May 21st, Hamlin (in San Francisco) welcomed Mexican-American writer and Santa Clara University Professor, Francisco Jimenez. In the early 1950’s Dr. Jimenez worked alongside his parents in the fields of California as an undocumented child laborer. He went on to graduate from Columbia University with a Ph.D., work with Cesar Chavez, and write the autobiographical books The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, Breaking Through, and Reaching Out. The San Francisco Chronicle has called his work “moving and must-read,” and renowned author Rudolfo Anaya called his stories “so realistic they choke the heart.”
At Hamlin, our 6th graders read The Circuit as part of an interdisciplinary unit that combines literature and social studies. An eighth grader recalled loving the book, stating that it was “told from a young person’s perspective that I could relate to and gave me a better understanding of the social justice issues facing migrant workers.” Having Dr. Jimenez visit was a very special way to complete the learning experience.
Dr. Jimenez began his talk by asking how many people in the room had a parent or grandparent who had been born in another country. Many hands went up, demonstrating how close we all are to the immigrant experience. He went on to describe the intimate details of his youth, living out of cardboard boxes, moving from tent camp to ramshackle abodes, following the strawberries, grapes, cotton, and carrots, based on the various picking seasons. He shared what it was like to be a 6-year-old in the fields, working, and watching his parents literally break their backs for pennies per pound picked.
While in migrant worker camps, Dr. Jimenez learned storytelling firsthand from folktales told by highly intelligent workers who never had the opportunity to go to school. Listening to these stories sparked his creativity at an early age. Later, when he was in 10th grade, his teacher Ms. Bell said that he had “writing talent.” Dr. Jimenez ended his talk by telling our students, “The Mexican immigrant experience is an important and integral part of the American experience. It is part of your history. What is the identity of our nation? Its identity consists of all the experiences of all the diverse groups that make up our society. ….the plight of child labor still happens in this country. Have compassion, have compassion.”
After his talk, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Dr. Jimenez. I was interested to learn how he was able to support his family and excel in high school at the same time. He would begin his day at 6am working for an hour to an hour and a half as a janitor cleaning the Western Union and Betty’s Fabric’s before going to school. After school from 3:15pm to 4:45pm he would study in the school library, then he would clean offices from 5pm to 10pm, often staying an extra hour until 11pm to finish homework. On weekends he would continue his work as a janitor 8 to 10 hours on both Saturday and Sunday.
Dr. Jimenez went on to tell me about marching a portion of the 246 miles from Delano, California to Sacramento with Cesar Chavez in 1966, as part of the United Farm Workers strike and grape boycott. He shared how Chavez sought to educate farmworkers about injustice suffered, while inviting people to join the union. He described Chavez as, “inspiring, low-key, humble, and spiritual.” Later in 1985 he invited Chavez to speak at Santa Clara University. When Jimenez called his office to ask about a speaking fee, Cesar told him “to pay whatever he could afford.” As part of that visit, they had dinner together, Jimenez described how Cesar Chavez “gave his complete attention, didn’t talk about himself that much, and was an incredible listener.”
Concluding our conversation, I asked Dr. Jimenez about migrant workers today. He was very specific about areas that we as people should be concerned about. He listed: a living wage, health insurance, better living conditions, enforcement of child labor laws, and limiting the use of pesticides in the fields. He ended by saying that we should seek to “eliminate the suffering of human beings.”
To learn more about Dr. Francisco Jimenez, please visit: http://www.scu.edu/cas/modernlanguages/facultystaff/jimenezhomepage.cfm
To purchase a copy of The Circuit, please visit: http://www.amazon.com/The-Circuit-Stories-Migrant-Child/dp/0826317979
To see Francisco Jimenez in conversation, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWL2d_NYLKc
To learn more about the current situation for migrant workers, please watch the trailer for the film Food Chains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqZLrXVAde4