In looking at the many obstacles placed in their path, and their difficult financial circumstances, one would never have given the children of Francisco and Joaquina Jimenez a chance to succeed in life; but, in spite of those formidable obstacles, they most certainly did!
Life in Mexico had been a continuous struggle for the Jimenez family, so much so that when Francisco Jimenez heard stories about the many opportunities in the United States, he made plans to go to this “land of plenty.C
Francisco (Panchito) Jimenez, who was born in San Pedro, Tlaquepaque June 29, 1943, was the second of the two children that were born in Mexico.
In 1947, when he was 4 years old, and his brother Roberto was a few years older, the Jimenez family, filled with hope, migrated to the United States, traveling two days and nights to reach “La Frontera,C the Mexican border. When they confronted the fence separating Mexico from the United States, their father dug a hole through which they could all crawl to reach the other side, and as they fervently hoped, prosperity!
A “coyoteC (a paid person who transports undocumented people to a particular destination in the United States) from Mexicali drove the Jimenez family to a tent city on the outskirts of Guadalupe.
Driving through the night to reach the Central Coast town, the coyote instructed his passengers that, if stopped, to say that they were from Colton.
The “land of plentyC didn/t turn out to be anything as expected and the Jimenez family, always struggling to make ends meet, spent the next 10 years trying to eke out a living by following the crops. Picking strawberries, grapes, carrots, lettuce and cotton, the family lived in migrant labor camps that varied between tents, former barracks that were used during the war, or whatever lean-to that happened to be available as a “make doC shelter.
In addition, they, like most migrant workers, lived in constant fear of being picked up by Immigration authorities (“La MigraC).
Since work was scarce during the winter months, the children/s attendance in school was sporadic. At the end of summer, when most children were preparing to return to school, the Jimenez family headed to the San Joaquin Valley in hopes of finding work.
If they wanted to eat, they needed to find work!
Roberto, expected to do his part in helping to earn an income, started working in the fields right away. Panchito began working when he was 6 years old.
The first year at school was frustrating for both boys. Not being permitted to speak Spanish, and not understanding a word that their teacher was saying, gave them severe headaches. Both boys wound up repeating first grade.
When other children were returning to school in September, the Jimenez family was on its way to the San Joaquin Valley in search of work. By the time that they returned to Santa Maria, the children had lost 2ð months of schooling.
Still, though, the boys had their own methods of learning. When Panchito learned new words, he copied them into a little notebook, and spent his nights memorizing them. With a burning desire to learn and succeed, this method of learning served him well throughout his school years.
For the next 10 years, the family traveled from camp to camp, always “following the cropsC and living in dread of being picked up by “La Migra.C
In the winter of 1957, Quentin Sims, principal of El Camino Junior High School, helped Roberto to get a part time job working year round as a janitor at Main Street Elementary School.
Almost from the day that he arrived in the valley, the elder Francisco had off and on problems with his back, and was often unable to work. When he was down, the two boys doubled up their working hours in the fields to help put food on the table.
The bottom fell out of their world when they were all picked up by Immigration and given three days to go back to Mexico.
Young Panchito had been sitting in eighth grade Social Studies class at El Camino Junior High school waiting for his turn to recite the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, when a knock came on the door. When the teacher opened the door, the school principal was standing there with a man in a green uniform standing behind him. Within minutes Panchito was led out to a car marked “Border Control.C
Although their father had a green card, their mother, Panchito and Roberto had none. The other children, by virtue of having been born in the United States, were citizens.
The next morning, leaving their old jalopy locked and parked in front of the house on the ranch, the Jimenez family went to the Greyhound bus station on North Broadway and bought tickets that would take them to La Frontera, and from there, where?
The family eventually reached Nogales and petitioned the government for visas to enter the U.S. legally. After medical examinations (and the help of Mr. Ito), the visa was approved and the family was allowed to enter the U.S. legally.
However, with little money and remembering that this was the rainy season, which meant no work prospects in Santa Maria, the father didn/t feel that it was feasible to take his family back to the Bonetti farm. Instead, he sent Roberto and Panchito to Santa Maria, and took the rest of the family to live with his sister in Guadalajara.
When the two boys returned to the Bonetti Ranch, Roberto found that he/d lost his job at the Main Street School. Not wanting to admit the circumstances of his situation, he said nothing. For the next two weeks, when it didn/t rain, the two boys picked carrots and thinned lettuce after school and on weekends. Using a short hoe (now declared illegal), the two boys finished an acre on Saturday and Sunday, for which they were paid ,16.
Some time later, after Mr. Sims told him that the person hired to take his place at the school had not worked out, Roberto was back on the job. He called this his “ticket out of the fields.C His check bought groceries and other necessities, while the rest of the money was sent to his folks in Guadalajara.
While the boys were living alone, since neither one knew how to cook, they ate Bologna sandwiches and canned ravioli. For dessert they ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes, though, they splurged and bought vanilla ice cream.
Meanwhile, the boys were learning to socialize, and most exciting of all, they attended dances at the Veterans Memorial Hall, where they hoped to learn to dance by watching others. However, like most high school dances, few people actually danced. When Panchita saw that the boys sat on one side of the room and the girls sat on the other side, he thought, “Aha! They don/t know how to dance, either.C
The boys went home to practice the steps they/d seen and, in hopes of improving their English, they went to American movies.
This newly-found liberation caused its share of problems. When one of the girls at the dance gave him her phone number, and he agreed to call her, he suddenly realized that he didn/t know how to use a telephone.
Finally, the day came when a Yellow Taxi pulled up in front of the house on the Bonetti Ranch and the Jimenez family became a unit once again. The boys said a silent and happy “goodbyeC to canned ravioli and Bologna sandwiches!
Although all of the family members were all legal residents, life didn/t really change, and they worked as hard as ever. When the father decided to sharecrop, while still holding on to his job in the fields, it turned out to be a financial disaster when fumigation used by a chemical company to treat the strawberries was too strong, and wound up killing the plants. The man fell into a deep depression. “We must be cursed!C he said.
Life continued to be difficult, with the children all trying to hold onto jobs while keeping up with their school work.
Although teachers at the school showed much interest in Panchito and gave him much encouragement, his father, an uneducated man, gave him none. When he asked the boy why he liked school so much, and the boy answered that one day he/d like to be a teacher, the man answered: “Don/t be stupid. Only rich people become teachers!C
There was obviously no money in the family to pay for additional schooling, but it was at this time that he learned about scholarships. With a high grade point average, there was hope.
In the meantime, Panchito continued to work hard at school. His English needed much improvement, but math was his best subject. Even though he and Roberto worked many jobs to help with the family/s bills, they were able to keep up with their studies.
In his sophomore year, after Panchito had turned in an assignment telling of an incident in his family/s life, his teacher handed him a copy of John Steinbeck/s “The Grapes of Wrath.C In reading the story of the Joads, he was able to relate his life to something that he was reading. The story of migrant life was part of American history.
In his junior year, Panchito (now known as “FrankieC at school) reached a milestone when he made the California Scholarship Federation. He loved school and began to participate in school activities whenever he could, and when he ran for student body president, he won!
In the middle of his second semester of his senior year, when his classmates were excited about going to college, Mr. Penney called him into his office to ask about his college plans. The man was astounded to hear that the boy had no plans to go to college. “My family needs me. I have to help support them,C said Panchito.
Through the help of Mr. Penney, the boy (with a grade point average of 3.7) was accepted at the University of Santa Clara, and after a summertime of working at his usual job with Santa Maria Window Cleaners, Panchito slid into the driver/s seat of the family car, ready to take off for college.
Francisco Jimenez, an immigrant from Mexico, and son of a hard-working field worker, received his B.A. from Santa Clara University in 1966, and his M.A. in Latin American literature from Columbia University in 1969, his Ph.D. in 1972, and attended Harvard University in 1989.
In addition to his being a member of many influential organizations, this formerly undocumented person has won many awards, including a Woodrow Wilson fellowship (1966) and a National Defense Foreign Language fellowship (1968-69).
More recent awards include being named Teacher of the Year for Santa Clara County in 1998, the Professor Cedric Busette Memorial Award, for outstanding contributions to ethnic studies in 1998, and a host of others.
In speaking of children and young adults who confront numerous obstacles in their efforts to “break through,C he says how they manage to break through “depends as much on their courage, hope, and God-given talents as it does on the loving, compassionate and generous people who commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of children and young adults.C
Dr. Francisco Jimenez, author of “The Circuit,C “Breaking ThroughC and “La Mariposa,C is scheduled to attend today/s second annual Literary and Multicultural Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Santa Maria Public Library parking structure in the 400 block of South McClelland Street in Santa Maria.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Historical Society. Contact her at 934-3514 or at shirley2@pronet .net. Her book “The Good Years,C a selection of stories she/s written for The Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society on South Broadway.