At the age of fourteen, Francisco Jiménez, together with his older brother
Roberto and his mother, are caught by la migra. Forced to leave their home, the
entire family travels all night for twenty hours by bus, arriving at the U.S.
and Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona. In the months and years that follow,
Francisco, his mother and father, and his seven brothers and sister not only
struggle to keep their family together, but also face crushing poverty, long
hours of labor, and blatant prejudice.
Francisco Jiménez immigrated with his family to California from Tlaquepaque,
Mexico. As a child he worked in the fields of California. He received both his
master's degree and Ph.D. at Columbia University and is now chairman of the
Modern Language Department at Santa Clara University. He lives in Santa Clara,
California, with his wife and three children.
"Breaking Through" is compelling and inspiring, the sort of
book that makes for must reading in explaining a slice of the American
experience. Jimenez, 58, director of the ethnic studies program at
Santa Clara and the Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages, recently talked
with Kim Boatman of the San
Jose Mercury News about his latest work.
Q. How important is it to give a voice to this experience, to those
workers we drive by in the fields today?
A. In writing the book, I wanted to document part of my own history
and my family's history, but more important, I wanted to voice the experiences
of many migrant families from the past and the present. Their courage, the hope
and the dreams that they have for their children and their children's children
are an inspiration. In a sense, those values that they embody are the values
that we say are part of the American story.
I hear from children and young adults. They see themselves in the literature,
and they say, ''That happened to me.'' I've had teachers say some of their
children aren't interested in reading until they read the book.
Q. There's a moment in the book when you excitedly accept the worn,
foul-smelling tennis shoes your brothers find for you in the dump. This means
you'll be able to dress out for physical education class. So how is your book
received by kids who have closets full of name-brand sneakers?
A. I get letters from children, from sixth-graders all the way
through junior high, high school, colleges and universities. Some of the
letters I get from children indicate they are much more appreciative of what
they have. This is from a sixth-grader:
''It made me take a second glance at my life and how lucky I am. It made me
feel spoiled. It made me feel the need to jump out of my seat and to make a
difference. (''The Circuit'') made me want to find out what would happen next.''
Q. So you had to write ''Breaking Through.''
A. After the first book came out, people were wondering what had
happened and wanted me to write another book. That was encouraging, so I decided
to do that.
Q. What do your three grown children say about the books? How did
your childhood affect the way you raised them?
A. Well, I used to tell them these stories when they were younger, and
we would sit at the kitchen table. And they wanted things the other neighborhood
kids had, but I used to tell them, ''You can't have everything you want, and you
don't get things you don't need.'' I would tell them, ''We live a comfortable
life, and we should be happy with it.'' For instance, we refused to get cable
I told them, ''I'll do whatever it takes to help you get an education. That's
the best gift.''
Q. The book begins with a Border Patrol officer pulling you out of
an eighth-grade social studies class and your family's deportation to Mexico. Do
you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn't made it back
to the United States?
A. My brother and I do talk about that. One of the reasons we came to
this country was because we lived in a very poor part of Mexico, with no
electricity, no running water. We came to this country to escape poverty and to
find a better life. It's very clear to both of us that our lives would have been
We came with hopes of a better life, but for the first nine years we were
here, we worked as migrant workers, following the crops, having to miss school,
flunking first grade, living in farm labor camps. In Santa Maria at one time, we
lived in tents with dirt floors. In some ways, life was a little bit harder
here, less settled, and the language barrier was very difficult.
Q. So how did you sustain hope?
A. I attribute a lot of that to my mother. No matter how bad things
were, she always had hope. She would always say, ''God will provide. Things are
going to get better.'' I come from a family that is strong in terms of faith. One
of the things I learned from my parents was that God has us go through
life for a purpose, and even though we might not know exactly what that purpose
is, we should work hard to find what life is all about.
I see now the purpose of my life is really informed by that experience I had
as a child and a young adult. I went through that experience so
that I would someday write about it, not just for myself, but to document the
experiences of many children and young adults.
Q. In some ways, your book is a lovely tribute to the teachers who
wielded so much influence over your life.
A. I have the highest respect for teachers. For me, I found hope in
school, from some of the teachers, like Mrs. Bell, who I describe in the book,
who were very sensitive and caring. The success of the child and young adult
depends as much on the caring and loving people who help the child break
through as it does on the child's own hard work, hope and intelligence.