Many years and many pounds ago, I ran cross country for my suburban high school in Northern California. I competed for only two seasons but as a senior I placed 9th at the league championship meet — a distinction that earned me All-League status as a top 10 finisher and helped us win the team championship.
We had five of the 10 fastest runners over the 3-mile course — including my best friend, Al Rodriguez — so we easily blew away the competition.
Many years and many pounds later, I still run for pleasure but I also remember what it felt like to train for our dual meets and weekend invitational runs against several schools. Hard workouts sprinting up hills. Long runs on residential streets surrounding our campus. Timed laps and interval training on the grassy athletic fields.
Recently, I watched a movie on Netflix that brought some of those memories back. Maybe you’ve heard of it — “McFarland, USA.”
The movie is based on the real-life accomplishments of a high school cross country coach and his first-ever team of inexperienced, disadvantaged runners in a hot, dusty agricultural community in California’s Central Valley. That’s the region of the state that produces the fruits and vegetables that feed millions upon millions of Americans.
The kids at McFarland High School are Latino, the sons of bronze-skinned farmworkers whose work is taken for granted and whose humanity is rarely acknowledged by much of society. As such, the story is clearly meant to lift up hearts and open minds to what a ragtag collection of runners with tremendous work ethic and extraordinary talent can do when given an opportunity and when coached by someone who believes in them.
It’s not a documentary but a Disney movie starring Kevin Costner in the role of Coach Jim White, a guy who’s given a career-saving second chance after losing his temper and his job at a small Idaho high school. (It didn’t really happen that way, but just about every movie based on a true event takes liberties for the sake of the story.) White is presented as a fish out of water — a clueless gringo thrust into a Mexican American culture that’s as alien to him and his family as if they’d landed on Jupiter. Scene after scene shows the young athletes running endlessly in and around the fields and orchards near the town as they build their endurance and speed. Meanwhile, their coach slowly wins acceptance and trust among team members and the community at large.
I could quibble about some of the production values as a little too glossy and superficial for my tastes, but then I realize a grittier version might have resulted in a movie that would not have appealed as widely to a general audience. After all, this is a family-friendly Disney movie. Minor criticism aside, this is an important story and one that both children and adults would enjoy
As a third-generation Mexican American, it’s heartening to see people on the screen who look like me and my extended family. The scenes depicting Mexican culture and family values resonate, for sure, even if they come across as stereotypical in some ways. Must Mexican American culture always be defined by low-riders and quinceañeras?
It would be a stretch to say the film exactly duplicated my teenage experience. Al and I and my other Latino teammates (only two that I can recall) were a minority on our high school team. And, yes, we had an Anglo coach. But we practiced in a safe bedroom community 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. We weren’t running past tractors and irrigation pipe in 100-degree weather.
The kids in McFarland came from low-income backgrounds. They and their families constituted the vast majority of the town’s residents. My parents were farmworkers, too, but by the time my sisters and I were born, they had moved away from their families in the Salinas Valley and relocated to the Bay Area.
We grew up in blue-collar neighborhoods and Dad worked at the pipe foundry as a millwright.
Still, it’s rare to see Latinos of any type portrayed in a positive light in movies or on TV. I appreciate that the Disney studio decided to make this film and I do hope it continues to reach a broad audience.
Final thoughts: The film covers a single school year in the life of Coach White and his team. What’s truly amazing is that he built a dynasty there in that little town of McFarland, winning multiple state championships on the efforts of Latino farm kids. What’s most gratifying is seeing how things turned out for members of his inaugural team. Before the final credits roll onto the screen, we get then-and-now updates on each runner. And that’s the part — more than the running — that made my eyes mist.
Fact vs. fiction: If you’ve seen the movie, you may want to compare actual vs. dramatized events in this piece, “History vs. Hollywood.“