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A Teacher's Dedication to Immigrant Kids

May 07, 1997|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the loving spirit of the children she teaches, protects and encourages, Laura Angelica Simon modestly accepted accolades--including a standing ovation--for her award-winning documentary "Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary" at a benefit premiere and party Monday night at Twentieth Century Fox.

Two years ago, the second-grade teacher borrowed a video camera to document the emotional toll the immigration debate over Proposition 187, which would ban illegal immigrants from public classrooms, was having on her students who live in Pico-Union, regarded as the Ellis Island of Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, honored Simon's work with the Freedom of Expression Award, and, on July 1, the Public Broadcasting System will nationally broadcast it.

The story of Simon's students parallels her own life in many ways. At 6 she emigrated from Mexico with her parents and experienced alienation and discrimination as a Spanish-speaking child. By fourth grade she was fluent in English. In high school she was valedictorian and became the first member of her family to attend college, majoring in economics and philosophy at Claremont College.

Simon said she began work on the documentary after the proposition, which remains stuck in the courts, was passed and Mayra, a Salvadoran child in her classroom who is featured in the film, asked: "Are you a cop now? Are you gonna kick me out of the classroom?"

Simon told Mayra she was safe. But that wasn't enough. "I needed to do something to deal with the realm of emotions my students were experiencing," she said. So she made a movie and took a rough cut to Sundance.

After the award, "everybody opened their checkbooks," she said, which allowed her to complete the project. Her friend Tracey Trench, director of production for Fox Family Film, enlisted the financial and filmmaking support of other Fox executives, including Chairman Bill Mechanic and President Tom Sherak, all whom were present at the screening.

Also on hand were City Councilman Mike Hernandez, documentary short subject Oscar winner Jessica Yu, Emmy-award winner Liz Torres and actors Jose Solano, Jenny Gago and Jennifer Lopez. "I loved it," said Lopez of the film, which brought many in the audience--a mix of Hollywood executives and people from the Pico-Union community--to tears.

Torres said as a child, she too experienced discrimination and hatred. "It takes a lot to move me," she said. "And this movie has."

The benefit raised more than $15,000 for the Prufrock Children's Basic Needs Fund, which will buy blankets, underwear, shoes, eyeglasses and emergency medical care for the children of Pico-Union. The fund was started by actress Meg Ryan, who was unable to attend the premiere.

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