Santa Clara University

Breaking Through

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 Jimenez
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 Jimenez
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.

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