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Inspiration for Disney’s ‘MacFarland, U.S.A.’ to Speak at CSU Channel Islands

Members of the 1987 cross-country team who inspired the 2015 Disney movie McFarland, U.S.A. will visit CSU Channel Islands Oct. 15, 2015.

McFarland High School coach Jim White — played by Kevin Costner in the movie — is unable to attend, but five of the men who inspired the movie will give a lunch presentation from 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. in CI’s Grand Salon.

McFarland U.S.A. is the story of White and the champion cross-country team he started at McFarland High School.

McFarland is an agricultural area near Bakersfield with a predominately Latino population. Many of the families are recent immigrants who work in the fields.

“In the summers, everybody else was off. I was 10 or 11, and for us, summer was work. That’s what we did. We went out there and worked,” said a former member of the iconic team, Johnny Samaniego, now 43. “It was about bringing home a paycheck, which we gave to our family. It is what it is.”

The lives of Samaniego and several other boys attending McFarland High School in the late 1980s were transformed when Coach Jim White asked them to be on the cross-country team.

Through rigorous training, teamwork and devotion to his team, the McFarland High School cross country team took home the state championship in 1987 and left with something even more valuable: confidence and hope.

Almost 30 years later, White has retired, and Samaniego now holds White’s position.

“I use the same coaching philosophy Mr. White taught us,” Samaniego said. “It’s all in the attitude. He always said, ‘You can’t control your circumstances. There’s only one thing you can control and that’s your attitude.”

Like Coach White, Coach Samaniego coached cross-country for 10 years, but now coaches girls’ basketball at McFarland High School.

And like White, he works with migrant families who have not had the experience of a good education and may not realize the value an education can bring in the longer term.

Samaniego said he also has to answer questions from families who may not understand why their girls are wasting time playing basketball when there’s work to be done.

“The challenge in this culture is families saying ‘What are you doing playing a sport? You’re supposed to be home cooking dinner,’” Samaniego said. “I try to tell the parents, ‘If they’re good enough, they might get a scholarship and go to school and graduate, and their future will be bright…Some parents don’t believe in going to college.”

CI Coordinator of Intercultural Services Motoko Kitazumi and student assistant Lauren Hernandez thought “Meet the Men in ‘McFarland, U.S.A.’” was an ideal program for CI students, many of whom share a similar background with the former cross-country team.

“I know a lot of our students come from families of migrant workers,” Kitazumi said. “I want them to see a film that acknowledges their labor, and shows that if people believe in you, you can create change for an entire family — the entire town.”

Kitazumi said Hernandez pulled the whole program together by finding an article written about the men, and getting the phone numbers of the teammates.

For those who would like to see McFarland U.S.A., there will be a showing of the movie in the South Quad just after sunset Oct. 9, thanks to New Student Orientation & Transition Programs and Housing & Residential Education.

“I really enjoyed the Disney version of the movie,” said Hernandez, a CI junior majoring in Liberal Studies. “I started talking to Mo (Kitazumi) about how this movie resonates with people in this community because we are also a farming community. The movie shows how, with hard work you can achieve opportunities, and that education is key.”

Samaniego said the team is enthusiastic about speaking to groups about the movie and the message it brings.

“Champions can come from anywhere,” Samaniego said. “If we can do it, anybody can do it.”

— Kim Gregory is a communication specialist at CSU Channel Islands.

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