Real-Life Flashbacks to ‘Stand, Deliver’

Times Staff Writer

“Stand and Deliver”--a movie about a math teacher and his East L.A. high school students who get down to the unlikely task of studying, excel at it and even survive a cheating scandal--opened last week to critical acclaim and a solid box-office performance.

But for some of the former Garfield High School students who lived the events of the movie, the prospect of seeing their lives glamorized in a film hasn’t proved that exciting.

“At least people in our community will see what we went through and see that we passed the test,” said Maria Jimenez, a political science graduate of Marymount College now working for an Alhambra financial firm. “It will bring a lot of orgullo (pride) to our community.”

The problem, Jimenez and seven other former Garfield classmates explained in recent interviews, is that they are tired of the media attention they have attracted since May, 1982, when the Educational Testing Service accused 18 students of cheating on Advanced Placement calculus exams.


The former students, most of whom are now 23 years old, had hoped that the scandal would have been put to rest five years ago when they passed the exam a second time.

The controversy--which plays a central role in the new movie--hasn’t died, however, and some of the former students fear that “Stand and Deliver” may reopen old wounds.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to believe that people from this (community) can achieve,” said Aili Tapio, a USC business graduate who registered a perfect score on her first try at the exam and a near-perfect one on her second. “I believe that because we still get people that ask us, ‘Did you really cheat?’ ”

“I think it made me a stronger person, because now I have something to always look back on,” said Raul Haro, a senior in aerospace engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, working part time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “And I think that having this behind me sort of tells me, ‘You can do it.’ ”

Even more recently, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews interviewed former classmates for a book about the Garfield experience due out this summer. Hortensia Sanchez, claims that Mathews told her a former test-mate, who allegedly admitted cheating, implicated both Sanchez and another student in the scam.

“I denied it, of course,” said Sanchez, who also passed the test on her second try and is now studying for a master’s in social welfare at UC Berkeley. “It’s really upsetting. For me, this has gone on long enough.”


Mathews, who denied Sanchez’s account of the conversation, said his book--which is related to “Stand and Deliver” only by subject matter--doesn’t contradict the movie’s general outline nor minimize the “truly historic” accomplishments of math teacher Jaime Escalante and his Garfield students. The book, Mathews said, is titled “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America” and will be published by Henry Holt & Co.

“They’re tired of being asked the same questions,” said Escalante, who began teaching at Garfield more than 12 years ago. “It doesn’t bother me at all. But the kids don’t want to hear anything about those guys” from the testing service.

The testing firm insists it was justified in challenging the initial 1982 test results based on similar wrong answers given by the students. Nevertheless, it endorses the new movie. “It’s a wonderful film about dedication and winning out over tremendous odds,” said Gregory R. Anrig, company president.

The former students said the film does not show how the Princeton, N.J.-based testing firm sent a barrage of letters asking them to prove their math skills by mailing their notes and homework from previous courses, nor how their teachers and administrators--except for Escalante--deserted them when controversy erupted.

But when it came to Olmos’ rendition of Escalante, the former students’ praise was nearly unanimous.

“He played Escalante to a T,” said Jimenez. “He must have done a great job researching him. Everything he did with Escalante’s character was the way he was with us.”

But for Louis Cervantes, a UC Berkeley microbiology graduate who now works for a diagnostic medical laboratory, Olmos’ version of Escalante wasn’t fiery enough.

“When (Olmos) threw somebody out of the class it was really subtle” compared to Escalante, Cervantes said. “I mean, he used to say he never wanted to see us for a year. But I think he portrayed him pretty well, especially some of his real habits.”

Classmate Fernando Bocanegra, who plans to resume undergraduate studies at Cal State Fullerton, after having withdrawn several years ago from Columbia University for personal reasons, criticized what he viewed as the film’s tendency to reinforce negative stereotypes.

“I think the wrong things were exaggerated,” Bocanegra said; “for example, the troublemaker in the class (Angel, played by Lou Diamond Philips). There was really no one in our class who was like that.” He said his classmates were college-bound students who didn’t identify with the image of the cholo or barrio tough.

Robert Hoffman, a spokesman for co-producers Olmos, Tom Musca and Ramon Menendez, said the film’s characters should not be viewed too literally because they represent composites of many students, including some from the mid-1970s, when Garfield’s gang problems were far worse.

The film, said former student Haro, attacks the notion that all barrio youths are hampered by poor self-esteem and low expectations.

“The movie shows how it took someone like Escalante to actually say we could push these kids to (their) limits, that we won’t break or go crazy,” he said.

“There’s no such thing that (Asian) or any other students are better,” said Escalante. “What makes the difference is the time you put into your assignments. You just need ganas (desire).”

And while some may still harbor doubts, Escalante’s calculus class of 1982 hopes that “Stand and Deliver” will correct misconceptions about Latino students and set an example for others who have been underestimated.

“Hopefully,” said Jimenez, “it’ll help the kids coming up, so that they can say, ‘Yeah, we are from East L.A.’ because something positive has been done.”