Published on May 1st, 2014 | by Apuntes LJ0
An American Story
An Interview with Professor and Author Francisco Jiménez
Apuntes: You have documented your early life experiences in several books. Please summarize, for those of us who have not yet had the pleasure of reading your books, what your life was like as an immigrant child and young adult in California.
FJ: I spent the first four years of my life living with my family in El Rancho Blanco, a small rural community located in the northern part of Jalisco, Mexico. We lived in an adobe hut with dirt floor. It had no electricity or indoor plumbing. We had to go to a nearby river to fetch drinking water and use candles for light. In the evenings, we would sit around a fire built of dry cow ships and listen to stories. It was a hard and simple a life.
When I was four years old, my family left Mexico and crossed the U.S. Mexican border without documentation. We immigrated to the United States to escape our poverty and to seek a new and better life. My family moved from place to place, following seasonal crops, to make a living. My older brother and I worked alongside our parents from the time I was six year old.
When I was in the eighth grade, we were deported back to Mexico and months later returned to the United States with documentation. We settled permanently in Bonetti Ranch, a migrant labor camp in Santa Maria, California, because my father could no longer work in the fields. He suffered severe back problems resulting from doing stoop labor. This was a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because my father went into a deep depression. He felt useless and a burden to our family. It was a blessing because we ceased to move, which allowed my siblings and me to attend school year-round. My older brother and I supported our family by working as janitors thirty to thirty-five hours each a week while we were in high school and occasionally we worked in the fields on weekends. Our mother took care of our younger siblings, our father, and a few children of other migrant families. She charged one dollar a day per child. Under the guidance of my high school counselor and with the encouragement of my sophomore English teacher, I graduated from high school and received several local scholarships that covered expenses for my first year at the University of Santa Clara. My younger brother, who was a freshman in high school at the time, took over my janitorial job so I could attend college.
Apuntes: The movement to unionize farm workers was strong when you were a child. How did it impact your life, if at all?
FJ: During the time my family and I were following seasonal crops we were not aware of the movement to unionize farm workers. However, in college I became aware of it and strongly supported it. In 1966, when I was a senior in college, I joined César Chávez and Dolores Huerta on the march, peregrinación, to Sacramento to demand justice for farm workers. During that march, I decided to fight for social justice even though I didn’t know how at that time.
Apuntes: Did anything in particular (event, personality trait, parental encouragement, influences) motivate you to study in those early years?
FJ: During nine years that we were moving from place to place following seasonal crops, I yearned for stability, for a place I could call my own. My search for a permanent home, in large part, came out of a desire to attend school without interruption. I hated missing two and a half months of school every year and finding myself way behind in my studies. I enjoyed learning even though school was difficult for me, especially English class. I found a sense of stability and permanence in education, in learning—whatever I learned in school and on my own, that knowledge went with me no matter how many times we moved. It was mine to have and to hold.
When I was a sophomore in High School I read The Grapes of Wrath. For the first time, I realized that my own story, as well as the story of other Mexican migrant workers, was part of the American story. I understood the power of words to move hearts and minds, the power of literature to change lives.
Many people have supported and guided me on my life’s journey. In my own family, my mother and father and older brother have been the most inspirational. My mother taught me the value of faith and hope; my father instilled in me the value of hard work and respect–respect for myself and others. My older brother has been like a second father to me and a role model. He is generous, compassionate, ethical, and profoundly spiritual. Outside of my family, my teachers and high school counselor have been the most helpful and influential. César Chávez also inspired me. I joined him on the march to Sacramento in 1966. Years later I invited him to be our keynote speaker in a university-wide institute I organized at Santa Clara University on the theme of poverty and conscience. I had the privilege of introducing him. I also attended his funeral.
Apuntes: You got your undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University, where you now teach. Tell us about the struggles of getting into college, the selection process, your college experience.
FJ: Even though I wanted to go to college after high school, I didn’t know when or how I would manage it. As I said before, I was working 30 to 35 hours a week, while attending school, for Santa Maria Window Cleaners, a janitorial company, to help support my family. I was able to go to college, however, thanks, in part, to my younger sibling who took over my job. I received several local scholarships and barrowed a thousand dollars to pay for my first year in college. For the next three years, I received scholarships from Santa Clara University that covered my tuition, and I worked as a resident assistant to pay for my room and board. I also worked on campus as a research assistant and as a tutor in Spanish to pay for incidentals and to send money home.
My first year of college was difficult. I found myself in an environment that was different from the environment in which I was raised. My classmates seemed so much better off economically and better prepared academically than I was—I felt out of place. I also felt guilty because my family was struggling economically while I lived in a nice dorm with three meals a day. I felt torn between my responsibilities as a student and my duties to my family. In moments when I felt discouraged, I reflected on my childhood experiences to give me courage and strength not to give up.
Apuntes:For your graduate work you moved to New York City. Tell us about that experience.
FJ:In my new book Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University, I relate my experiences living in New York City while attending graduate school. Briefly, I experienced culture shock, and continued to struggle economically. I sought to find stability and a sense of place and purpose in my life during an era marked by social and political instability, unrest, and turmoil (the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture and civil rights movements). I sympathized with the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War. Once I completed my Ph.D. I was hired at Columbia teaching full time as an assistant professor in the Spanish Department. I encountered resistance from the university administration to my teaching a course on Mexican American literature and culture. In response to the lack of publishing outlets for Latino writers, I co-founded the Bilingual Review, a journal that published creative works by Latinos in the U.S. and scholarly research on bilingual education.
Apuntes: You studied Latin American Literature. When did you decide to follow that career path? What influenced your decision?
FJ: I decided to get my doctorate in Latin American Literature and become a teacher because I wanted to share with my students the joy of learning and the richness of Latin American literature, which in large part, deals with social justice.
Besides trying to infuse my students with the love of learning, I raise moral and ethical questions. I challenge my students to think critically about the human condition. My goal is to prepare them to be excellent in whatever subject they choose to major in, to make them more humane in dealing with others, to help them develop a global consciousness and to prepare them to live productive and fulfilling lives in our multicultural society.
Apuntes: Are there any Latin American writers you favor in your teaching? Why?
FJ: I have many favorite Latin American writers, however, I prefer authors who use the power of their creative talent to combat social injustices. My favorites are José Martí, Juan Rulfo, Gregorio López y Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriela Mistral.
Apuntes: I was fortunate to interview one of your sons, Stanford sociologist Tomás Jiménez, some time ago. He told me you were generous with your story-telling when he was a kid. Were those stories the seeds of your books?
FJ: Yes, in some ways they were. I think it’s important for our children to know their family’s history. It roots them in place and time.
I began writing systematically when I was in graduate school. The inspiration for my writing comes from my teachers and the community of my childhood–migrant farm workers. I write to chronicle part of my family’s history but, more importantly, to document the experiences of a larger sector of our society that has been frequently ignored. Through my writing I hope to give readers an insight into the lives of migrant farm workers and their children whose noble (all work is noble) and back-breaking labor of picking fruits and vegetables puts food on our tables. Their courage and struggles, hopes and dreams for a better life for their children and their children’s children give meaning to the term “American dream.” Their story is an important and integral part of the American story.
Apuntes: Tell us about teaching literature. Rewarding?
FJ: I find my profession very rewarding. I take a personal approach to teaching. On the first day of class I ask students to write a short autobiography, indicating their academic and personal interests and passions for issues in which they believe. This helps to relate course material to their ideas and experiences. I require my students to participate in Pedro Arrupe, an academic support program, which provides students with the opportunity for a real-life, community-based learning experience. That learning experience enhances their appreciation and understanding of the works we read for class. For example, in our study of folklore students interview community people about myths and legends (e.g. “La Llorona”), which are part of the cultural fabric of the Latino community. I also invite local Latino poets to visit our class. I meet with students individually outside of class to get to know them better. Out of our discussions comes enthusiasm and openness, which makes the task of learning more personal, more humane. I emphasize the importance of collaboration and respect for each other’s ideas and talents. I mentor them and try to create a learning environment that fosters mutual respect and friendship, which, in my view, are requisites for an enriched college education.
Apuntes: Some writers, like García Márquez, emphasize discipline: sit in front of the computer so many hours a day. Richard Bach, on the other hand, supposedly wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull in one night. How much of your work is inspiration, how much simply hard work? What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
FJ: Writing does not come easy for me. I work hard at it and write many drafts. After I finish, I read each piece or chapter out loud to make sure I have maintained the same voice. (I wrote The Circuit from the child’s point of view; Breaking Through from the point of view of the teenager, and Reaching Out from the point of view of a young adult.) My advice to aspiring writers is to write and read as much as you can. The more they write, the easier it becomes. Also, always write from the heart.
Apuntes: Latinos are still under-represented in higher education. What are your thoughts on ways to motivate Latino kids to stay in school and pursue advanced degrees?
FJ: I think it’s important to value the students’ native culture and language, and use educational materials in which students can see themselves. When students see themselves reflected in the curriculum they feel valued in school and, consequently, gain more interest in their studies and develop greater self-esteem.
I would tell students that by working hard in their studies they are honoring the sacrifices their parents or grandparents have made so that they, the students, can have a better life; I would tell them that by getting a good education, they are investing in a better life for themselves and guaranteeing a better future for their own children and children’s children. I would also tell them that their education is theirs to have and to hold. It’s theirs forever. It will give them the option of choosing the kind of work they wish to do and the type of life they wish to live.