“They don’t expect us to win here at Bowie. That’s the way it always is,” coach Javier Diaz says to a locker room full of players. Diaz—an assistant coach at El Paso’s Bowie High School—is talking about baseball, pumping up the Bowie team to face their arch-rival, El Paso Jefferson, in the 2017 district championship game. But his message resonates with border-area students who have never stepped foot on a baseball field. “We’re the have-nothings, that we ain’t shit, we ain’t gonna amount to shit, we ain’t gonna be shit,” he continues. “You guys can change that tonight.”
The Tribeca Studios documentary Home + Away tells the story of Bowie student-athletes who use sports to try to overcome barriers of language, poverty, and low expectations. The film, directed by Los Angeles-based Matt Ogens, debuts this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Ogens, 35, says Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Studios wanted to make a film about youth sports in struggling economic areas. As debates over immigration and border security continue, Ogens decided to focus on a high school close to the U.S.–Mexico border. He settled on Bowie High School, which abuts a fence separating El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
“We all have opinions and judgments on either side of the debate. But often with the news we take a stand or a side from wherever we’re sitting—in Los Angeles, New York—and we rarely check in with the people affected by the border on either side and see how they feel. We’re almost making judgments that affect people without checking in with the people,” Ogens says.
The film focuses on three students: wrestler Shyanne Murguia, who moved to El Paso from California while her mother served a three-year prison term for drug smuggling; soccer player Erik Espinoza Villa, who lives with an uncle and grandmother in El Paso while his parents and siblings live in Juárez; and Francisco Mata, a baseball player who lives with his mother and siblings in El Paso while his father, barred from the United States because of past illegal entry, stays in Juárez.
All three students are U.S. citizens, though Espinoza Villa and Mata have lives on both sides of the border. The boys frequently go to Juárez to visit family or shop, but Mata’s father can’t watch him play baseball at Bowie. Espinoza Villa doesn’t attend Bowie’s prom because his girlfriend lives in Juárez and can’t cross into El Paso. The film captures the dual nature of the boundary, which joins two nations and two communities together, but divides them at the same time.
Donald Trump’s presence looms large in Home + Away. One scene features Murguia and her classmates watching Trump’s inauguration on TV, and she expresses her fears about what might lie ahead for her friends and family. But the documentary doesn’t dwell on politics. “We have some level of knowledge about the border, so I didn’t need to recap it for everyone. I just wanted to do a character-driven film from following characters in real time,” Ogens says.
And though it is set in the Trump era, the film could have been made anytime at Bowie in the past 40 years. The school—strapped for resources needed to educate a low-income, English-learning, immigrant population—has long struggled. A decade ago, El Paso school administrators gave up on many of Bowie’s students. Instead of trying to educate them, they gamed state and federal accountability systems by driving some students out of school and pushing others to graduation with very little education. The cheating scheme eventually was exposed and the superintendent spent a couple years in federal prison.
Bowie’s struggles continue; the school has gone through eight principals in five years. But Home + Away shows the dedication of Bowie teachers and coaches. In one scene, wrestling coach Victor Montes combs through a South El Paso used clothing store to buy $5 athletic shoes for his team with his own money.
The three stars of the film flew from El Paso to New York on Thursday to attend the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s the first time for all three in New York, and they hope to help others better understand young people who live on the border. “People have to learn that we are not that bad kind of kids that they say,” says Espinoza Villa, who graduated from Bowie in 2017 and now works as a mechanic in Juárez while pursuing a professional soccer career. “We’re people trying to get a better future, just like everyone else.”
Mata is now a senior at Bowie, once again pitching and playing third base for the Bears baseball team. Murguia graduated in 2017 and is attending Midland College, studying to become an emergency medical technician. “I just want people to see that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, the struggles that everybody has, you can do it,” Murguia says.