Reviewing Francisco Jiménez’ autobiographical treatment of his early years through high school was a movingeven spiritualexperience for me. I say spiritual because the situations he relates reminded me of people and events in my own life that have shaped me at the deepest levels of my being. I first met Francisco in the early 1970’s when he returned to his alma mater, Santa Clara University, fresh from Columbia University with a Ph.D. to begin a long and outstanding career as a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature, an administrator, a children’s picture book writer and author of the award-winning autobiographical novel The Circuit.
Two years my senior, Francisco had some things in common with me. While I never experienced the grinding poverty of a migrant laborer family, my father was a blue-collar worker and our family struggled to make ends meet. We both gloried in our Mexican heritage and shared the 1960’s dreams of political emancipation for our people. Over the years I have visited Francisco and delighted in the progress of his life: his marriage, family, professional accomplishments and his devotion to the service of his students and others. He is still at Santa Clara University, where he is revered.
In this deceptively simple book Francisco captures the earliest patterns of meaning and motive that subliminally shape a lifetime. It is all about family, work, faith, caring, love, honesty and that elusive word Mexicans use that says it all: respeto. Respeto is translated as respect, but it is more than that. It has to do with right relations. It bridges justice and love. We learn about these patterns as Francisco narrates the story of his early years. He begins in the late 1940’s, when he, his parents and his oldest brother, Roberto, left their rural home in the outskirts of Guadalajara to look for a better life. They came as undocumented workers. They experienced the trauma of deportation, but quickly returned. The family grew to include four more siblings.
Their story is quite unexceptional. The Jiménez family is like many other Mexican families who then and now bravely do what is necessary for survival. The story is told through the eyes of a child turning adolescent. The family worked in various locations throughout California but eventually settled in Santa Maria, Calif., on a ranch where the elder Jiménez, his wife and children supported themselves picking crops, cleaning stores and homes, ironing and doing any other honest form of labor. There is nothing particularly exceptional about any of this. What makes the difference is the honesty with which Francisco tells the story from the perspective of a child who is about eight years old when the story starts and 18 when it ends.
We hear about the hardships, insecurity and fear that shape the lives of undocumented workers. On balance, we are given an unromanticized glimpse of the peculiar strength and beauty of the traditional family values of working class Mexicans. More than anything else, though, Breaking Through shows how small, everyday encounters with family, teachers and coworkers can profoundly change one’s whole life. Francisco is careful to show how loving parents and teachers like Mr. Lema or counselors like Mr. Penney sowed the seeds of self-worth that eventually led to Francisco’s breaking through the barriers of discrimination and poverty. All of this he does with humor and good taste. There is nothing remotely pretentious or patronizing about Francisco’s smoothly flowing narrative. I delighted in the sweet pathos of his boyhood experiences and gradual awakening to girls, politics and the joys of reading.
The book moves from vignette to vignette depicting the vulnerability and hardships of a migrant family as Francisco grows into a promising student for whom finally some doors begin to open. The father’s declining health and emotional struggles to cope with a large family in a strange country maintain a tone of suffering throughout the book. Yet a tone of peace and security also comes across. In this, mother Joaquina reflects the mythic role that Latin Americans continue to ascribe to women and mothers. It is all very believable.
Francisco Jiménez writes in an almost austere, unadorned prose. English composition teachers will be delighted with his crisp, short sentences. Here is one non-native English speaker who really gets it! (I think spontaneously of Joseph Conrad’s great accomplishment in English as a second language.) It is a remarkably easy read especially suitable for young people. The bilingual reader will appreciate Francisco’s effective use of Mexican Spanish patois. Francisco sees the world in this book as a Mexican American teenager, a most conflicted time of life. To this he adds embarrassing situations that come from being poor, Mexican, Spanish-speaking and undocumented. He faithfully captures many moments of pain, pathos, humor and occasional hilarity. What emerges from the cocoon is a hopeful and promising young man.
I highly recommend this book to junior high school teachers. It models a pattern of everyday existence that immigrant and working class young people will find most compelling and attractive. Arguably the United States today has more of these youth than at any time in its history. Francisco Jiménez’ account is profoundly human, ordinary and yet enchanted. It speaks of the spark of goodness in all human beings. As such, Breaking Through is a hopeful, stirring and unforgettable story.