In the long run: Undergraduate Rosa Lopez on how ‘McFarland, USA’ impacted her hometown and track team

Lopez was a member of the track team that, in the 1970s, made it to the state competition, as documented by the Disney film "McFarland, USA"
Disney Enterprises, Inc/Courtesy

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for the film “McFarland, USA.”

Movies, especially ones based on true stories, often provide us with inspiration — but few have the effect of revitalizing a whole town.

Sitting down with UC Berkeley freshman Rosa Lopez, I asked her to describe her hometown of McFarland, USA, which is also the name of a 2015 Disney feature film starring Kevin Costner as renowned high school sports coach Jim White. The movie, based in the town, documents the 1987 cross country state champions from McFarland High School, the school Lopez also attended before she matriculated at UC Berkeley last August.

“Well, McFarland is a small agricultural town in the California Central Valley. When you smell cows, you know you are in here,” Lopez said with a smile. “The majority of the income of its residents comes from working in the fields. At night, nobody knows whether or not they hear gunshots or fireworks, and it’s common to pass by the prison.”

The release of the film was a point of pride for the small town. “Once the movie came out, many went to see it,” said Lopez. “There were many screenings, including one at school. … In McFarland, every symbol in the town was switched from a fruit to a runner.”

She also indicated that it’s had tangible impacts on the community. “Because of the film,” she explained, “we were able to renovate the track field at the high school, build a park and renovate one of the bridges to now include runners.”

In this back and forth, Lopez discusses the film and its effect on her and other residents of the town, highlighting how where she was born and raised has affected what she wants to do in Berkeley and beyond.

The Daily Californian: You have lived in McFarland your entire life. What was it like growing up there? What has it taught you?

Lopez: People in McFarland primarily work in the fields — I was lucky because my family did not need me to make ends meet; often, people start picking earlier. I started my freshman year. It was always the same thing. In the winter, I would pick almonds with my dad. In the summer, it would be grapes with my mom. Winter, almonds, Dad. Summer, grapes, Mom.

They encouraged me to work with them even though I didn’t have to. It was like, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t pursue your college.” It was the experience. My parents only speak Spanish. When I was in first grade, my mom would take me to the Chevron so that the attendants, who often spoke English, could help me with my homework.

DC: Were you ever on the McFarland cross country team? How many years? Did your team ever win a championship?

L: Yes, for two years — I was on JV. Varsity won Valley, which means they beat out everyone in their division within the Central Valley. And they usually make it to state, which is what (the 1987 team) won. But it is super competitive to make state. To beat out every team in California, that’s super hard. If there was not a lack of resources and money in McFarland, they would probably place at state.

DC: Have you ever spoken to coach White or met one of the 1987 runners?

L: I have met him. He and his wife would show up to meets. They keep in touch with teams and always tend to show support. Danny Diaz, the runner who lead the 1987 team to victory, is a counselor at the high school; he counsels those students who are on the verge of dropping out. Danny Diaz’s daughter is also my age! David Diaz, Danny Diaz’s brother and another team member, and Tommy Valles (also) help coach the girl’s cross country team.

DC: Do you think the film has made a difference in the community?

L: Yes, McFarland is at least on the map now. Thanks to the movie, we were able to do a lot of renovations in the town.

DC: Can you relate to any one figure in the film?

L: One of the runners: Tommy Valles. Though I did not come from a household of domestic violence like him, I understand him wanting the betterment of your family. He wanted to pursue an education to help his family out. He is very persistent.

DC: McFarland is a Disney film. What, if anything, did the film do wrong with regards to its portrayal of McFarland or its track members?

L: The romance that Tommy Valles had with coach White’s daughter. That was not true. I’ve seen his real wife.

Danny Diaz is skinny in real life but chubby in film, so when he leads the team to victory in the last seconds, the scene is more climatic.

Also, only part of the movie was filmed in McFarland. But, I like the film despite the parts that did not match reality.

DC: What is your favorite part of the film?

L: When the 1987 runners finally can see the beach. It just goes to show the simple things we take for granted. Back then, no one from McFarland really explored.

DC: How are you involved on campus now? How did McFarland put you there?

L: It all comes down to my values, upbringing and my experiences. I’m part of (Residence) Hall Assembly and volunteer with Raíces, a club that allows me to work on college applications with local Bay Area low-income students.

DC: Do you want to return to McFarland?

L: My goal is to get an education, and I want to go back and start a program in McFarland in order to help all kids pursue a greater education. And I’m going to start them off young in the program.

DC: What do you want to do for a career? Did McFarland influence this?

L: I am an intended applied math major, with, hopefully, a concentration in economics. I work with Summer Bridge and their social justice programs. They focus on low-income students, and I know I can learn from my peers and directors. I want to follow in their footsteps to start my program in McFarland.

DC: What message do you have for people in Berkeley, (and for) people in McFarland?

L: To the people in Berkeley, particularly its students: Don’t take for granted your education, because a lot of people do not have that luxury. In McFarland, a lot of kids stay back and help supplement their family’s income. Those kids think, “Fields are my future, so why try an education.” I’ve seen so many people take school for granted.

For the people back home: Work hard in school, because it will pay off in the long run.

Contact Kristen Hull at [email protected]