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Interview by Chris Liska Carger
(as printed in Book Links)
The Circuit was originally published as an adult title. When you wrote it, who did you envision as its audience? Were you surprised when it received so much recognition in the children's publishing world?
I did not have any particular audience in mind when I began writing The Circuit. However, from the start I decided to relate the stories from the point of view of the child so that readers could hear the child’s voice, see through his eyes and feel through his heart. When I finished it, my hope was that it would be accessible to both children and adults. Yes, I was very surprised, delighted, and grateful that it received so much recognition in the field of children’s literature.
In the author's note of The Circuit, you say that the story is semi-autobiographical. Why did you go with a semi-autobiographical approach rather than a straight memoir?
I say that it’s semi-autobiographical because the stories in the book are approximately 90 percent fact and 10 percent fiction. In a few cases I rearranged the sequences of events. In the title story, “The Circuit,” for example, I mention the strawberry picker from Jalisco. I actually met him in the summer of my eighth grade, not the summer of my sixth grade. I could not remember the number of the school bus, so I made one up. I did the same with the page number 125, which I was asked to read in Mr. Lema’s class.
Yes, when I was in the eighth grade, an immigration officer took me out of the classroom as I was getting ready to recite the first part of the Declaration of Independence, which we had to memorize for class. It was such a traumatic experience in my life that I decided to end the book on that sad note. It was logical. My family and I had come full circle.
Do you think that conditions are better for migrant workers today than they were when your books take place?
Living conditions for some migrant workers have improved but not for all. Many migrant workers, especially those who do not belong to a union, continue to experience life pretty much the same as the life my family and I experienced over thirty years ago. The federal Commission on Agricultural Workers estimates there are 2.5 million farmworkers, up from 1.8 million in 1960, about 800,000 of the current workers lack adequate shelter according to the Housing Assistance Council, a Washington-based consulting group that studies rural housing. In 1997 the Associated Press found in a five-month investigation and statistical analysis of child labor in the U.S. that one of the four million children working legally and illegally in the U.S. is killed every five days, on average. The majority of these are migrant field workers. I believe that our society needs the compassion and will to eliminate these social and economic injustices.
When I use The Circuit with teachers in teaching my multicultural children's literature class they always find it a very moving experience as a reader. What kind of feedback have you gotten from school-aged students who've read this book?
I receive numerous letters (as class projects) from students who have read the book, telling me how much they have enjoyed reading it. Children of migrant parents or grandparents thank me for writing about their family’s experiences. “Your story is the story of our family,” they say. Others who were not familiar with the migrant experience before reading the book comment that my work has helped them to understand the plight of farm workers and appreciate their courage and hard work. Still others mention how much more they appreciate their own comfortable lives and being able to attend school without having to move constantly.
What made you decide to move your character, Panchito, into the picture book format?
Ann Rider, my editor at Houghton Mifflin, suggested it. I liked the idea because it give me the opportunity to write La Mariposa in which I describe my experience going to school for the first time not knowing a word of English. This is an experience common to many non-English speaking children who enter our school system today. I wanted children, especially migrant Latino children, to read or listen to a story to which they could relate. I wanted the book to be historically accurate and to include the social, educational and economic difficulties encountered by many children.
I used your newest picture book, The Christmas Gift/El Regalo de Navidad with Mexican-American third graders recently in Literature Circles and it was clear that they felt very compassionate toward Panchito and shared their own stories of disappointments at Christmas. What benefits do you hope this book and The Butterfly/La Mariposa will offer young children?
I think it’s important for Latino children—all children, for that matter-- to see themselves reflected in the literature they read and to connect to it. This gives them a sense of pride and self-confidence in terms of relating their own life experiences, their own stories, as did the third graders you mention. Although culturally specific, I believe La Mariposa and The Christmas Gift/El regalo de Navidad, will benefit children who are not Latino. By reading books like these, children will learn to appreciate cultural differences and to value them. This helps to promote the bases for human understanding and productive interaction among children who come from various cultures. Furthermore, the use of Spanish in La Mariposa and The Christmas Gift/El regalo de Navidad introduces monolingual English speaking children to another language at an early age. This improves their disposition toward learning a second language. Thus the exposure to another culture and language opens children’s hearts and minds to cultural and linguistic differences. It prepares them to become educated for a more informed, compassionate and productive involvement in our increasingly diverse and global society. In addition, The Christmas Gift/El regalo de Navidad may help children to focus on the true meaning and spirit of Christmas and to appreciate more what they have.
You used the symbol of the butterfly to begin your newest novel, Breaking Through, and in earlier books as well. Can you comment on that choice?
My interest in butterflies goes back to when I was a small child working in the fields alongside my parents. I often saw them in the fields and was fascinated by their beauty and their ability to fly effortlessly. During my first year of school, I spent a lot of time by myself in class drawing pictures of butterflies. This was a nice way to cope with my feelings of being left out because I did not know English. I only knew Spanish. When I got an award for one of my drawing, I began to “open up”. That experience of receiving an award in school for my drawing of a butterfly was and continues to be meaningful to me.
What would you say was the theme of your newest novel, Breaking Through?
One of the main themes in Breaking Through is the loss of innocence. In this book I describe my struggles to continue my formal education while coping with poverty and attempting to reconcile my family’s traditional Mexican culture with American culture. I relate my attempts to construct a sense of self by holding on to what I perceived to be my Mexican cultural values while integrating certain aspects of American society. I describe my efforts to bring my Mexican culture into my American world (my school life) and my American world into my Mexican world (my home life). Obstacles both within my Mexican culture and my new American culture marked my journey. Borrowing from one, adding to the other, and at times blending the two, I navigated between these two worlds, experiencing love and neglect, joy and sadness, triumph and defeat, justice and injustice, prejudice and fairness. Many caring and sensitive teachers and my family’s love and insistence on hard work, faith, and respect sustained me and guided me along my journey.
Mexican origin students have some of the highest dropout rates in the nation, often suffering from the demands of content area learning in English as well as economic disadvantages. Although you write of your very substantial financial and educational challenges, you undauntedly persevere in both The Circuit and Breaking Through. To what do you attribute your stamina for both physical labor and academic dedication?
I attribute my stamina for physical labor to my father who set the example for hard work, even while he suffered severe back problems. During the time we worked in the fields, my father constantly worried about our making ends meet and insisted that we would avoid hunger as long as we worked hard. “If you work hard and are respectful,” he would say, “you’ll succeed in life. From my mother I learned the value of faith. She was the strength in our family. Her faith and optimism had no limits. So, hard work, respect, and faith have served me well.
My dedication to academics I attribute mainly to my teachers who instilled in me the love for learning and helped me develop my God-given potential. Also, at a very early age, I discovered the importance and value of education. While my family moved from place to place following the crops, I yearned for permanence, for stability in my life. I found what I was looking for in school. I discovered that the knowledge I gained in school was mine to keep no matter where we went or how many times we moved. It gave me the stability I longed for. I relate this in my story “To Have and to Hold”, which is part of The Circuit.
I believe that some teachers have quietly reached out to immigrant students for years and I especially love the images of teachers you have given readers in both of your novels. Have any of your past teachers read your novels and gotten in touch with you with comments?
Mr. Penney, my high school counselor, and Mr. Milo, my eighth grade teacher at El Camino Junior High School in Santa Maria have read the books. They were proud and delighted.
Both of your picture books are in bilingual format, are your novels also available in Spanish? Given that there were no bilingual programs available when you attended school, how do you feel about dual language programs and the development of literacy in both the native and second languages?
Houghton Mifflin published my Spanish translations of The Circuit under the title Cajas de cartón and of Breaking Through under the title Senderos fronterizos. (Incidentally, The Circuit was published in Chinese and Japanese. Audio Bookshelf also released a recording of it in both English and Spanish.)
In Breaking Through, you tell a story about writing a fantasy where you and your family members travel to each of the planets in the solar system. Do you anticipate ever moving into the writing of children's fantasy?
I am under contract with Houghton Mifflin to write another book. At this point I have not decided for sure what it will be. I have a few ideas.
I'm sure that some of the stories you retell are difficult to share. What do you feel has been the greatest source of your inspiration in writing?
The greatest source of inspiration for my writing comes from my teachers and the community of my childhood. I am also encouraged to continue writing by the numerous letters, e-mails, and personal comments I have received from readers.
This interview entitled, "Francisco Jimenez" was conducted by Chris Liska Carger and was printed in Book Links, December 2001/January 2002, pp. 14-19.