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The Star-Ledger

Documenting An 'Invisible' Problem - Spanish-Speaking Boy Whose Family Lived At Y In Newark Is Focus Of Film


February 19, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

Aspiring filmmaker Anthony Spirito met a down-on-his-luck 12-year-old in a Newark park two years ago, and instantly decided to make the boy and his family the subject of a documentary film.

Spirito's first feature length creation, "Into the Arroyo," provides a behind-the-scenes look at 12- year-old Jose Arroyo's impoverished life in the shadow of Newark's Renaissance district.

The inaugural screening of "Into the Arroyo" will take place March 10 at the John Cotton Dana Library Auditorium on the Rutgers-Newark campus. The screening, open to the public and free of charge, starts at 6 p.m. and will be followed by a round-table discussion with the audience.

Spirito, of Elizabeth, a 1988 graduate of Roselle Catholic High School, had dropped out of Kean University, where he was studying philosophy and religion. After immersing himself in poetry and a spoken word musical group in Newark, Spirito conducted promotional work for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center as part of his newly created AS Films documentary video service for cultural, corporate and nonprofit organizations in Newark.

He eventually came into contact with Lori Barcliff-Baptista, program coordinator with the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University. Spirito had been working at an artist's installation in Newark's Military Park and came across an interesting youngster, Jose Arroyo, who explained he lived in the Y with his family.

Spirito saw the family's cramped living quarters on the 10th floor of the building, which provided three beds in just one room, without a stove or running water. A community bathroom was down the hall.

Through Spirito's Canon GL1 video camera, viewers follow Jose and his family, sisters Keishla and Denise, mother Olga and stepfather Pedro, on a six-month journey from Christmas of 2001 through the spring of 2002.

After their apartment burned to the ground, the Arroyos found themselves at the Emergency Residence Shelter of the YMWCA in Newark.

Olga Arroyo worked while the abusive Pedro Arroyo, who dodged parole three times after being released from East Jersey State Prison at Avenel, occassionaly worked handyman jobs to help feed the family.

"A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck and they never think that this could happen to them," said Mabel Elmore, 45, director of the emergency residence at the Y. "It can happen. This woman (Olga) kept it together amidst the struggle. They stayed a loving family while they were here. It's the reason why I let them do this (film the documentary). I saw her strength."

The YMWCA offers 350 residents 24-hour shelter, regardless of their drug addictions or HIV- infection status. According to Elmore, 25 percent of the residents are from Union County with the majority of residents coming from Essex County.

The film follows Jose as he wanders through Newark alone, seeking food from other shelters and soup kitchens. During a candid portion of the film, Jose shows his charisma as he receives food from Janice Bailey, who works at the NJPAC Cafe situated across from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. In return for the food, Jose, who can't read, agrees to sit with Bailey and receive a reading lesson.

"Despite all of his circumstances, the thing about Jose is the amount of optimism Jose has regardless of what he's been through," said Spirito. But misfortune engulfs the family as its welfare assistance is terminated, resulting in a relocation to Bridgeport, Conn., then to Pedro's native Puerto Rico, where his father's heroin habit is revealed.

"Poverty is real and children are raising themselves on city streets unsupervised," said Spirito. "Jose is representative of 1,000 other kids that don't have the opportunity to rise above the system."

Spirito knows a thing or two about being broke. He says he still owes "a lot" of landlords "a lot" of money. Spirito used money out of his own pocket toward the production of the film. Funding for the film came from the Turrell Fund, Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience and the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

According to Clement Alexander Price, professor of history and founding director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers-Newark, Spirito's focus on Latino children was unique.

"Everybody knows that Spainish-speaking kids are the fastest growing population in Newark, yet they are still invisible to scholars, the print and electronic media," said Price. "This parallels the invisibility of blacks in the '50s and '60s."

Spirito is hoping to expand the distribution of "Into the Arroyo" with additional fund-raising. He said that PBS and NJN remain possible suitors. HBO showed interest earlier this month

"It breaks your heart," said Barcliff-Baptista. "People assume homeless individuals to be lazy, ill or disturbed. If you saw this kid (Jose) walking down the street you'd never know."

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