Wednesday, Jan 30 2013 03:47 PM

Inspiring cast of American dreamers

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

For Connie Perez, the long journey from growing up in a labor camp to being appointed by the governor to serve on a state board took a pivotal detour as a teen during a visit to the beach with friends.

Perez -- the only Mexican-American in the group -- picked up a brochure for a fancy resort and idly skimmed through it. A boy saw her and said disdainfully, "You'll never go there. It's too expensive."

Related Info

'Camp to Campus' screening

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Dore Theatre at CSUB, 9001 Stockdale Highway

Admission: Free

Parking: Free in lots B and C

"I wanted something better for myself. I didn't know what the American dream was, but I knew it wasn't what my parents were living."

-- Ricardo Morales, who majored in criminal justice at CSUB and now works as a youth mentor coordinator for Garden Pathways. Morales is one of several subjects featured in the documentary "Camp to Campus."

Essay contest

High school and community college students will have the chance to compete for cash prizes and scholarships in an essay and video-essay contest related to the documentary.

Students will compete in three categories: grades 9 and 10, grades 11 and 12, and community college.

High school winners in first, second and third place will receive a share of $600 in total cash prizes. Five $1,000 scholarships to Cal State Bakersfield will be awarded to community college students.

Submission deadline is April 10.

For information, visit csub.edu/camptocampus/.

Perez, now 36, ran into the same guy years later, after she had become a successful accountant. "He was bagging my groceries," she said.

The story of Perez's rise from humble beginnings is one of 11 featured in the film "Camp to Campus," a documentary about first-generation college graduates who come from a migrant farm labor background. The movie was paid for with a $10,000 grant from the Cal Humanities Community Stories Fund, as well as $15,000 from Cal State Bakersfield, which will screen the documentary Tuesday.

The subjects in the movie share life stories of making it to college. Some, like Perez, lived in labor camps. Some worked in the fields alongside friends, siblings and parents.

Director Fabian Euresti, 28, grew up with farm laborer parents in McFarland. He earned an undergraduate degree in English literature at CSUB before obtaining an MFA in film directing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Euresti said one of the reasons he is pursuing directing as opposed to an acting career is he wants to have some control over portrayals of people of color in television and film.

Euresti was attracted to "Camp to Campus" in part because the college graduates' stories are presented honestly, in their own words.

"Because of my background, I wanted to make sure the stories in this film would be well told," he said.

CSUB English Professor Marit MacArthur was part of a team of faculty who came up with the concept for the film and successfully applied for the grant.

In 2010, three-quarters of the student population at CSUB was composed of first-generation college students, she said, and she thought the stories of the children of farmworkers would be particularly compelling with agriculture being so prominent in Kern County.

More than 50 people responded to a call for preliminary survey responses, and the subjects were narrowed down.

"We were looking for a diversity of experience," MacArthur said. "Some people were really encouraged by their families, teachers and counselors. Some weren't. Some had an easy path. Some had more problems.

"They are very moving stories, but at the same time, they're not simply rah-rah, you can do it, too. It really explains the challenges and ways people got through it."

Some of the subjects turned obstacles and adversity into motivation.

Ricardo Morales, 27, majored in criminal justice at CSUB and now works as a youth mentor coordinator for Garden Pathways. He was born in Mexico but came to the United States as a toddler.

Morales said his career choice was influenced by police raiding and tearing up his childhood home. They were looking for a drug dealer, but they had the wrong house, he said.

"They flipped the house apart, with no search warrant. They didn't repair any of the damage. But we didn't know our rights," Morales said.

Such incidents give many young people a negative perception of law enforcement, he said. Morales uses his job to educate young people about their rights when they are abused, and also to present a more balanced view of police.

"I tell them not all cops are like that," Morales said. "There are cops out there who care, who are doing the right thing."

One of the common refrains among all the subjects was a refusal to settle for the lives of hardship they saw loved ones enduring; and a desire not to squander opportunities they'd been given.

Perez, the accountant, said she babysat during summers when her friends went to work in the fields.

"I knew I didn't want to be out there in that hot sun," said Perez, who sits on both the state Lottery Commission and the board of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

"Our parents always talked about how they came to this country and worked hard so we could have a better life."

Morales said he took his education seriously because of the sacrifices his family made to enable his success, putting in long hours in adverse conditions.

"I made the decision that that wasn't the lifestyle that I wanted. I wanted something better for myself," he said. "I didn't know what the American dream was, but I knew it wasn't what my parents were living."

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