For Franciso Jiménez, Santa Clara University Professor Emeritus and author of a series of autobiographical books about his life as an undocumented migrant child, springtime meant cotton season was over. But work continued “topping carrots”–chopping the leafy green stems off carrots–or “thinning lettuce”–going down a dirt row and uprooting every other bunch to allow the others to grow. He worked in the fields after school and on the weekends. These days, the youthful 73-year-old travels across the country to talk about those harsh, childhood years spent as a migrant farmworker and the transformative power of education.
This past February he was in Pennsylvania, speaking to seventh and eighth graders, “telling my own story and how education helped me and my siblings break the cycle of poverty,” he said. On March 10, Jiménez will give a keynote presentation at the 38th Annual State Migrant Parent Conference in Los Angeles.
Sponsored by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and coordinated by the California Department of Education’s Migrant Education Office, this year’s conference will bring together 700 migrant parents from across the state, providing them with educational workshops and resources. The conference will emphasize the importance of arts and culture to student engagement and academic success.
Jiménez was going over what he would say at that talk one recent afternoon as he sat in his office in Kenna Hall at Santa Clara University. Kenna, Jiménez explained, used to be a dormitory. In fact, his office in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is on the same floor where his dorm room used to be when he first enrolled at the university as a freshman in 1962. “So I haven’t made much progress,” he joked.
But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Jiménez was four years old when his family crossed the U.S. Mexico border from Tlaquepaque, Jalisco. They came in search of a better life and by age six, Jiménez was working alongside his family, picking strawberries in Santa Maria and picking grapes and cotton in Fresno, earning a penny and a half for each paper tray of grapes they picked.
As a child migrant farmworker, Jiménez was always being pulled in and out of schools and was usually not able to start the academic year until November at the end of the grape season. He was able to get off the circuit of migrant field labor once he got a job as a janitor at a local elementary school. The stability of regular work allowed him to attend high school on a more consistent basis. He almost decided against going to college because he was still helping to support his family. Fortunately, one of his younger brothers took over his job to help and a high school guidance counselor was able to petition the admissions office at Santa Clara University to consider Jiménez even though application deadlines had passed.
Once he was attending the university, however, Jiménez still felt the guilt of being the child of immigrant farmworkers. He had a nice dorm room and ate three meals a day–it was all-you-can-eat at the student cafeteria–but he knew his parents were struggling. His mother, for instance, was still working in the strawberry fields in Santa Maria.
He also began doubting his own academic abilities. That’s when he began to reflect on his childhood. “I used the experiences I had as a child to boost myself up,” he said. “I used those recollections to tell myself not to give up.” That’s how he came to write some of the stories that would become his first book The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child.
Jiménez recalled the time when he was a college senior in the spring of 1966 and an organizer from the National Farm Workers Association came to speak on the SCU campus about a grape strike and the protest march they were undertaking at the time, a 300-mile trek led by Cesar Chavez from the fields in Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento.
Jiménez wanted to join the pilgrimage, but he had an upcoming exam in his ethics class. He went to talk with his professor, a Jesuit, to see if he could make up the exam on a later date, and his professor replied, “When you’re in a struggle like this, there has to be a sacrifice.”
In Sacramento, on the steps of the state capitol, Jiménez heard Chavez speak about sacrifice as well. And at that moment, Jiménez made a decision. “Even though I don’t know how I’m going do it,” he said, “I’m going to devote my life to alleviating the plight of farmworkers.”
Jiménez recalled that his ethics professor “never did let me make up that exam.”
But the sacrifice was worth it. His raised consciousness and subsequent body of literary work has brought crucial awareness to the lives of migrant families and he was recognized this past September with a John Steinbeck Award, given to writers, artists and activists whose work promotes social justice and, as the award states, “captures Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes.”