Text by Kathryn Bold, Photograph by Charles Barry

(The picture shows Francisco Jimenez at an altar honoring CÚsar Chavez, founder of the United Farm workers' Union.)

As a schoolboy, Francisco Jimenez '66 would gaze at a book filled with pictures of caterpillars and butterflies. He loved looking at the butterflies' colorful wings, and he wanted to learn more about those ethereal creatures. To do that, he would have to decipher the confusing code of letters printed on the pages, but Jimenez could not read or even speak English.

Years later, Jimenez recalled his childhood frustration in a short story:

"I knew information was in the words written underneath each picture in large black letters. I tried to figure them out by looking at the pictures. I did this so many times that I could close my eyes and see the words, but I could not understand what they meant."

Now a professor of modern languages at SCU, Jimenez grew up the son of illiterate farm workers who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 4 years old. At 6, Jimenez began to work in the fields with his family. Throughout grade school, he struggled to learn English, his education a series of starts and stops because following the harvest meant frequent moves. Sometimes, he tried so hard to understand what his teacher was saying that he would go home with a headache. He even flunked first grade.

But once he broke their mysterious code, words helped free Jimenez from the hard life of a migrant farm worker. They opened the doors to institutions of higher learning, including Santa Clara University, where he received his bachelor's degree in Spanish, and Columbia University in New York City, where he received his master's and doctorate in the same field.

He returned to Santa Clara to teach in 1972, and a host of honors have followed.  But Jimenez has not forgotten the route he traveled to SCU. He shared some of his experiences with student actors from the Theatre Department production of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." He accompanied the cast on a visit to a migrant farm workers' camp and spoke after the opening-night performance about the relevance of the play to the plight of migrants today.

"I read 'The Grapes of Wrath' my sophomore year in high school. It was the first book I read that I could relate to, coming from a family of migrant workers," Jimenez says. "For the first time, I realized the power of the written word, that an artist can write creatively and make a difference in people's lives."

Like the Joad family in the Steinbeck classic, the Jimenezes came to California to escape poverty and find a better life. In a short story titled "Crossing la Frontera" (the border), told from a child's point of view, Jimenez describes his family's flight from their home in a small village north of Guadalajara across the border into the United States:

"On both sides of the fence were armed guards in green uniforms. Papa called them la migra and explained that we had to cross the fence to the other side, without being seen by these men. If we succeeded, we would enter los Estados Unidos....We continued walking along the wire wall, until Papa spotted a small hole underneath the fence. Papa got on his knees and, with his hands, made the opening larger. We all crawled through it like snakes."

"A few minutes later, we were picked up by a woman whom Papa had contacted in Mexicali. She had promised to pick us up in her car and drive us, for a fee, to a place where we would find work. As we traveled north through the nignt, I fell asleep for a long time on Mama's lap. I woke up at dawn and heard the woman say, "We're entering the San Joaquin Valley. Here you'll find plenty of work.' 'This is the beginning of a new life,' Mama said, taking a deep breath. 'A good life,' Papa answered.

As it turned out, many years would pass before anyone in the Jimenez family experienced that good life. Jimenez's father, Francisco, his mother Joaquina, and his older brother Roberto, found work picking crops in the fields. So began the cycle of moving from camp to camp, following the harvest.

The family, which eventually grew to eight children, lived in one-room shacks and tents. In the summer, they picked strawberries in Santa Maria. Then they traveled to Fresno to pick grapes in early September and on to Corcoran and Bakersfield to pick cotton in the winter. In February, they moved back to Santa Maria to thin lettuce and top carrots.

Working from sunup to sundown, the entire family earned just $15 a day. Jimenez called this nomadic existence "the circuit" in a short story by that title that has been reproduced many times in textbooks and anthologies of American literature.

"It's a symbolic circuit," he says. "If you're a migrant worker, you're constantly living in poverty. It's very difficult to get out of it."

Yet Jimenez soon found relief from the hard life in the fields and a way to escape the circuit: school. "I came to realize that learning and knowledge were the only stable things in my life. Whatever I learned in school, that knowledge would stay with me no matter how many times we moved."

Because Jimenez could not start school until after the mid-November harvest and because he knew so little English, he struggled to keep up with his classmates. One teacher even labeled him mentally retarded.

"I would start school and find myself behind, especially in English," he remembers. "School for the first nine years was very sporadic."

Still, Jimenez was luckier than his brother Roberto, who was old enough to pick cotton and therefore could not start school until February. In "The Circuit," Jimenez describes the pain of leaving his brother behind on his first day back at school:

"I woke up early that morning and lay in bed, looking at the stars and savoring the thought of not going to work and starting sixth grade for the first time that year. Since I could not sleep, I decided to get up and join Papa and Roberto at breakfast. I sat at the table across from Roberto, but I kept my head down. I did not want to look up and face him. I knew he was sad. He was not going to school today. He was not going tomorrow, or next week, or next month."

Unlike many of his classmates, Jimenez looked forward to the days he spent in school. "I had many embarrassing moments; but in spite of those, I enjoyed the environment," he says. "School was a lot nicer than home. Many times, we lived in tents with dirt floors, no electricity or plumbing. In school we had electricity, plumbing, lighting. We even had toys."

Although the physical environment was pleasant, interactions with classmates often were not. "Kids would call me spic, or greaser, tamale wrapper. They made fun of my thick accent and whenever I made grammatical mistakes. That really hurt. I withdrew and became quiet," Jimenez says.

Fortunately, Jimenez sometimes encountered a friendly teacher who recognized his desire to learn. His sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lema, helped him with his English during lunch. Discovering that Jimenez enjoyed music, the universal language, Lema offered to teach him to play the trumpet.

But Jimenez never got his first lesson. When he went home to tell his mother and father the good news about his music lessons, he found the family's possessions neatly packed into cardboard boxes. They were moving again.

To compensate for his sporadic education, Jimenez began teaching himself. He would jot down words he was trying to memorize on a small note pad and carry it with him into the fields so he could study during his breaks.

Whenever his family visited the local public dump to collect discarded clothes, wood for a floor, and other necessities, Jimenez would pick up books. Once he found a single volume of an encyclopedia. Not realizing it was part of a 20-volume set, he leafed through its pages, figuring that if he could learn to read the whole thing, he'd know just about everything there was to know.

Wherever he was, Jimenez always knew to run and hide from la migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service agents), especially when they made their sweeps through the fields and camps.

Jimenez and his family lived in fear of being deported. His father had a visa, but the others did not; visas were too expensive. Jimenez remembers the INS officers interrogating people and sometimes beating them. When someone asked where he was born, he lied.

When he was in junior high school, INS agents entered Jimenez's classroom and arrested him as an illegal immigrant. The family was deported to Mexico but returned after several weeks with visas obtained with the help of a Japanese sharecropper who sponsored them.

Jimenez's life changed forever when he was about to enter high school. Because his father suffered from permanent back pain--probably from too many hours bent over the crops--he could no longer work in the fields. It was up to Roberto to support the family.

Roberto found a job as a janitor at a school in Santa Maria; Jimenez also worked for a janitorial company. Now the family did not have to follow the harvest. Now Jimenez could start school with the rest of the class and keep up with his studies.

"The work was indoors; and after I was done cleaning, I could study in an office," he says. "This was my chance."

With his newfound stability, Jimenez thrived. He became student-body president of his high school and earned a 3.7 GPA. A guidance counselor, disturbed that a gifted student was not going to college because the family could not afford to send him, managed to arrange for Jimenez to obtain scholarships and student loans so that he could enroll at SCU. During his junior year in college, he became a U.S. citizen.

Jimenez majored in Spanish because he loved his native language and his culture. Teaching Spanish seemed the obvious course. "I saw the positive impact teachers had on me, and I wanted to do the same for others," he says.

"One of the things we learn in school is who we are. Yet in grammar school and high school I seldom saw anything in the curriculum to which I could relate."

To help fill that void, Jimenez has published and edited several books on Mexican and Mexican American literature and has written his own collection of stories based on his childhood. Tentatively titled "Harvest of Hope: Life of a Migrant Child," the manuscript has just been accepted for publication by the University of New Mexico Press. His short story "The Butterfly"--in which Jimenez draws a parallel between the experience of a boy, isolated from his classmates because he does not speak English, and the emergence of a monarch butterfly from its cocoon--will soon be published as a children's picture book by Houghton Mifflin Co.

Jimenez lives with his family in Santa Clara. His wife, Laura, graduated from SCU in 1967 and works as the placement coordinator for the university's Eastside Project, an academic support program that allows students to integrate community-based learning with classroom curriculum. The couple has three sons: Francisco '93, who is a sculptor and teaches in the Art Department at SCU, Miguel '95, who is a banker,; and Tomas, a professor of sociology at Stanford University.

At SCU, Jimenez teaches courses in language and Latin American literature and culture.

Despite his accomplishments, Jimenez remains troubled by the current political climate and anti-immigration backlash, particularly efforts to deny education to the children of undocumented immigrants.

"It bothers me" he says, "because many members of our society are critical of people who, in a way, could be very inspirational to us. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to cross the border without knowing the language or culture, in order to improve their lives. If that isn't the American spirit, I don't know what is."

Updated from an article published in Santa Clara magazine, vol. 38, no. 2 (spring 1996).