I’ve always viewed the Skagit Valley in the simplistic terms of a passer-through. It’s rows of blazing tulips, friendly farm stands and honking snow geese, a bucolic stretch between Interstate 5’s strip malls and ferry rides to the San Juan Islands.
But as is often the case in agriculture, the story behind that sun-soaked produce is anything but simple.
“Most of these kids started working the fields on average when they were about 7,” says Janice Blackmore, who works as a migrant graduation specialist for the Mount Vernon School District. “There’s obviously poverty and sometimes language issues. There’s often cultural and social isolation. There’s often fear of deportation.”
Migrant students are defined as children who move as their family follows seasonal or temporary work. There are almost 20,000 migrant students in Washington, and 664 of those students are enrolled in the Mount Vernon School District as of 2014-15, the latest school year for which data are available. Many of the families are from Mexico.
A new documentary, “Every Row a Path,” explores the challenges facing this often hidden population. A collaboration between Seattle filmmaker Jill Freidberg, migrant students from Skagit Valley and the youth media organization, Reel Grrls, the film documents four years of the students’ lives as they struggle toward high-school graduation.
“I shot and edited it, but I feel like I directed it with the girls,” says Freidberg. “They played a huge role in what should and shouldn’t be in the movie, and what parts of the story and aspects of their lives they wanted included.”
What they wanted included was the reality of their lives.
“The idea was to educate our teachers about our migrant experience,” says 19-year-old Ana Mendoza, who worked on “Every Row” and appears in the film. “Some of them just thought we were lazy or didn’t care about our education.”
But nothing could be further from the truth. “Every Row,” which builds on footage from an earlier documentary project by a migrant student group in Mount Vernon, depicts in grainy, early-morning detail the day-to-day lives of these young women who must work to help support their families.
“I managed to work a full-time job and keep going to school,” says Mendoza, who started helping her parents in the fields at age 8 and started picking at 14. “And I’m a teen mom. So I had to balance out spending time with my baby and working full-time, and trying to get my homework in on time.”
Through remarkable grit, Mendoza, like the other four young women in the film, was able to graduate from high school. She’s now at Skagit Valley College. But she beat the odds — migrant students have one of the lowest high school graduation rates of any student population in the state.
“I learned through the field work the value of wanting something better for yourself.”
Mendoza is the second person in her family to graduate from high school, and her commitment to education extends to her future career goals: She plans to be an elementary school teacher so she can help other migrant students in the area.
“When I started school it was hard understanding the teachers. I didn’t understand what the teachers and students were saying because they were all speaking English,” says Mendoza, whose parents speak Spanish and Mixtec, a native language of Mexico.
Though she hopes her 2 ½ -year-old old daughter will have an easier future as a result of her hard work, Mendoza says she’ll still take her to visit the fields occasionally.
“I learned through the field work the value of wanting something better for yourself,” says Mendoza. “So my idea is to take her to the field to show her the value of not being there and not dropping out of school.”
To find out more about Mendoza’s experience and the experience of other migrant youth in our region you can attend a screening of “Every Row A Path” this Sunday at 4:00PM at Central Cinema at 1411 21st Ave. Tickets are $8.