Seven years after wowing audiences in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and after six years of playing Don Johnson’s boss on the hit ‘80’s television series Miami Vice, Edward James Olmos brought to life the true story of Jaime Escalante, an inspiring high school math teacher who motivated his East Los Angeles students to incredible accomplishments. Since April is also known as Latino/a History Month it is appropriate to take a new look at Ramon Menendez’s 1988 hidden gem Stand and Deliver, the true story of a teacher who established a successful AP Calculus program in one of the most economically deprived areas of the country.
Escalante begins his teaching after leaving the computer industry in the early 1980s. Traveling through the colorful barrios of East LA neighborhoods, Escalante arrives at James A. Garfield High School, an institution that is on the verge of losing its accreditation and whose faculty has mostly burnt out. After several rough days with his basic Math 1A class, teaching simple fractions and percentages, Escalante proposes to challenge his students with algebra, giving daily morning quizzes over homework and a weekly exam.
In his lively manner Olmos brings Escalante alive, as he informs his students that their Mayan relatives came up with the concept of “zero”. He exclaims, “Math is in your blood!” He asks his students for “ganas”, the desire to learn and make something of themselves.
Later he challenges the department head to begin a calculus course as he firmly believes that “students will rise to the levels of expectations” that teachers will set before them. Escalante’s troubled students, include Ana (Vanessa Marquez), a quiet smart girl, who works as a waitress in her father’s restaurant; Lupe (Ingrid Oliu), a girl who finds the responsibilities of caring for four younger siblings stressful, while her parents work day and night shifts; Claudia (Karla Montana), the glamor gal, who dates older guys and whose mom tells her “men don’t like it when girls are too smart”; Pancho (Will Gotay), a big kid who plans to work for his uncle as a mechanic, and Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips), a tough gangbanger, who understands math and what Escalante wants students to achieve.
This completely inspiring film leads to an incredible climax as 18 of Escalante’s students pass the 1982 AP Calculus exam, but the Educational Teaching Services investigators challenge the validity of the students’ success. Olmos received an Oscar nomination as best actor and became one of just a handful of great Latino/a actors to receive the Oscar nomination or award—that unique group includes Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn and Rita Moreno.