A Migrant’s Life: Francisco Jiménez

On the eve of receiving the John Steinbeck Award, author and educator Francisco Jiménez reflects on his storied career and life
Francisco Jiménez is an advocate for social justice, as well as being an accomplished author and educator. Photo Courtesy: Jazmine Turner Photography

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

After retiring in 2015, Francisco Jiménez became Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University, and even got to keep his office which has served as a home base for the writer since he began teaching there in the 1970’s. Kenna Hall, going back to 1925 is wonderfully restored, but still has the sounds of water pipes in its old bones, a great place to read, or reflect. It is here where we meet and discuss how he went from migrant to advocating for them.

From social activism, to advocating for education, Jiménez had from a young age been taught about the power of perseverance and hard work. Coming from a family of migrant workers, he learned many lessons which became the backbone of what he is passionate about today.

On September 28th Jiménez will receive the John Steinbeck Award, joining such thinkers, artists and activists like Arthur Miller, Bruce Springsteen, Dolores Huerta and Michael Moore. The award is given to those that exemplify the spirit of empathy, democracy and helping those that are at the fringes of society. Steinbeck was a socially conscious writer, as evident from his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath.

For Jiménez, the path to where he is now has been filled with references to this book, and it ties in to the first time he ever thought about becoming a writer.

“Actually I didn’t intend to become a writer,” says Jiménez. After writing an autobiographical piece about a near fatal event his little brother had at a migrant camp his family lived in, his high school sophomore teacher Mrs. Bell pulled him aside to talk about the assignment. She believed if he worked hard enough he could strengthen his talents, and go far in life.

“I thought ‘wow’. In Mexican culture we have a lot of respect for our teachers and so when she said that I felt really good inside. In a sense she planted the seed in my mind that perhaps someday I would write. And that’s where it started.”

Later this teacher gave him The Grapes of Wrath to read. In the book the Joad family comes to look for migrant work along with the exodus of people from the Oklahoma dust bowl, and it told a familiar story to Jiménez. “As I was reading it, with a lot of difficulty, I had to look up a lot of words, I couldn’t put it down. It was the first work of literature to which I could relate. Even though the Joad family only spoke English, they came from a different culture, the experience they were going through was the experiences my family was going through and the experiences other families around us had gone through.”

It was at this time when he felt that there would be some more connections to both Steinbeck and the experiences of migrant workers in his future. And of course, maybe some writing.

Through the aid of local scholarships from high school Jiménez arrived at Santa Clara University for the first time, as an undergraduate. He was the first in his family to get to go to college and understandably felt alienated to the environment. “I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong here because everybody around me seemed so much smarter, they had traveled, and so (in) moments where I began to felt inadequate I began to think about my childhood, to give me the strength not to give up.”

These journal entries that Jiménez began to take about his life would become the skeleton to his memoirs. From the family leaving their home of Jalisco, Mexico, to their cross of the imaginary line that split it from the USA.

While managing a full workload as a research assistant, resident assistant and student he would write these recollections in his notebook. At the age of 6 he began helping his family in the fields, picking strawberries in his first home in Santa Maria, and the eventual move to pick grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, then cotton in Corcoran, and then back in Santa Maria picking carrots and thinning lettuce.

Jiménez recalls, Consequently we missed a lot of school, I would not start school for the first time until the middle of November. So one of the things that I did in order to not fall too behind was I carried a little notepad in my shirt pocket and everyday I would add an english word and its definition. So when I was working I would increase my vocabulary. And I would write other things in that little notepad that I needed to learn.”

While the realization of what he was accomplishing while working as a child in the hot Central Valley sun wouldn’t come until later in life, Jiménez does recall a key memory in his childhood that shaped the foundation of his life afterwards. “One of the migrant camps in Orosi burned down so we lost the few things we had, including my notepad. I was terribly upset and crying and my mother being the wise woman she was said to me, ‘Panchito I know you’re upset but you should be thankful to god that not no one in our family got hurt.’ And I said ‘si mama pero es que eh perdido mi libretita’(yes mom, but i’ve lost my little notebook) and so she looked me straight in the eye and she asked me ‘well Panchito, do you remember what you had written in your little notepad?’ And I thought about it and said ‘pues si mama’ because I had memorized all that material and then she answered, ‘well Panchito, not everything was lost.’”

In that moment the idea of the permanence of knowledge was revealed to the young Panchito. “In this very, very unstable life that we were living for the first 9 years that we were here, I yearned for stability, for permanence in my life. And where I found stability was in learning and education. That’s why I went into education, it’s not surprising.”

During his time as an undergraduate his grades improved year by year, and as a senior he applied for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which was offered to students who would eventually become university professors. And so, Jiménez would go on to Columbia University to continue his studies.

During his time at Columbia, Jiménez would go under the wing of a professor of Latin American Literature, Andrés Iduarte, who was an accomplished writer and knew all the Latin writers they would be studying personally.

“His classes were wonderful because he would talk about writers in a very personal way without being pompous and brought the material alive. When I showed him some of my ‘scribblings’ he said you know Panchito you should put all those thoughts together and you should write, write a book about what you went through as a child and as an adolescent.  And again, his comment reminding me of Mrs. Bell my sophomore year.”

So Jiménez set forth writing these stories about his childhood, which would end up becoming his first book, The Circuit. While synthesizing his experiences he realized that he was not only chronicling his own migrant family’s history, but a shared one that at the time was nonexistent in literature.

“That was my incentive for continuing writing. That I was going to chronicle part of my family’s history, but more importantly I was going to document the experiences of many migrant families of the past to the present who worked very hard from sun up to sundown, for very low wages, living in poor conditions and what sustains these families is the hope and dreams of having a better life for their children and their children’s children,” says Jiménez.

As the year’s passed Jiménez became a professor at Columbia while finishing his dissertation and starting a family. Once he had his wife and two children, he decided Manhattan was too expensive and not the best place to raise his young family. He then applied for an administration position at Santa Clara University. Coming back as the Director of the Division of Arts and Humanities in 1972, he no longer felt that nervousness that he did day one as a freshman. “I was in charge of 9 departments in the Humanities, while at the same time teaching. Then I eventually became the Associate Academic Vice President. I did that for 4 years and I was torn between teaching and administration. I did both for 20 years without taking  a sabbatical.”

During this whole ascension of his career, Jiménez thought about that book he had started but put away to pursue his academic goals.

“In 1995 I finally took a break. The administration gave me a full year’s paid sabbatical. During that sabbatical is when I wrote the rest of the chapters in The Circuit. The book was published by the New Mexico University Press, it garnered, to my surprise some really nice national literary prizes. Houghton Mifflin offered me a contract to write the sequel, Breaking Through, where I describe my experiences in high school. Then they gave me another contract so I wrote Reaching Out, where I document my experience being the first person in my family to go to college. I talk about what it was like those four years. The most recent one is Taking Hold where I talk about the experiences of getting my education at Columbia. What binds the theme in all four books is really the transformative power of education.”

Jiménez believes thoroughly that taking advantage of your education is a key to upward mobility. “ I tell young people how important it is to apply themselves to get the best education possible. By working hard in their studies they’re honoring the sacrifices their parents or grandparents made when they left their homeland. It guarantees them a better life. You have choices.”

These days, as he continues to talk with migrant communities as well as lectures across the country, he advises both groups about the importance of education, identity and inclusion. “You can’t let people treat you (bad). Wherever we see injustice we should fight against injustice. That’s what Steinbeck was trying to say in his book The Grapes of Wrath. One of the characters in the end says ‘wherever there is an injustice, I’ll be there’. It just destroys the fabric of our nation if we don’t create a more inclusive society, and we suffer as a democracy. And when one group suffers we all suffer.”

Jiménez has given a great deal of thought about the John Steinbeck accolade he will receive at San José State University on September 28th. “I’m very proud to get the award, and it really belongs to all of us. It belongs to my parents, people who have worked very hard to promote social justice. Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta. Martin Luther King. I mean, that award belongs to all of them. And all of us who see the need to promote social justice and those who have suffered, it belongs to them too so for me that’s why that award is so meaningful.”

And as the interview comes to an end, we sit and look at some of his books, one in particular is a children’s book, La Mariposa, an adaptation of the story “Inside Out” from the book The Circuit. This colorful book about a little boy, (Jiménez), and his experience going to first grade and learning about the life of a butterfly.

Like a butterfly, Jiménez went through a metamorphosis, that transformative point where he grew into an educator and an advocate for those that still come to this country with hope for a better life. In the dedication to La Mariposa it reads, “To my teachers, whose faith in my ability and guidance helped me break the migrant circuit.”