A couple summers ago, a pediatrician who practices in Porterville, in the San Joaquin Valley, paid a visit to the former UCI College of Medicine.
Overcome with emotion, he sat pensively on a bench, composing himself, near the old medical school, a building that today contains only a few labs where researchers study the effects of pollution.
The journey that Dr. Ramon Resa took to get through medical school at UCI – and into his practice of 30- plus years in Tulare County – was one of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Now 65, he returned to campus in 2016 to film scenes for a feature documentary on his life, “Ramon Rising,” which is set to travel the film circuit in early 2019 and, if its creators have their way, eventually end up in class- rooms across the United States – and beyond.
He recalls of his visit to UCI: “I felt a connection to this place that made me who I am today. It affects me emotionally when I think about the things that happened to me.”
When he was only 3, Resa began picking crops in California’s Central Valley. Born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, he had been abandoned by his teenage mother and taken in by a couple – with 14 other children – who expected him to work.
Life beyond toiling in orange groves and grape fields seemed a Hollywood fantasy.
Hindered by a speech impediment and at times paralyzed with depression and feelings of deep isolation (as well as hunger and fatigue), Resa was told in high school that he belonged in wood shop – that any ambition beyond blue-collar labor was folly.
Higher education, he realized, was his only escape from the life apparently preordained for him. “My situation was so toxic that I would do anything to get out of there,” Resa says.
He wanted to build a successful career to make sure his children would have what he never did.
Intent on proving wrong the countless people who had said he’d never make it to college, Resa pressed on and was accepted at UC Santa Cruz, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976.
During his interview for admission into UCI’s medical school, Resa remembers, he was questioned by a local attorney tasked with screening minority candidates; he has no recollection of interacting with any Latino faculty or staff.
Asked why he wanted to be a doctor, he responded: “To be a role model for the kids that remind me of the kid I used to be.”
Resa, who says he never saw a Latino doctor, lawyer or teacher while growing up, kept to his word.
After graduating from UCI’s medical school in 1981, he returned to the Central Valley, where he’s been providing care to the children of migrant farmworkers ever since.
“When I was a kid, the doctors didn’t understand me and didn’t care,” Resa says. “Now when I see kids in my office who are smelly and dirty, I don’t judge them because I understand where they’re coming from. I want to show them that they can become doctors or lawyers or anything they want. If I can do it, so can they.”
With the new documentary, based in part on a memoir he published in 2010, Out of the Fields: My Journey From Farmworker Boy to Pediatrician, Resa’s public profile is poised to reach an even larger audience.
“It’s a story for our era that must be told,” says Diane Wagner, executive producer of “Ramon Rising,” which will be edited from its feature length of 90 minutes to just 45 to make it classroom-friendly. “The film has a message that particularly resonates today, with all the negative noise [Latinos] are hearing. It’s staggering the adversity he went through.”
Although Resa has become a fixture on the motivational lecture circuit – addressing groups at Google and Disney, among other venues – he’s not a polished professional. He talks from the heart, and his story of never giving up on one’s dreams resonates. His major emphases: the importance of education and diversity/inclusiveness.
“What makes Ramon unique is that he has accomplished so much but remains so humble, vulnerable and open,” says Wagner, who earned an MBA at UCI in 1992 and owns Epic Indy, which creates media content to effect social change.
“He makes it clear that he’s nothing special, that he’s not brilliant – just average but very resilient. He’s relatable, which makes his message powerful.”
In his book, Resa details the difficulty of medical school, where he at times endured prejudice and hostility from students who, he says, viewed him as nothing more than a woefully underqualified beneficiary of affirmative action.
True to form, he proved them wrong. “I don’t think I ever adapted [to medical school],” Resa says. “I struggled through it. … I was so out of it and stressed the whole time.”
He refers to this period as “the zombie years”; letters urging him on – especially one from his aunt – helped him persevere.
Today he and his wife of 40 years, Debbie, are the proud parents of two successful children, daughter Marina, 36, an actress and family therapist, and son Joshua, 31, who just completed a fellowship in pediatric oncology in New York.
Resa says he hopes the film inspires not only people with migrant- worker backgrounds, but everyone who struggles with low self-esteem, depression, poverty and abuse.
“When people hear my story,” he says, “they say, ‘I’ve never heard anyone speak about the kind of problems I’m experiencing except you, and you had it much worse than I do. Now I know that if you could overcome all you’ve been through and end up being a doctor, then I can make it too.’”