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Breaking Through

Francisco Jiménez



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.

About the Author

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.

Francisco Jiménez


"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 TV.

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 very different.

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.

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