An American Story

An American Story

By Steven Boyd Saum

Home, for a time: Francisco Jiménez at age 13 in Bonetti Ranch—a migrant camp near Santa Maria on California’s Central Coast. View full image. Photography courtesy Francisco Jiménez
A few words from the remarkable life of Francisco Jiménez

Let’s start with this: a line from a letter, father to son, on the occasion of the birth of the son’s firstborn: Recuerda lo que te decía—que los hijos se quieren al par del ama y no hay cosa igual en este mundo como ellos. Remember what I used to tell you—that we love our children like our own soul and there is nothing like them in the world.

The year is 1971. The new father is named Francisco, the same as his father. The new father is a few years out of college in California and is now in New York City, working on his Ph.D. at Columbia University. To him and his college sweetheart and love of his life, Laura, the boy Pancholín is born.

Francisco, the new father, soon embarks on his dissertation, though not on the subject of his first choice. “I wanted to explore and study works written by Mexicans and their descendants living or having lived in the United States who wrote about their experience in our country,” he writes in the book Taking Hold. That story—their experience—is his, too; he was born in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, and came to California with his family when he was 4 years old. The family worked as migrant laborers, picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley one season and lettuce and strawberries near Santa Maria another.

In graduate school, his preferred topic of Mexican-American literature is not yet deemed worthy of study. He will help change that assessment.

There are undergrads at Columbia College who come to his office asking if he can teach a course on Mexican-American literature and culture. Francisco pitches the idea to the administration, and it flies—sort of. Another letter, this from an administrator: “After consultation with my colleagues, I should like to inform you that the Spanish Department will allow you to teach on your own time and without financial compensation a course on the literature of Mexican Americans.”

Hard work, no pay—but, Francisco feels, the rewards are many, and there will be more in the future.

Mamá and two of her sons: Roberto and Francisco, right. The boys worked the fields and as janitors in high school. Now there’s a school named in their honor in Santa Maria. Photo courtesy Francisco Jiménez

A snatch of conversation, also from Taking Hold: Francisco with one of his professors who has seen a story Francisco wrote about a boy who desperately wants a red ball for Christmas. When he was in college, Francisco began jotting down memories of his childhood; they buoyed him when he felt like he was drowning. “I briefly told him about my family crossing the border illegally,” Francisco recounts, “all of us working in the fields, missing school, my father’s illness, and passing my janitorial job on to my younger sibling so that, with financial aid, I could attend the University of Santa Clara, where I took on a few part-time jobs to pay for personal expenses and to send money home.” The professor: “‘This is fascinating. You should write your story and publish it!’ he said emphatically. He reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder and gave me an intense, caring look. ‘You must.’”

Francisco takes the advice. He gathers his notes and writes a story in Spanish that begins as “La Mudanza”—The Move. It grows into a tale called “Cajas de Cartón,” Cardboard Boxes. He translates it into English under the title “The Circuit,” and it appears in the Arizona Quarterly. The year is 1973.

That same year, Francisco is offered a teaching post at his alma mater. He and Laura Jiménez ’67 are thrilled to return home. The young husband takes his wife and their two boys to Kennedy Airport to put them on a plane to fly out ahead of him. The scene in Terminal 7:

Pancholín kept tapping on the side of my face and pointing to things along the way and asking, “Wat’s that? Wat’s that?” When we got to the gate, Laura sat down and I held Pancholín’s hand while he pressed his nose against the window and stared in awe at the airplanes taking off like large birds.

As I watched him, a flash of memory crossed my mind: I was twelve years old and picking strawberries alongside [my brother] Roberto and my father in Santa Maria. We would crouch down as crop-dusters flew above our heads and sprayed the fields with chemicals that caused our eyes to burn and water for days.

Clearly, there are more stories to be told.

Now the calendar pages fly past: one year, five years, 10, 20. Francisco teaches and through his scholarship fosters the broader acceptance of Chicano literature. He serves as an administrator and directs the ethnic studies program at Santa Clara. He raises a family. Two decades on, during a sabbatical, he returns to writing part of his family’s history. The autobiographical stories form The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. Written for young adults to kindle hope and chronicle an American dream, the book wins awards the length and breadth of the state and nation. The book makes its way into Spanish and then Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian. Other books for children and young adults follow. They sell a million copies. Young souls are inspired.

A few years later, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education name Francisco Jiménez the Professor of the Year.

Francisco Jiménez is a quiet man, generous and humble. He was in the eighth grade—social studies, at El Camino Junior High School in Santa Maria—when he and his brother were pulled out of class by an immigration officer. “I was getting ready to recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which our class had to memorize,” he writes in his second autobiographical book, Breaking Through. “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.”

He was deported. But he and his family returned. At Santa Clara, a Jesuit helped him through the process of citizenship.

The books Francisco Jiménez has written have inspired community reading groups across the country—and in Mexico. Photo by Charles Barry

Last year, Francisco Jiménez published Taking Hold, his fourth autobiographical book. It carries his story from Santa Clara to Columbia for graduate school. It is a tale of a search for stability and purpose, as Francisco says. As so much of life is, yes?

Here is another thing Francisco did last year. He published a translation of eyewitness accounts from the Salvadoran civil war. Stories Never to Be Forgotten is the name. Five Santa Clara students assisted with the translation to bring to an English-reading audience tales of children separated from their families during the war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. The book was published years ago in El Salvador, in Spanish; it was given to Francisco when he first traveled to El Salvador in 2003 with a group of faculty and staff from Santa Clara. From one haunting story, Lucio’s: “My oldest memories give rise to a vague mix of smells: firewood, smoke, mud, and tortillas. My umbilical cord was buried at a set of adobe and tile houses that unfolded around the skirt of the Chichontepec volcano. I remember that there was a gorge close by and its hillsides had jiote trees. A colony of parrots lived there. … I was still very small when the first deaths stained the floor at the foot of the volcano.”

The civil war was horrific. But El Salvador now has a murder rate the highest in the world, fueled by gangs and drugs. The level of violence is like war. There is no clear way out.

This also: Nearly half a century after Francisco Jiménez graduated from Santa Clara, after more than 40 years in the classroom, last year he retired from teaching. His final class, in Spanish literature, was interrupted when a crowd descended on the room in Kenna Hall: colleagues and former students, family members and children studying his books in junior high. A quiet end to this man’s teaching would not do. There was song and laughter and tears.

In August, Francisco and his family drove south to visit Santa Maria, a city they knew well. As Francisco writes in Taking Hold:

When my father could no longer work, my family stopped following seasonal crops. We settled in Bonetti Ranch, a migrant camp in Santa Maria, a small agricultural town in the central coast of California. To support our family, Roberto and I got janitorial jobs, each of us working thirty-five hours a week while going to school. My brother worked for the Santa Maria Elementary School District, and I was employed by the Santa Maria Window Cleaners, cleaning commercial offices. All during high school I worked in the mornings before school, in the evenings, and on weekends, sweeping and dusting offices, cleaning windows and toilets, and washing and waxing floors.

His brother Roberto worked four decades for the school district. He and Francisco were close. Roberto died in December 2014 at the age of 75.

Last year, on the western outskirts of town, where fields meet the sidewalks and edifices of new houses, Santa Maria built a new school for its children: Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School. It is the first school in the district to introduce a dual-language immersion classroom. Up the road in San Luis Obispo, a better-funded school district, they have had such programs for years.

For the school dedication ceremony, there were children and parents who first began learning English through stories in The Circuit. There were books for the taking, and there were memories shared of working the fields with the back-breaking, short-handled hoe.

For years, Francisco was the Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages. Now he is professor emeritus, and a scholarship has been named in his honor at Santa Clara. He continues to speak to promote education and literacy, since that was so profoundly a part of his journey from the fields to a life of teaching and scholarship. Francisco has long felt at home talking to children as well as teaching university students; he has visited scores of schools over the years and hosted hundreds of schoolkids from families with meager means as they visit the Mission Campus. He has spurred their little hearts and growing brains to think: Reach for the stars.

 

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