Breaking Through

An excerpt from the autobiography of Jiménez, who faced many challenges since he and his family entered the United States from Mexico when he was 4. Through work in the fields, to deportation, to struggles in English class, he persevered. And now he’s a professor at SCU.

Francisco Jiménez was 4 when his father dug a hole under the fence separating Mexico and the United States and led his family through to a new life. By age 6, Francisco was working in the fields of California, trying to help the family dig out of poverty as they migrated around the state in search of work.

Life was tough for Francisco, his five brothers and sisters, and his parents. But he was determined to earn an education and help his family make ends meet, even if it meant working 35 hours a week·before and after school·cleaning offices and picking produce at Santa Maria-area ranches on the weekend.

In Breaking Through, the sequel to his award-winning 1997 autobiographical book, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, Jiménez takes the reader through his high school years, from his family’s deportation to Mexico, to his struggles in English class, to his ultimate acceptance into Santa Clara University.

Forced Out

I lived in constant fear for ten long years, from the time I was four until I was fourteen years old.

Francisco Jiménez, age 13, at Bonetti Ranch in Santa Maria, Calif.

It all started back in the late 1940s when Papá, Mamá, my older brother, Roberto, and I left El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and headed to California, hoping to leave our life of poverty behind. I remember how excited I was making the trip on a second-class train traveling north from Guadalajara to Mexicali. We traveled for two days and nights. When we arrived at the United States-Mexico border, Papá told us that we had to cross the barbed-wire fence without being seen by la migra, the immigration officers dressed in green uniforms. During the night we dug a hole underneath the wire wall and wiggled like snakes under it to the other side. “If anyone asks you where you were born,” Papá said firmly, “tell them Colton, California. If la migra catches you, they’ll send you back to Mexico.” We were picked up by a woman whom Papá had contacted in Mexicali. She drove us, for a fee, to a tent labor camp on the outskirts of Guadalupe, a small town on the coast. From that day on, for the next ten years, while we traveled from place to place throughout California, following the crops and living in migrant labor camps, I feared being caught by the Border Patrol.

As I got older, my fear of being deported grew. I did not want to return to Mexico because I liked going to school, even though it was difficult for me, especially English class. I enjoyed learning, and I knew there was no school in El Rancho Blanco. Every year Roberto and I missed months of school to help Papá and Mamá work in the fields. We struggled to make ends meet, especially during the winter, when work was scarce. Things got worse when Papá began to have back problems and had trouble picking crops. Luckily, in the winter of 1957, Roberto found a part-time job working year-round as a janitor at Main Street Elementary School in Santa Maria, California.

Francisco, left, Trampita, and Roberto (in cap), at Tent City in Santa Maria, Calif.

We settled in Bonetti Ranch, where we had lived in army barracks off and on for the past few years. My brother’s job and mine·thinning lettuce and picking carrots after school and on weekends·helped support our family. I was excited because we had finally settled in one place. We no longer had to move to Fresno at the end of every summer and miss school for two and a half months to pick grapes and cotton and live in army tents or old garages.

But what I feared most happened that same year. I was in my eighth-grade social studies class at El Camino Junior High School in Santa Maria. I was getting ready to recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which our class had to memorize. I had worked hard at memorizing it and felt confident. While I waited for class to start, I sat at my desk and recited it silently one last time:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

I was ready.

Francisco as a freshman at Santa Maria High School.

After the bell rang, Miss Ehlis, my English and social studies teacher, began to take roll. She was interrupted by a knock on the door. When she opened it, I saw the school principal and a man behind him. As soon as I saw the green uniform, I panicked. I felt like running, but my legs would not move. I trembled and could feel my heart pounding against my chest as though it too wanted to escape. My eyes blurred. Miss Ehlis and the officer walked up to me. “This is him,” she said softly, placing her right hand on my shoulder.

“Are you Francisco Jiménez?” he asked firmly. His deep voice echoed in my ears.

“Yes,” I responded, wiping my tears and looking down at his large, black shiny boots. At that point I wished I were someone else, someone with a different name. My teacher had a sad and pained look in her eyes. I followed the immigration officer out of the classroom and into his car marked border patrol. I climbed in the front seat, and we drove down Broadway to Santa Maria High School to pick up Roberto, who was in his sophomore year. As cars passed by, I slid lower in the seat and kept my head down. The officer parked the car in front of the school and asked me to wait for him while he went inside the administration building.

A few minutes later, the officer returned with Roberto following him. My brother’s face was as white as a sheet. The officer asked me to climb into the back seat with Roberto. “Nos agarraron, hermanito,” Roberto said, quivering and putting his arm around my shoulder.

“Yes, they caught us,” I repeated. I had never seen my brother so sad. Angry, I added in a whisper, “But it took them ten years.” Roberto quickly directed my attention to the officer with a shift of his eyes and put his index finger to his lips, hushing me. The officer turned right on Main Street and headed toward Bonetti Ranch, passing familiar sites I figured I would never see again: Main Street Elementary School; Kress, the five-and-dime store; the Texaco gas station where we got our drinking water. I wondered if my friends at El Camino Junior High would miss me as much as I would miss them.

“Do you know who turned you in?” the officer asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“No,” Roberto answered.

“It was one of your people,” he said, chuckling.

I could not imagine whom it could have been. We never told anyone we were here illegally, not even our best friends. I looked at Roberto, hoping he knew the answer. My brother shrugged his shoulders. “Ask him who it was,” I whispered.

“No, you ask him,” he responded.

The officer, who wore large, dark green sunglasses, must have heard us, because he glanced at us through the rear-view mirror and said, “Sorry, can’t tell you his name.

Francisco (in hat) sings "Cielito Lindo" during the Junior Scandals competition at Santa Maria High School.

When we arrived at Bonetti Ranch, a Border Patrol van was parked in front of our house, which was one of many dilapidated army barracks that Bonetti, the owner of the ranch, bought after the Second World War and rented to farm workers. My whole family was outside, standing by the patrol car. Mamá was sobbing and caressing Rubén, my youngest brother, and Rorra, my little sister.

They hung on to Mamá’s legs like two children who had just been found after being lost. Papá stood between my two younger brothers, Trampita and Torito. Both cried silently as Papá braced himself on their shoulders, trying to ease his back pain. Roberto and I climbed out of the car and joined them. The immigration officers, who towered over everyone, searched the ranch for other undocumented residents, but found none.

We were hauled into the Border Patrol van and driven to San Luis Obispo, the immigration headquarters. There we were asked endless questions and given papers to sign. Since Papá did not know English and Mamá understood only a little, Roberto translated for them. Papá showed them his green card, which Ito, the Japanese sharecropper for whom we picked strawberries, had helped him get years before. Mamá showed birth certificates for Trampita, Torito, Rorra, and Rubén, who were born in the United States. Mamá, Roberto, and I did not have documentation; we were the only ones being forced to leave. Mamá and Papá did not want to separate our family. They pleaded with the immigration officer in charge to allow us to stay a few more days so that we could leave the country together. The officer finally agreed and told us we could leave on a voluntary basis. He gave us three days to report to the U.S. immigration office at the border in Nogales, Arizona.

Joaquina Jiménez and her sons, Roberto and Francisco, in the cotton fields north of Corcoran, Calif.

The next morning as we were getting ready for our trip back to Mexico, I went outside and watched the school bus pick up kids from the ranch. As it drove away, I felt empty inside and had a pain in my chest. I went back inside to help pack. Papá and Mamá were sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by my brothers and sister, who listened quietly as my parents discussed our trip. Papá took out the metal box in which he kept our savings and counted it. “We don’t have much, but we’ll have to live on the other side of the border with the little we have. Maybe it’ll last us until we fix our papers and come back legally,” he said.

“And with God’s help, we will!” Mamá said. “There’s no doubt.”

“I am not that sure, but we’ll try,” Papá responded.

I was happy to hear Papá and Mamá say this. I relished the thought of returning to Santa Maria, going back to school, and not fearing la migra anymore. I knew Roberto felt the same. He had a sparkle in his eyes and a big smile.

Papá and Mamá decided to cross the border in Nogales because they had heard that the immigration office there was not as busy as the one in Tijuana or Mexicali. We packed a few belongings, stored the rest in our barrack, and left our Carcachita, our old jalopy, locked and parked in front. Joe and Espy, our next-door neighbors, drove us to the Greyhound bus station on North Broadway in Santa Maria. We bought our tickets to Nogales and boarded. Papá and Rorra sat across the aisle from Roberto and me. Torito and Trampita sat in front of us. Roberto closed his eyes and leaned his head back. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He puckered his lower lip and clenched his hands.

Excerpt from Breaking Through, by Francisco Jiménez. Copyright 2001 by Francisco Jiménez. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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