Francisco Jiménez grew up as a child of illegal Mexican-immigrant farm laborers who worked and migrated through California’s agricultural system. In his book The Circuit: stories from the life of a migrant child, he recounts his family’s saga of transient living through the eyes of his childhood self.
The main theme, or foundation of all his family’s woes, is migration. From it, his family experienced extreme poverty, hunger, and racism. Jiménez could have wrote exclusively about these things, and to be sure there is a fair amount of that in the story, but the bulk of what he focused on was how the migratory lifestyle influenced his growth as an adolescent. The feelings of isolation against anyone outside his family, the absolute importance of that family sticking together, and the power of education were all profound factors that shaped his life.
The perpetual migration Jiménez had to deal with resulted in his inability to form close and personal relationships with anyone outside of his immediate family. That’s not to say that he didn’t try, or that he didn’t have these friendships for short periods of time, but the constant moving of his family and other migrant families within the Circuit (a name given to California’s various agricultural locals where migrants worked) cut short any hope of lifelong relationships. We first see the damaging effects this has on Jiménez when he goes to meet his friend Miguelito, whom he had met in one of the work camps: “I went around to the side of the cabin and peaked through the window. The cabin was completely empty. My heart sank into my stomach.” Jiménez had just played with this boy the day before, but in an instant, he was gone, and it crushed him.
We see this pattern repeated again with his friend Carl and with his favorite teacher Mr. Lema, only these times it is Jiménez that is leaving instead of his friends. Either way, the possibility of forging lasting relations with others was simply not there. Therefore, the only constant Jiménez ever had was his family.
Throughout the novel the importance of the whole family pitching in for the common good is stressed. While living in Tent City, a labor camp owned by a strawberry farm, Jiménez writes about his pregnant mother pitching in for the familial collective as she was able: “To make ends meet, Mamá cooked for twenty farm workers… She would get up at four o’clock every morning, seven days a week, to make the tortillas for both meals [lunch and supper].” Try getting up at 4am even once a week and make breakfast for 20 grown men, now add being pregnant into that equation! She was as tough as they come, and so was Papá.
Like Mamá, Papá worked his fingers to the bone to provide for his family. Repeatedly we are told that he worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and after one job was done he (usually) had the next one ready to go. His brother Roberto worked just as hard as his father, doing the same work as well. Even Jiménez himself, before he was old enough to contribute monetarily to the family, would watch his infant sister Trampita while the rest of his family went off to work. In short, everyone had a job to do because their survival depended on it. Be that as it may, and knowing well that losing one worker from their family would terribly weaken their chances of survival, Mamá and Papá still sent Jimenez and his siblings to school when possible. A choice that would forever change the author’s life.
When Jiménez first entered school he knew no English whatsoever. He describes his experience of trying to understand his first teacher, Miss Scalapino, teach a lesson: “I was very tired of hearing Miss Scalapino talk because the sounds made no sense to me. I thought that perhaps by paying close attention, I would begin to understand, but I did not. I only got a headache, and that night, when I went to bed, I heard her voice in my head.” Trying to understand another culture’s language, without at least a smidge of training, is downright brutal. I understood where Jiménez was coming from as I have been to many countries throughout the world (in my Navy days) and couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was. It’s a horrible, awful, and rather demeaning feeling to be that different from everyone else around you. But that didn’t stop Jiménez from seeing that education was indeed his way out of the migratory life.
It took a while for Jiménez to learn the English language and understand the lessons being taught to him, but once he had even somewhat of grasp of it – he used it. While he was working in the fields his mind would go over these lessons, almost as if they were his scapegoat and savior from the back-breaking labor he was doing at the time: “I [then] marked the spelling rules I wanted to memorize that day. As I picked grapes, I went over them in my mind, looking at my notes only when I had to. This made the time go faster.” This “mental escape” mentality that he adopted got him through his long, hard, laborious days.
The Circuit is a child’s view of a very cold, very adult world. Jiménez tells his story effortlessly and true. Even though it ends with his impending deportation, I can take solace in the fact that this is the first in a series of memoirs by the author, and that he eventually does make it in America as a college professor. Sad, infuriating, hopeful, and even uplifting at times; The Circuit has something for everyone. The prose are simple (no telescoping, literary magnifying glass here) and the language is clear. I enjoyed reading about Jiménez’s life, and look forward to reading the next chapter of it.