This essay is part of the Ultimate Texas Celebrity Bracket. Read them all—and cast your vote!—here.

Within the first three minutes of Spy Kids 3: Game Over, eleven-year-old Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara), decked out in a monochromatic brown outfit, struts in slow motion down an empty Congress Avenue, in Austin. He has a briefcase in hand, the Capitol looming behind him, the tails of his trench coat blowing in the Texas breeze. Unbeholden to the layman’s sidewalk, he is headed right down the middle of the road. Where are his parents? Who cares. In the Spy Kids universe, the kids run the show—and maybe it’s time for the real world to take a few notes. 

To refresh your memory, in case you were ever confused, the Spy Kids franchise focuses on kids who are spies, following in the footsteps of their spy parents (shout-out to nepotism). Written and directed by San Antonio–born Robert Rodriguez, the original early-aughts trilogy follows Juni and his twelve-year-old sister, Carmen, and their once retired but now unretired parents, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez. Aside from the films’ (endearingly) bad CGI, Rodriguez created a heartfelt and imaginative three-peat about the importance of family and of fighting for what you believe in amid a world full of corruption and power imbalances. 

The first film is about the Cortez family’s fight to stop a billionaire from creating an army of robot children to take over the world. The second is about the family’s attempts to stop corrupt actors within the U.S. government from getting their hands on technology that will allow them to, you guessed it, take over the world. The third film follows an ousted and alienated Juni as he enters into a virtual reality video game to save Carmen and stop the villain Toymaker from controlling the minds of the world’s youth and in turn—say it with me—take over the world. 

As ridiculous as the movies seem—they do contain robots with thumbs for heads—the message is loud and clear, three times over. There is always someone trying to control a certain industry or market, influence a specific government or state, or otherwise garner power to rule the world. In Texas we have versions of the billionaire Mr. Lisp, the corrupt government agent Donnagon Giggles, and the Toymaker: Elon Musk, Ted Cruz, and Tim Dunn. And while we might not have electroshock gumballs in our reality, I saw a self-driving car cruise past the Capitol the other day, right near where Daryl Sabara walked as Juni Cortez some 21 years ago. 

Growing up in South Texas, Rodriguez and his sister loved Escape From Witch Mountain, a movie about two kids with superpowers. He told IndieWire in 2011: “You never saw kids get to be so empowered. Who cared what the adults were saying?” Rodriguez took this sentiment onward, creating projects such as Spy Kids that focused not only on kids as central players in their own stories but on kids from Latino families. (Rodriguez later told IndieWire that he had to persuade the studio to make the Spy Kids family Latino.) His idea to take kids and young people seriously and listen to them shouldn’t have been a novel one. But this was in the early aughts, and it still feels that way today. 

I’m not recommending that the government create a spy-kids program to mitigate society’s ills. What would be worthwhile is for our world to take a note from Rodriguez’s universe and instill a greater respect for kids and young people, what they have to say, and what they care about. 

Fewer than half of Gen Z Americans—those at or between the ages of 12 and 27—say they are thriving in their lives, according to a 2023 study by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation.  The young people surveyed in a January study believe that government leaders are failing them: 60 percent say politicians and elected officials are either “not doing so well” or “not doing well at all” at reflecting the experiences of young people and what they need and want for the country.

But what do young Americans need and want ? 

Young people are worried about climate change. According to a 2023 study from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, compared with older generations, younger people show greater concern over climate change’s role in extreme weather. The demographic also thinks the oil and gas sector is more responsible for climate change than their predecessors do. Texas’s power holders are not listening, as the state remains the top greenhouse gas emitter among all states and produces and refines more crude oil and natural gas than any other.

Young people oppose war. Sixty-seven percent of young Americans, from ages 18 to 34, disapprove of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, according to Gallup. Senator Ted Cruz might call the majority of young Americans evil, then, as back in October he described the war in Gaza as “a battle between good and evil” in which Israel is the “unequivocal” good worthy of the U.S.’s total support. 

Young people want access to reproductive health care. Sixty-nine percent of young women under 30, and 55 percent of young men say access to reproductive health care is important when choosing what state to live in, according to the Harvard Youth Poll. That rules out Texas, where abortions are banned and any Texan who wants or needs one must travel out of state to receive the procedure. 

As someone just a few years removed from high school, I can speak for myself as a young person and say I have always wanted an education unimpeded by book bans, mass shootings, and attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Texas government does not agree, passing an anti-DEI bill that went into effect in January, banning 625 books throughout the 2022–2023 school year and loosening restrictions on guns in a state that has had 192 school shootings since 1970

The kids are not alright, and at every turn, it seems federal and state power holders do the exact opposite of what young people want and believe in. 

What excited me most about Spy Kids as a child weren’t the high-tech gadgets, imaginative creatures, or daring adventures. It was the idea that there existed a world where kids had a say. Kids were not just talked about or at, but fully regarded as people with valid concerns about the world around them. As I enter adulthood, I hope to maintain the perspective that kids and young people in general should not just be listened to, but learned from. They will teach you a thing or two about what is worth caring about and about how to pull off a monochromatic brown outfit.