Monica Rhor

Writer. Teacher. Storyteller

Latinos behind the camera

As a film and television buff, I’m always keeping an eye out for up-and-coming folks behind the camera (yes, I’m one of the people who stay in the theater to the very end of the credits). So, when I noticed an increasing number of Latino names on credits, I knew there was a story. Here’s a piece I did for USA Today’s Hispanic Living magazine about the new generation of Latino filmmakers.

Lights. Camera. Acción! Latino filmmakers on the move

By Monica Rhor, USA TODAY Hispanic Living

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s childhood in Laredo, Texas, was one of art and poetry and music, where Mexican boleros and the words of Octavio Paz filled the house. Spanish was the language of home, and the border separating the town from its Mexican sister city of Nuevo Laredo was a fluid concept.

It was also a time of devouring movies — visits to Laredo’s theaters, binging on rentals from the Video Hut, discovering films that would change his life, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

That cinematic awakening led Gomez-Rejon to a career behind the camera, making him one of a small but growing number of Latinos making a mark in Hollywood as directors, writers and producers. If you go to the movies or watch television, chances are you’ve seen their work:

  •  Alfonso Cuarón’s balletic vision of space in Gravity, which earned him a place in Oscar history as the first Latino to win the best director award.
  • Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical, frightening depictions of the Spanish Civil War inPan’s Labyrinth and the comic book underworld of Hellboy.
  • Linda Mendoza’s lighthearted comedy Chasing Papi and her groundbreaking work directing TV shows such as The Bernie Mac ShowUgly Betty and 30 Rock.
  • Félix Alcalá’s Emmy award-nominated work directing Battlestar Galactica and his regular credits on The Good Wife and Criminal Minds.
  • Norberto Barba’s stamp as a director and producer on highly acclaimed dramas, including Grimm and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

In film, Gomez-Rejon has won praise for his work as an assistant or second-unit director on Julie & Julia, Babel, Eat Pray Love and Argo, and for directing episodes of TV’s American Horror Story and Glee.

Latino directors have styles, sensibilities and background stories as varied as the country’s Latino population. Mendoza, raised in Detroit, is the grandchild of Mexican Americans from Texas. Barba, the child of Cuban immigrants, grew up in the Bronx. Alcala was born in Bakersfield, Calif. Cuarón and del Toro are both Mexican-born.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Shattered Dreams

The school parking lot was filled with battered and bleeding bodies, screams of anger and pain, shattered windshields and shards of glass.

The tears, at first feigned, soon became real as students realized that the accident scene, which had been staged as part of the “Shattered Dreams” program designed to educate students about the dangers of drinking and driving, could all too easily be real.

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Repair? Refresh? Recycle? Replace?

What districts need to know when hardware begins to break down

By Monica Rhor
District Administration, March 2014

Just five years ago, Chawanakee USD, a small rural district nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in northern California, and the North Kansas City School District, a suburban district located just north of Kansas City, Mo., were at the starting lines of the digital revolution.

The two districts were about to launch 1-to-1 laptop programs. For Chawanakee, that meant buying new MacBooks for the 280 students in the district’s only high school. For North Kansas City, that meant leasing 7-inch HP mini laptops for its 6,000 high school students.

But that was just phase one. About three years in, both Chawanakee and North Kansas City wrestled with a quandary that all 1-to-1 programs eventually face: What to do when devices become outdated or need repairs.

There are several options. Districts can spring for the repairs or replacement parts. They can charge parents fees to cover insurance or damage. They can choose a leasing agreement that allows for new devices every few years. They can replace their entire inventory with the latest model. Or they can opt to buy refurbished devices when the old ones cycle out after three to five years.

“It’s one of the real difficult pieces of maintaining programs,” says Bob Nelson, Chawanakee’s superintendent. “People get into it thinking it’s a one-time-thing expenditure instead of realizing they’re obligated to a program they are going to need to sustain long-term.”

And, school officials and vendors say, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The experiences of the Chawanakee and North Kansas City districts illustrate the options and obstacles navigated by any district leader maintaining 1-to-1 programs.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Students transformed by a weekend in homelessness

For the past 3o years, Mission Waco has been staging poverty simulations designed to show participants what it is like to be homeless and to increase empathy for the poor. Thousands of students, church group, civic leaders and regular folks have gone through – with most emerging changed by the experience. In the last weekend of January, a bitterly cold weekend in Waco, I experienced the poverty simulation with a group of students from Humble ISD.

By the end of the weekend, we were ragged and tired and sore – but the students had experienced moments and met people they would never forget. The people who were no longer the faceless, nameless “homeless.” But Joe P., Chad, Leroy, James, Bob. People, one student said, “who are worth talking to.”

Here is the story I did for the Houston Chronicle about the experience along with a gallery of photos I took:

Weekend changes students’ attitude
By Monica Rhor | February 21, 2014

WACO – The frigid wind announced itself as a low, hoarse howl, a freight train rumbling toward the bodies huddled on concrete and frozen grass. It lashed through flimsy blankets and sleeping bags, leaving the kids from Atascocita, Summer Creek and Kingwood groaning. Some whimpered in their sleep. Others squeezed three and four to a bag in a futile attempt to stay warm.

As the thermometer dipped below freezing, and the wind whipping past at 25 mph made the night air even icier, Lourdes Sanchez got angry. She yearned for her warm bed nearly 200 miles away.

She asked herself: Why did I come here? Why am I putting myself through this?

Then, the high school senior remembered.

She and her classmates were here for a “poverty simulation” weekend, designed to plunge participants into the shoes of the poor and the homeless, forcing them to experience firsthand what it feels like to be deprived of possessions and power.

“This is actually life for many people who don’t have the luxury of being cold with a friend or a blanket,” she thought. “For them, it’s not just one night. I don’t have the right to complain.”

Just 36 hours earlier, Lourdes and 40 other Humble ISD students left Atascocita High School carrying Vera Bradley quilted totes and overnight bags loaded with clothes and makeup and toiletries. They were tethered to iPhones and iPads and earbuds. One student, who is vegan, carted a stash of tortilla chips, guacamole, nuts and fruit salad from Whole Foods.

But soon after setting foot inside Mission Waco, they were asked to hand over their money, jewelry and provisions.

They exchanged their own clothes for thrift shop outfits that were too big or too small, or in some cases, just plain ridiculous. Like Jonathan Burton’s blue Hawk Security Systems shirt paired with baggy checked pants. Or Alexis Nunes’ mismatched brown shoes. Or Dalton Cruz’s explosion of clashing plaids. Or Amy Baker’s combo of “World’s Greatest Dad” T-shirt and slacks that dragged several inches below the heels of her pink cloth slip-ons.

From Friday night to Sunday afternoon, they would go without. Without money. Without shelter. Without hot water.

To read the rest of the article and view the photo gallery, click here.

Go here to see more photos.

Homeless in Waco — for a purpose

These are some images from a “poverty simulation” weekend in Waco. Run by the urban ministry Mission Waco, the weekend is meant to give participants greater empathy for the poor and the homeless — and to inspire them to go out and take action.

By the end of the weekend, we were bruised and battered and wind-burned. And the students who went on the trip had been transformed. Go here to for a link to the story I wrote for the Houston Chronicle about the  experience.

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Book review: ‘On Such a Full Sea’ by Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel doesn’t disappoint
By Monica Rhor, Associated Press

“On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead Books), by Chang-rae Lee

Inside the confines of B-Mor, a strictly regimented labor colony populated by the descendants of immigrant workers from Asia, the story of 16-year-old Fan carries the weight of legend. As recounted by the people of B-Mor, Fan’s journey outside the walls of her community, an adventure rife with peril and opportunity, travails and triumphs, has the feel of a myth told and retold over generations.

Like myth, it has been embellished and molded over time, carved to fit the changing tides of society and the rising and waning hopes of the teller. It is, by turns, a source of hope and a cautionary tale for those who dare to want more than society allows.

Fan’s quest also serves as the vehicle for Chang-rae Lee’s latest exploration of identity and personhood, of assimilation and cultural shifts, of love, loneliness and betrayal. Unlike Lee’s previous novels, which mined real events and personal experiences to burrow into those themes, his latest, “On Such a Full Sea,” is set in a dystopian future about 150 years from now.

It is a future made up of a highly stratified society broken into a lower class consigned to scrapping for survival in the wild and lawless “open counties” and a middle class that lives and works in labor facilities such as B-Mor (once known as Baltimore), where the inhabitants’ existence is centered around the task of growing fish and vegetables consumed by a hedonistic and uncaring upper class residing in the affluent “Charter villages.”

Click here to read the rest of the review.

In districts, 1-to-1 equals new funding strategies

How school districts are funding 1-to-1

By Monica Rhor
District Administration, January 2014

Before 4,450 MacBook Airs were distributed to students, before teachers were equipped and trained on their own devices, before test scores increased and the dropout rate decreased, the Mooresville Graded School District’s digital conversion started with a hard look at finances—one result of which was the elimination of more than 35 teaching positions.

Officials in the North Carolina school district, which ranked almost last in the state in per-student spending, knew rolling laptops out to all students in grades three through 12 would be an expensive undertaking. They knew the initial outlay would be followed by maintenance, professional development, and replacement costs. And they knew that finding the right funding formula would require changing the status quo. It would also require sacrifice.

“We took a global look at the budget as a whole and started by asking what we could abandon,” said Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer. “What were we doing just because we had always done it and what things could we repurpose?”

Among the items deemed unnecessary to buy again in the future: computer labs, textbooks, maps, globes, calculators, and encyclopedias—all available in electronic form through the laptops. The district also cut 65 jobs, including 37 teachers.

Instead of buying the laptops—and ending up stuck with obsolete models in a few years—Mooresville schools opted for a lease-purchase agreement that allows the district to lease the MacBook Airs for $215 a year, or about $1 million, and resell them after two to three years of use, Haas says. Parents pay an annual $50 technology usage fee that helps pay for repair. The fee is waived for families who cannot afford it.

But the key to the funding for Mooresville’s program was the decision to build the costs into the district’s $46 million budget as a permanent line item.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Book review: “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward

Darkness pervades “Men We  Reaped”
By Monica Rhor, Associated Press

The last chapter of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, “Men We Reaped,” begins with a litany of statistics “about what it means to be Black and poor in the south.” The numbers mount like burdens on an already-bent back: high rates of poverty, incarceration and illiteracy, low rankings in education and standard of living.

Each one bows the back a little farther to the ground; each one strips a little more from the soul.

By this point in her book, Ward has already laid bare the human toll of what being poor and Black in Mississippi meant for her and her family. It meant five young men — friends, cousins, boyfriends, brothers — cut down by drugs, violence, depression and just plain bad luck in the space of four years. It meant women left behind to scrape out a living, to hold wounded families together, to nurse their own regrets and sorrows and shriveled dreams.

The numbers, Ward notes, simply “bear fruit to the reality.” They also bear witness to a truth that stretches beyond her circle of family and friends, beyond the confines of her hometown of DeLisle, beyond the borders of Mississippi and its specter of racism and segregation.

To read the rest of the review, click here.

iPads break down classroom barriers

iPads expand time and space in schools
By Monica Rhor, District Administration, September 2013

Visit the classrooms of Burlington High School in the Burlington (Mass.) Public School District and you’ll see the school’s two-year-old 1-to-1 iPad initiative in action. Some students might be taking notes using Evernote, rather than pen and paper. Others may be translating and recording first-aid terms for a Spanish lesson. A music class could be rehearsing with the Garage Band app.

The iPads, used by the school’s teachers and 1,100 students, have replaced traditional foreign language labs and allowed the school to reduce the number of computer labs. They are used to create video lectures and class projects. The school even received approval from the College Board to use iPads for the spring 2013 advanced placement Spanish exam.

After two full academic years in use, the devices have become part of the fabric of the school, says Andy Marcinek, an instructional technologist at Burlington High, which is just outside Boston. “It’s really starting to bear fruit. Our students are excited about class. They can look and find information at their fingertips.”

To read the rest of the article, click here.

You can also read the PDF of the article below.

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Familia: An American story

I loved doing this story for Latina magazine about a Texan family whose history parallels the history of Latinos in the U.S. — not as a separate thread or a recently occuring influx, but as an integral part of the country’s beginnings.



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