 2004 - Middle schoolers' award-winning film offers shot of introspection - LOCAL NEWS

Middle schoolers' award-winning film offers shot of introspection
By Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Monday, July 12, 2004 - When Pablo Del Rio and two of his friends decided to create a video about immigration, the 14-year-old Noel Middle School students were really making a film about themselves.

Their rough-around-the-edges Montbello neighborhood is a landing pad for Denver's new immigrants, and each of the students comes from a family that arrived here from Mexico within the past two decades.

Along with the school's energetic technology teacher, Robert Carter, the students journeyed from Denver's immigrant neighborhoods to congressional offices, into the knotty realm of immigration policy - and ultimately back to an examination of their own lives and experiences.

The lessons they learned?

"This is a hard thing," Del Rio said. "We're only 14. The politicians are, like, 40-something."

His partner Antonio Tinoco concurred: "I wouldn't like to be a politician. It'd be a pretty hard job."

In June, the students' film, called "The New Braceros," was awarded second place out of more than 700 entries in a national competition sponsored by C-SPAN, the political cable channel. Entries could be on any important policy topic that might be addressed in the 2004 presidential election.

Along with classmate Cristian Gonzalez, the students wrote their own script and acted as interviewers, cameramen and sound technicians - traversing all the frustrations of budding filmmakers.

"We actually contacted quite a few people. There were a lot of no-callbacks," Carter said.

One of those who did call was U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo. The Littleton Republican treated them to popcorn and an hour-long discussion on immigration reform.

"They all came back to the school as Republicans, and they announced it to everybody," said Carter. But only, added Del Rio, "because he gave us popcorn."

They did learn some of the concerns that fuel Tancredo and his supporters: that immigrants might take American jobs; that those who come here without visas are breaking the law; and that granting them amnesty might encourage more to come.

"That got me thinking about my own stuff" and how some of his relatives "broke all these laws," said Tinoco. The congressman "made some pretty good points."

Carter said the idea for the film came after he heard the students bantering one day, calling each other "wetbacks." He realized that though each of them had in some way lived the immigrant experience, they also carried a lot of misconceptions.

"My job is to get them to ask the harder questions. I don't necessarily provide the answers," Carter said.

Through their research, the students learned that President Bush wants to convert the country's 8 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants into temporary guest workers. Under the White House plan, most new immigrants could stay for at least three years, then return home.

They also studied an alternative proposal by Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., that would put most of those undocumented immigrants on a path toward citizenship.

Carter, who transferred to Noel from Martin Luther King Middle School, where his students also won several national technology awards, said he wanted the students to do something that would be relevant to their lives. He also pushed them to be fair.

They learned that if immigrants came here legally, they would be able to get better jobs and treatment.

They also learned that Mexico's failure to create enough jobs for its own people was partly to blame.

"I think that Mexicans would probably want to stay in Mexico if they had a middle class," said Del Rio.

Not all their lessons came out of research.

After interviewing Tancredo, Carter and the students walked into a McDonald's for lunch, only to find that the Centennial restaurant didn't look much like the ones in Montbello.

"It was kind of awkward because we were the only Mexicans there except for the ones that were working there," said Del Rio. "We were sitting at the corner table and people were looking at us, how we eat or something like that."

Del Rio said it made them empathize with the way immigrants are often viewed by the rest of society.

"It was a weird experience," he said.

The students said that in the end, they liked the reform proposal by Daschle and Hagel the best.

They thought it seemed more fair because it wouldn't force families to separate.

Under Bush's plan, children born to immigrants working temporarily in the United States would have U.S. citizenship.

That might divide families when workers returned home, they said.

"I had a friend that happened to," Tinoco said. "They were all separated. It is a pretty big deal for a family to have to think about that."


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