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About the Book

Breaking Through

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Text by Kathryn Bold

Like the Joad family in the Steinbeck classic, Grapes of Wrath, the Jimenez’s came to California to escape poverty and find a better life. In a short story titled "Crossing la Frontera" (the border), told from a child's point of view, Jimenez describes his family's flight from their home in a small village north of Guadalajara across the border into the United States:

“On both sides of the fence were armed guards in green uniforms. Papa called them la migra and explained that we had to cross the fence to the other side, without being seen by these men. If we succeeded, we would enter los Estados Unidos....We continued walking along the wire wall, until Papa spotted a small hole underneath the fence. Papa got on his knees and, with his hands, made the opening larger. We all crawled through it like snakes."

“A few minutes later, we were picked up by a woman whom Papa had contacted in Mexicali. She had promised to pick us up in her car and drive us, for a fee, to a place where we would find work. As we traveled north through the night, I fell asleep for a long time on Mama's lap. I woke up at dawn and heard the woman say, we're entering the San Joaquin Valley. Here you'll find plenty of work. ‘This is the beginning of a new life,’ Mama said, taking a deep breath.  ‘A good life,’ Papa answered.

As it turned out, many years would pass before anyone in the Jiménez family experienced that good life. Jiménez’s father, Francisco, his mother Joaquina, and his older brother Roberto, found work picking crops in the fields. So began the cycle of moving from camp to camp, following the harvest.

The family, which eventually grew to nine children, lived in one-room shacks and tents. In the summer, they picked strawberries in Santa Maria. Then they traveled to Fresno to pick grapes in early September and on to Corcoran and Bakersfield to pick cotton in the winter. In February, they moved back to Santa Maria to thin lettuce and top carrots.

Working from sunup to sundown, the entire family earned just $15 a day. Jiménez called this nomadic existence "the circuit" in a short story by that title that has been reproduced many times in textbooks and anthologies of American literature.

"It's a symbolic circuit," he says. "If you're a migrant worker, you're constantly living in poverty. It's very difficult to get out of it."

Yet Jiménez soon found relief from the hard life in the fields and a way to escape the circuit: school. "I came to realize that learning and knowledge were the only stable things in my life. Whatever I learned in school, that knowledge would stay with me no matter how many times we moved."

Because Jiménez could not start school until after the mid-November harvest and because he knew so little English, he struggled to keep up with his classmates. One teacher even labeled him mentally retarded.

"I would start school and find myself behind, especially in English," he remembers. "School for the first nine years was very sporadic."

Still, Jiménez was luckier than his brother Roberto, who was old enough to pick cotton and therefore could not start school until February. In "The Circuit," Jiménez describes the pain of leaving his brother behind on his first day back at school:

"I woke up early that morning and lay in bed, looking at the stars and savoring the thought of not going to work and starting sixth grade for the first time that year. Since I could not sleep, I decided to get up and join Papa and Roberto at breakfast. I sat at the table across from Roberto, but I kept my head down. I did not want to look up and face him. I knew he was sad. He was not going to school today. He was not going tomorrow, or next week, or next month."

Unlike many of his classmates, Jiménez looked forward to the days he spent in school. "I had many embarrassing moments; but in spite of those, I enjoyed the environment," he says. "School was a lot nicer than home. Many times, we lived in tents with dirt floors, no electricity or plumbing. In school we had electricity, plumbing, lighting. We even had toys."

Although the physical environment was pleasant, interactions with classmates often were not. "Kids would call me spic, or greaser, tamale wrapper. They made fun of my thick accent and whenever I made grammatical mistakes. That really hurt. I withdrew and became quiet," Jiménez says.

Fortunately, Jiménez sometimes encountered a friendly teacher who recognized his desire to learn. His sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lema, helped him with his English during lunch. Discovering that Jiménez enjoyed music, the universal language, Lema offered to teach him to play the trumpet.

But Jiménez never got his first lesson. When he went home to tell his mother and father the good news about his music lessons, he found the family's possessions neatly packed into cardboard boxes. They were moving again.

To compensate for his sporadic education, Jiménez began teaching himself. He would jot down words he was trying to memorize on a small note pad and carry it with him into the fields so he could study during his breaks.

Whenever his family visited the local public dump to collect discarded clothes, wood for a floor, and other necessities, Jiménez would pick up books. Once he found a single volume of an encyclopedia. Not realizing it was part of a 20-volume set, he leafed through its pages, figuring that if he could learn to read the whole thing, he'd know just about everything there was to know.

Wherever he was, Jiménez always knew to run and hide from la migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service agents), especially when they made their sweeps through the fields and camps.

Jiménez and his family lived in fear of being deported. His father had a visa, but the others did not; visas were too expensive. Jiménez remembers the INS officers interrogating people and sometimes beating them. When someone asked where he was born, he lied.

When he was in junior high school, INS agents entered Jiménez's classroom and arrested him as an illegal immigrant. The family was deported to Mexico but returned after several weeks with visas obtained with the help of a Japanese sharecropper who sponsored them.

Jiménez's life changed forever when he was about to enter high school. Because his father suffered from permanent back pain--probably from too many hours bent over the crops--he could no longer work in the fields. It was up to Roberto to support the family.

Roberto found a job as a janitor at a school in Santa Maria; Jiménez also worked for a janitorial company. Now the family did not have to follow the harvest. Now Jiménez could start school with the rest of the class and keep up with his studies.

"The work was indoors; and after I was done cleaning, I could study in an office," he says. "This was my chance."

With his newfound stability, Jiménez thrived. He became student-body president of his high school and earned a 3.7 GPA. A guidance counselor, disturbed that a gifted student was not going to college because the family could not afford to send him, managed to arrange for Jiménez to obtain scholarships and student loans so that he could enroll at Santa Clara University. 

FRANCISCO JIMÉNEZ

Website: www.scu.edu/fjimenez

Bio information:

Author and educator, Francisco Jiménez emigrated with his family from Tlaquepaque, Mexico to California and as a child worked alongside his parents in the fields of California. He received his BA from Santa Clara University and an MA and Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Columbia University under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He has served on various professional boards and commissions, including the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (10 years, two as chair), California Council for the Humanities, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC), Santa Clara University Board of Trustees and the Far West Lab for Educational Research and Development.

Dr. Jiménez’s autobiographical books The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (Cajas de cartón, Spanish edition), Breaking Through (Senderos fronterizos, Spanish edition), Reaching Out (Más allá de mí, Spanish edition), La Mariposa, and The Christmas Gift/El regalo de Navidad have won several national literary awards, including The California Library Association’s 10th Annual John and Patricia Beatty Award, the Américas Book Award, the Pura Belpré Honor Book Award, the Tomás Rivera Book Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Reading the World Award, and the Carter C. Woodson National Book Award. His books have been published in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italian and Spanish. In addition, he has published and edited several books on Mexican and Mexican American literature, and his stories have been reprinted in over 100 textbooks and anthologies of literature. His latest work is Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

His four-book series—The Circuit, Breaking Through, Reaching Out, Taking Hold--has been included in the American Library Association Booklist's 50 Best Young Adult Books of All Time.

He was selected U.S. Professor of the Year by CASE and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2002, and is the recipient of UCSB’s Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature and the *John Steinbeck Award.  He holds honorary degrees from De Anza College and the University of San Francisco. In 2015 a new school in Santa Maria, California was named in honor of his late brother and him: The Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School. He is currently Professor Emeritus in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University.

*“The John Steinbeck Award is given to writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes.” Past recipients include musician Bruce Springsteen, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, filmmaker Ken Burns, playwright Arthur Miller, and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.)