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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
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Workshop 8: Social Justice and Action - Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jimenez
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Joseph Bruchac
Biography
Work
Interview
Francisco Jimenèz
Biography
Work
Interview
LeAlan Jones/ Lloyd Newman
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child

This powerful series of linked stories follows the life of a migrant family as they travel "the circuit" of harvesting jobs up and down California. Told from the point of view of the second oldest son, the stories describe a life of crushing poverty and backbreaking work lived in tents and one-room shacks, yet survived with courage, hope, and dignity.

Based on the life of the author, Francisco Jiménez, the stories begin when the family first comes from Mexico to California and settles in a "tent city" with other migrant laborers. Over the next nine years, as the family grows from four members to 11, we witness both the terrible struggles and the small joys in the everyday life of people for whom nothing -- home, friendships, school, or jobs -- is permanent. "Each story is simple, direct, and redolent with the smells of the earth, the sounds of the ever-changing home with its growing number of siblings, and the amazing experiences each new schoolroom offers," observes School Library Journal of the audio edition.

Denied steady schooling because his family must move with the harvest, Panchito, as his mother calls him, starts first grade without any English at all. He begins to carry his "librito," a little notebook of English words and their definitions, as he works in the fields. When the family's shelter in a migrant camp burns down and his notebook is lost, he is heartbroken -- until his mother makes him see that everything written in it was already permanently committed to his memory. Jiménez writes that she showed him that all that knowledge was "mine to have and to hold... It would go with me no matter how many times we moved, and we moved very often. Sometimes I would enroll in school one week and we would move the next week. In this very unstable life that we were living, I was looking for some permanence, a place to call my own, and I found part of it in learning, in education."

Jiménez says he decided to write The Circuit in English because he knew it would reach a wider readership. He originally wrote the first story in Spanish and called it Cajas de Cartón, for the fragile cardboard boxes in which migrant families must regularly pack all their belongings before moving on to the next town and job. "Symbolically, cardboard boxes indicate the kind of fragile life that we were living. As cardboard boxes can collapse very easily, they can be destroyed easily, and I felt that our life was very similar to that." When he translated the story into English, he decided to call it The Circuit. Not only would that title capture the circular journey the migrant worker must make each year from place to place and crop to crop, but, Jiménez points out, "In a sense it's also a circuit from when the first story begins, with us crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, to the last story, where we get caught by the immigration officers and are deported back to Mexico. We have to leave the same way we came." He adds that there are 12 stories in the collection, just as there are 12 months in the migrant worker's yearly journey.

Jiménez had a literary awakening in his sophomore year of high school when an assignment in English class was to write an autobiographical piece. He wrote about the near-fatal illness of his baby brother in one of the labor camps where the family stayed. After reading the account, his teacher gave him John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to read. "When I saw how thick the book was, I said, 'My gosh! How am I going to read such a thick book?' And so once I started reading I had difficulty with the reading. I had to look up many, many words, but I couldn't put the work down... For the first time I was able to relate my life to something that I was reading. There was a connection between my life and The Grapes of Wrath... Even though the Joad family ... were not Mexican, they had very similar experiences that I had, that my family had. They had to move from Oklahoma to come to California looking for a better way of life; they worked in the fields ... they lived in migrant labor camps just as my family did. So I felt that that connection helped me to appreciate even more the power of language and literature to move hearts and minds. And for the first time I realized that my own story as an immigrant, the story of my family as migrant workers, was part of the American story just like the Joad family."

Though Panchito, the protagonist of The Circuit, is driven by the power of education and literature, he learns other lessons as well. He is impressed with a worker named Gabriel. "Gabriel did what he had to do," says Panchito. Jiménez adds in an interview that Gabriel "stood up to Diaz, who wanted him to plow the rows like an ox, and he refused to do that." Jiménez learned that Gabriel "had a lot of dignity and self-worth. And it was his dignity that he refused to give up. I have learned a lot from people who are well educated, who are teachers and university professors. But I've also learned a lot from people like Gabriel, who don't have a formal education. And dignity is a lesson I learned from him."

Jiménez hopes that students who read his work will "listen to the voice of the narrator and make a connection to that child ... and develop a compassion and understanding for children who go through those experiences ... children who enter our school system who are limited English speakers. My hope is that students who read The Circuit will also learn to appreciate what they have, and the work that migrant workers do. Every time we sit at the table to enjoy our meals, we should think about who made it possible to have the food we eat every day."

back to top Next: Francisco Jiménez: Interview
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