East of Hope Street

SALVADORANS FALL INTO TRAPS SET BY SOCIAL WORKERS IN EAST OF HOPE STREET
As the film begins, we are informed that 73,000 persons are under the care of Child and Family Services, a County of Los Angeles agency. As the film proceeds, we see some of the 73,000 as well as a few social workers who coordinate the care. The film focuses on three years in the life of Alicia Montalvo (played by Jade Herrera), a Salvadoran refugee. Although film credits say that the story is fictional, a publicity blurb indicates that the film is based on a true story. When the film begins, Alicia is in El Salvador, where sleep is interrupted by gunfire due to the ongoing civil war. Orphaned by the war, Alicia’s aunt brings fifteen-year-old Alicia to Los Angeles with her eight-year-old brother as refugees. Alicia attends school and works in a sweatshop, where payment for work is irregular. When school officials see repeated marks on Alicia’s body, they infer that she is a victim of child abuse and notify the social welfare agency. Since police suspect her aunt of possessing crack, a social worker and a police officer suddenly show up at Alicia’s home to remove her without a warrant or visible legal process. Alicia and her brother then go to the welfare office. As the social worker made no advance arrangements for foster care, she next telephones to locate a foster home for both, but brother and sister are split up, going to two different homes. Despite promises from the social worker that the siblings can see each other, they are kept apart. Upon arriving at the foster home, Alicia’s foster mother tells her about rules of conduct, but her other foster child encourages her to “have fun” by going to a party instead, even though this means violating the foster parents’s curfew rule. Alicia then meets a Latino boyfriend and falls in love; she then stops going to school and continues violating curfew to develop a relationship with her boyfriend. One night, however, her foster father discovers that she is violating curfew and, threatening to send her to juvenile hall, rapes her. Another night, while Alicia and her boyfriend and a second couple are driving around, police stop the car, which is stolen, and all are arrested. While being processed at the jail, medical tests reveal that she is pregnant. During arraignment on the charge of grand theft, the judge orders Alicia to a house for pregnant teens, and she is shipped to Houston House on Boyle Heights (east of Hope Street), administered by a Caucasian female who is more interested in her personal appearance and in payoffs to contractors than in quality of care issues, though she is later fired after a routine investigation. After a scuffle with a disagreeable Caucasian roommate, she is reassigned to share a room with another Latina, and both decide to have their babies. The two go shopping one day on Hope Street and try to hitchhike back before curfew, but the men who offer a ride home have rape in mind, her friend is killed, and Alicia luckily escapes but is hospitalized. Fortunately, Alicia is guided by Casey, a sympathetic African American coordinator (played by Tim Russ), at Houston House; she graduates from high school with employable computer skills, has her baby, and expects to move into an apartment of her own with her younger brother. However, her former Caucasian roommate reports her to immigration authorities, and she is led to a detention cell until a deportation hearing. At the hearing, she makes an impassioned plea and is awarded a green card. Directed by Tim Russ and Nate Thomas, who also wrote the script, the film’s title is reminiscent of East of Eden (1955), a classic tale of despair ending in hope. As a window into the misfortunes of Salvadorans, who have many of the same problems as Vietnamese refugees, and into the way social workers wield extraordinary power over minors with little accountability, East of Hope Street has been nominated by the Political Film Society for an award as the best film exposé of 1999 and the best film promoting consciousness of the need for greater democracy. MH