Wearing his cap and gown and a proud smile, Eric Espinoza Villa took two important walks on graduation day. The first was across the stage to accept his diploma from Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas. The second was across the border to Juarez, Mexico, where his family was waiting for him with balloons and tears in their eyes, rushing to embrace him at the first sign of his tassel bouncing along the barb-wired walkway.
It was before dawn each morning when Espinoza Villa would wake up and begin, as he calls it, his “routine”: brushing his teeth, eating breakfast, explaining to the officer at homeland security that he is on his way to school, and heading to class. About a quarter of the student population at Bowie High School cross the border ever day to attend class, or commute back and forth weekly or monthly with their families to ensure that they get an education in the United States.
Three of the students, Espinoza Villa, Francisco Mata, and Shyanne Murguia, are the subjects of the documentary Home + Away from filmmaker Matt Ogens. The film tells the story of what it’s like to come of age in one of the country’s busiest border towns, giving a human face to the political discourse surrounding the border, immigration, deportation, and cartel violence.
“We hear about these things in the macro sense and we have politicians and pundits giving their opinions on them, but rarely do people check in with the actual people, the humans who are affected by the topic,” Ogens tells The Daily Beast, speaking alongside the three students and Bowie High School’s baseball coach, Javier Diaz, the day after Home + Away’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
All three students are U.S. citizens. Espinoza Villa’s parents and siblings live in Juarez, which is widely considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Mata spends time on both sides of the border, living with his mother and siblings in El Paso during the week to make it easier to attend Bowie and journeying to Juarez on weekends to visit his father, who is barred from entering the U.S. because he was caught trying to enter the country illegally. Murguia moved to El Paso when her mother was sent to prison.
“All throughout filming I would ask Matt, ‘Why me?’” Murguia says. The three students are in New York City for the first time to promote the film. For Espinoza Villa and Mata, it was the first time they had ever been on an airplane. “He would have to keep reminding me, no, your life is different from others. But I didn’t see it like that.”
Still, Espinoza Villa’s parents had to watch his graduation ceremony on a livestream because they aren’t allowed in the country. He didn’t attend prom because his girlfriend, who lives in Juarez, couldn’t go. After soccer practice at night, he walks across the border to Mexico under the dim light of broken street lamps.
“That’s how he gets to and from school,” Ogens says. “Some kids ride the bus. Some kids ride their bike to school. Something I don’t think they realize is how strong they are, how resilient they are, because it’s so normal for them.”
“It’s normal to go down the street to get a soda at the corner store and a truck goes by filled with guys with grenade launchers and machine guns, like a war zone,” he continues. “You don’t look up. And it’s normal to hear gunshots. Our first day of filming in Juarez, we were with Eric and in the middle of the day a woman was shot and killed by a cartel.”
Ogens conceived of the documentary, which contrasts what the students sacrifice so that they can attend Bowie with their success playing sports on school teams, in September 2016, when the idea of Trump’s presidency seemed all but impossible and the malevolence with which he has restricted immigration, for all the discourse of his campaign, couldn’t have been predicted.
By sheer coincidence, Ogens’s first day of filming at Bowie High School was on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and he captures the students watching his swearing-in on TV. A teacher asks the class how they feel afterwards. Murguia starts talking about families that will be separated because of his immigration proposals, and cries: “I feel scared.”
“We all know where we were when he was elected and got inaugurated,” Ogens says. “But it’s different when you’re watching these kids watch the inauguration live in that classroom. When the entire classroom were Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, if they turn their head left they’re literally staring at the border fence and Juarez.”
Asked their opinions about what’s going on in the country now, the kids didn’t hold back. “He doesn’t understand that the families he’s breaking up are the same people who built this country to what it is right now,” Espinoza Villa says, his Spanish translated by Coach Diaz. “He’s destroying this country,” says Mata.
Murguia had planned to enlist in the U.S Army after she graduated, but changed her plans after Trump was elected because she didn’t want to serve on his behalf. She’s currently studying to be an EMT at Midland College. Francisco Villa works as an auto mechanic in Juarez. Mata, who is a grade younger, is finishing his senior year. Home + Away chronicled his baseball team’s unlikely journey to win the district championship, the first time in 40 years that happened. The day this article publishes, he’ll be back on the field as Bowie competes in the championship again.
At the film’s Tribeca premiere, Espinoza Villa got emotional watching himself reunite with his family after graduation. Finishing high school was his way of showing his parents that he understood the weight of what they’ve risked for him: “You made the sacrifice, and I got the diploma.”
“I hope people will learn how difficult our lives are, for the Mexican kids and the Mexican Americans,” he says when asked what he hopes the effect of sharing his story will be. “To cross the border and leave families just to accomplish a dream. I hope people see how much we suffered and how much we sweat and how much we’ve fought to accomplish what we accomplished.”