Francisco Jiménez has always taken hold of what he could.
For most of his youth, the Mexican immigrant and his family followed the crop cycles in central California. Along with his parents and older brother, he performed back-breaking work (literally, for his father) picking crops like cotton, strawberries and carrots, and thinning lettuce. He missed months of school, which was hard for a kid who did not speak English; he learned the language slowly, recording new words in a notebook he carried while he worked.
Those notes marked the beginning of what would become an illustrious career in writing and education. On Thursday, May 28, Jiménez will give a free reading from his latest memoir and hold a discussion at Palo Alto's Rinconada Library.
Jiménez and his family lived in constant fear of deportation, a fear that turned out to be justified: When Jiménez was in the eighth grade, a callous immigration officer detained him in the middle of class, just as he was about to recite the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Back in Mexico, his family successfully applied for visas and again immigrated to the United States, this time legally. Jiménez was back in class.
He did not waste his second chance. Jiménez thrived in high school, despite discrimination and having to work before and after school. He went on to study at Santa Clara University where he again excelled.
Jiménez's life story up until his graduation from Santa Clara is captured in his three best-selling memoirs: "The Circuit," "Breaking Through" and "Reaching Out." His latest memoir, "Taking Hold," describes his time at Columbia University, where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin American literature, and his return to Santa Clara University. More than 40 years after his arrival, he's still at SCU, where today he is the Fay Boyle Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.
The synopsis of Jiménez's life seems to follow a Horatio Alger script: The young man immigrates to America, starts in desperate poverty, makes something of himself through sheer determination and and lives happily ever after. It's rags-to-riches stories like these that have stirred the imagination of Americans and would-be Americans since the late 19th century. Like so many mythologies, while based on some truths, it's now represented by calcified cliches like "the self-made man" who "pulls himself up by his bootstraps."
"Whenever I hear the bootstrap line, I always say, 'Someone had to buy him the boots,'" Jiménez said in a recent interview. "My story is as much about my struggles and efforts as it is about the people who helped me along the way. One thing I do not subscribe to is the over-emphasis on individualism. I could not have made it on my own."
The theme of receiving help recurs throughout his memoirs, including "Taking Hold." Professors, classmates, institutions, relatives and most of all his girlfriend-turned-wife Laura help Jiménez as he struggles to adapt to New York City and complete his studies.
Indeed, education is perhaps the strongest uniting theme in all four of his memoirs. The books are cleanly divided by periods in Jiménez's education: "The Circuit" ends when he gets deported in the eighth grade, "Breaking Through" ends when he graduates from high school, "Reaching Out" ends when he graduates from Santa Clara and "Taking Hold" ends after Jiménez receives his Ph.D. and takes up a teaching position.
"Education was a refuge, and it also helped me to discover my purpose in life: to be a teacher," the author explained. "When I was growing up, there were a lot of negative stereotypes about Mexicans that would constantly appear in conversation and the media. I thought about why that was and decided it was based upon ignorance. So I felt that going into education and teaching my culture would help combat that."
Another notable feature of Jiménez's collection is the use of voice. "The Circuit," his first book, narrates his grade-school years from the perspective of a young boy, while "Breaking Through" takes on the more mature perspective of a teenager, and "taking Hold," that of an older wiser man.
Yet the real power of "Taking Hold" lies in the life stories that precede it. Although readers of the new memoir will get an idea of what Jiménez experienced before he went to Columbia, the power of Jiménez's account is muted without the context of his impoverished childhood and his journey through the American academic system. To read "Taking Hold" without first reading the earlier works is like taking a helicopter to the summit of Mount Everest to learn about the climber's journey. Surely Jiménez has worked hard enough already; the reader should put in his own.
"That struggle gives meaning to what I do now," Jiménez acknowledged of his early life. "Struggle can be painful and good," he added, recalling the words of Cesar Chavez, with whom he marched as a college student during the Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s.
"Immigrants and their stories feed the American soul. But we need each other to help each other succeed. I wrote my stories because my experiences are not unique. I feel an obligation, having done well, to now help others. The danger is when our society decides to believe in the myth that people can make it on their own."
What: Author Francisco Jiménez, reading and Q&A session
Where: Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road, Palo Alto
When: Thursday, May 28, 7 p.m.
Cost: Free, but seating is limited
Info: Go to tinyurl.com/kom2y9x or call 650-329-2436.