On Wednesday, September 28th, in a packed San José State University Theatre, Santa Clara University Professor Emeritus and writer Francisco Jiménez graciously accepted the John Steinbeck award after a conversation with the artist Lalo Alcaraz.
SJSU’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies Director Professor Nick Taylor presided over the night. Jiménez is the sixteenth recipient of the award that has honored Bruce Springsteen, Rachel Maddow, Dolores Huerta, Ken Burns, and Ruby Bridges, among others. As Taylor explained, “We are purposely trying to have diversity in our selection process. We look at their similarity to John Steinbeck in themes and that they are people worthy of recognition on a national scale. But, most importantly, they show their concern – like Steinbeck – for the common person. Steinbeck’s job was reminding people of their humanity. You see that in previous recipients like Studs Terkel who was so fascinated by people’s stories, but the same could be said for Burns or even John Mellencamp.”
For Taylor, the choice of Jiménez was personal. “I’ve been a reader of his work for many years. My daughter’s third grade teacher first assigned The Circuit. My daughter was raving about this book and couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. So, I read it with her. I was amazed by the parallels with the Joad family [in the Grapes of Wrath]. You could see how deeply influenced he was by Steinbeck’s story.”
Jiménez was honored to be compared to such a magnificent writer of the people. Grapes of Wrath, after all,had been one of the first books where he saw his experience as a migrant farmworker reflected on the page. After his high school English teacher Mrs. Bell encouraged Jiménez to write, he attended Santa Clara University on a scholarship where he “scribbled notes about my childhood as a way to connect with my family. When I was discouraged, I remembered not to give up.” A seminal incident occurred his senior year of college when he watched Cesar Chavez speak at a Sacramento rally. “It was a religious experience for me, when he spoke of sacrificing for others, what he said is what I was taught by the Jesuits [at SCU…], I decided to devote my professional life to alleviate the plight of the workers.”
While he was too busy for many years as a tenured professor at SCU to work on his stories, Jiménez found success once he rediscovered the voice of his childhood. Of course, he never loses sight of his writing goals, “I pay tribute to the families who are still working. They remind us of who we are – a nation of immigrants. Thanks to their work and their spirits, we are a powerful nation.” The conversation with Alcaraz reinforced this concept of celebrating the oft-maligned immigrant, particularly when showcasing Alacaraz’s political cartoons. As Alcaraz quipped during the evening, “To live like an American, you have to work like a Mexican,” prompting applause from the receptive audience.
Perhaps even more importantly, Jiménez still continues to encourage students to pursue an education, just as he received great inspiration from his mentors. When asked what advice he would give to his mostly college-aged audience, Jiménez offered, “Take advantage of education. It’s the best way to improve one’s life so work hard and follow your passions. Then, you’ll be honoring the sacrifices of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents but you’ll also guarantee a better future for yourself and your children. Education is something that is yours forever. No one – no one – can take that away from you.”
For Taylor, each of these Steinbeck ceremonies reinforce the continued relevance of this great author’s work: “The influence of this writer born almost one hundred and fourteen years ago is almost palpable in the room [during these awards] and that’s a great feeling.”
But perhaps the night’s meaning is summed up best by SCU freshman Bridget Nelson who attended the ceremony as an assignment for her English class: “I came back to campus with a new sense of what it meant to be grateful, and began to recognize the sacrifices so many people made just to get me where I am today.”
Steinbeck – and Jiménez – would be proud.