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Woodland warmly welcomes author Jimenez

August 14, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This article is from May 2002 and is new material by Elisabeth Sherwin at this web site. Francisco Jimenez is the Mexican-American author of the non-fiction book "The Circuit," which is about his life as child farmwoker in California.

WOODLAND -- Professor Francisco Jimenez found his visit to Woodland surprisingly emotional considering that he is a man who spends more time teaching than basking in the adulation usually awarded to best-selling authors.

On Friday, Jimenez had the keys to the city. He was greeted with enthusiasm and respect wherever he went as the author of "The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child," the autobiographical book selected to inaugurate the Woodland Reads program.

"I usually don't do things like this," Jimenez said as he prepared to speak to a large group of students at Woodland High School. "But I couldn't say no to Bob Salley."

Salley is the former president of the Woodland Joint Unified School District board of trustees and a Jimenez friend.

Other cities have started communal reading programs, too, but Woodland with a population of 50,000 is probably the smallest. Seattle was first with "The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks. Last fall, Chicago chose "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee and now Los Angelenos are reading "Farenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury.

As of Thursday, more than 1,000 Woodland residents had signed a list compiled by The Next Chapter bookstore signifying that they'd read "The Circuit."

That meant the city more than met its goal of having 500 readers take part in the program, and it meant that Jimenez was greeted by plenty of fans as he visited four schools, spoke at a noon meeting at a downtown restaurant, and met more students and members of the public at a meeting Friday night.

On Friday his day began with a visit to Beamer Elementary School. The students serenaded him with a song in Spanish, gave him a gift, and just about reduced him to tears.

"I got a little emotional," he admitted at this next stop, a multiclass gathering in the Woodland High School library.

The students came into the library, talking and laughing, without paying much attention to their guest speaker. But as soon as the diminutive, soft-spoken professor began describing his childhood, the chatter ceased.

He held the audience spellbound for an hour as he read from his book and answered questions about his life. He and his parents jumped the border to come to the United States from Mexico when he was just 4 years old.

Life in the United States was supposed to offer limitless possibilities, but it didn't look that way at first or for many years thereafter. For the next decade, his family followed the farm-worker circuit picking strawberries in Santa Maria, grapes and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley, and thinning lettuce and topping carrots back in Santa Maria during the winters.

The stories in "The Circuit" describe how he flunked first grade because he didn't know English, how his little brother nearly died because they couldn't afford medical care, and how, finally, he was deported back to Mexico when he was in eighth grade.

The stories are told simply, without sentimentality. Jimenez also recently published a sequel, "Breaking Through," that describes how his family returned to the United States and how he was able to change his life.

The key, he said, was education. Even if he could only spend a few weeks at school, he took whatever he learned and guarded it carefully.

"I am a cheerleader for education," he said. "I have a lot of respect for teachers and education."

Finally, his father developed back pains so severe that he could no longer work. Jimenez and his older brother then supported the family by working for a janitorial service in Santa Maria.

Jimenez nearly teared up again in response to a question about his older brother's reaction to "The Circuit." Thanks to brother Roberto's efforts, he said, the younger kids in the family including the author were able to go to school regularly. The memory of that sacrifice brought tears to his eyes.

"Roberto was reluctant to talk about (his childhood) because it brought back memories that were so painful," Jimenez said. "But when he read my book he said it liberated him."

"My message to you," said Jimenez speaking directly to the students in the high school library, "is this: Take advantage of your education. It will last you a lifetime."

After he spoke, Tatiana Hrenandez, 16, said she would definitely read his book.

"My parents jumped the border, too," she said.

Jimenez said one of the most important books he read in high school was "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, which an English teacher insisted he read his sophomore year.

"I couldn't put it down," Jimenez said. "For the first time I could relate to what I was reading. In high school I realized the importance of literature and the power of language to move hearts and minds."

He was riveted by the story of another family of farmworkers who came not from Mexico but from the United States.

The California Council for the Humanities invites people throughout the state to read "The Grapes of Wrath" this summer. The council chose this Pulitizer Prize-winning book because it is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago when it was first published.

Additionally, members of the UC Davis community are invited to read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman in a similar community reading project. Fadiman tells the story of a Hmong family that tries to find medical care for their epileptic daughter.

Fadiman has been invited to speak on campus this December.

Jimenez also published two picture books, "La Mariposa" ("The Butterfly"), a Smithsonian Notable Book, and "The Christmas Gift," an American Library Association Notable Book.

He received both his master's degree and his Ph.D. from Columbia University and is now the Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and director of the ethnic studies program at Santa Clara University. He lives in Santa Clara with his wife and three children.

He told Woodland High School students that he began writing "The Circuit" to chronicle part of his own family history and the histories of hundreds and hundreds of other migrant families past and present.

"Think about who is responsible for the meals we eat, the lettuce and the tomatoes," he said. "They could have been picked by people your age working alongside their parents to support their family. It is difficult work at low wages and this segment of society is ignored or is largely invisible," he added.

"It hurts me a lot when immigrants are used as scapegoats for the economy," Jimenez said. "We should look to them for inspiration; they give meaning to the American Dream."

Jimenez said his mother, 81, never learned to read so she never read his books.

But she has a sense of humor.

"Why should I read it?" she asked her son. "I lived it."

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

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