Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child

BOOK: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child
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The Circuit
Stories from the life of a migrant child
Francisco Jiménez
Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents






Under the Wire


Inside Out

Miracle in Tent City

El Angel de Oro

Christmas Gift

Death Forgiven

Cotton Sack

The Circuit

Learning the Game

To Have and to Hold

Moving Still

A Note from the Author

Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright © 1997 by Francisco Jiménez
Author's note previously published in
The Horn Book Magazine
© 1998
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Previously published in paperback by the University of New Mexico Press
The following stories have been previously published:
"The Circuit" in
The Arizona Quarterly;
"Moving Still" in
California History;
"Learning the Game" in

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jiménez, Francisco, 1943–
The circuit: stories from the life of a migrant child
Francisco Jiménez.
p. cm.
1. Mexican Americans—California—Social life and customs—
Fiction. 2. Migrant agricultural laborers—California—Fiction.
3. Mexican American families—California—Fiction,
i. Title.
ps3560.i55c57 1997
.54—dc21 97-4844

Manufactured in the United States of America
20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13

To my parents and my seven sisters and brothers:
María Luisa/
José Francisco/
Juan Manuel/
and Rubén/
Carne Seca



Under the Wire,


Inside Out,

Miracle in Tent City,

El Angel de Oro,

Christmas Gift,

Death Forgiven,

Cotton Sack,

The Circuit,

Learning the Game,

To Have and to Hold,

Moving Still,

A Note from the Author,


There are many people who made this collection of short stories possible. I am indebted to my family whose lives are represented in this book. These stories are their stories as well as mine. These are also the stories of many migrant children of yesterday and today. I thank them all and ask their forgiveness for taking the liberty to write about them, knowing full well my limitations as a writer. Their courage, tenacity, and unwavering hope in the midst of adversity have been a constant inspiration to me.

Thanks to the many teachers and students who have written to me over the years about my work. Their particular interest in my story "The Circuit" and their encouragement to write more stories about my life have motivated me to continue writing.

I am grateful to my friends and colleagues who guided me along the way with constructive criticism: Cedric Busette,
mi amigo del alma;
Kate Martin Fergueson; and Alma Garcia. A special thanks to my immediate family for patiently listening to various drafts of the stories and offering valuable comments on them.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my teachers whose faith in my ability and whose guidance helped me break the migrant circuit.

I am thankful to Santa Clara University for giving me the time and encouragement to complete this book.

Finally, I am also indebted to my editor, Andrea Otañez, for her valuable suggestions for improvements and for her support.

Under the Wire

La frontera
" is a word I often heard when I was a child living in
El Rancho Blanco,
a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico. I heard it for the first time back in the late 1940s when Papá and Mamá told me and Roberto, my older brother, that someday we would take a long trip north, cross
la frontera,
enter California, and leave our poverty behind.

I did not know exactly what California was either, but Papá's eyes sparkled whenever he talked about it with Mamá and his friends. "Once we cross
la frontera,
we'll make a good living in California," he would say, standing up straight and sticking out his chest.

Roberto, who is four years older than I, became excited every time Papá talked about the trip to California. He didn't like living in
El Rancho Blanco,
especially after visiting our older cousin, Fito, in Guadalajara.

Fito had left
El Rancho Blanco.
He was working in a tequila factory and living in a two-bedroom house that had electricity and a water well. He told Roberto that he, Fito, didn't have to get up at four in the morning anymore, like my brother, to milk the five cows by hand and carry the milk in a large aluminum can on horse for several miles to the nearest road, where a truck would transport it to town to sell. He didn't have to go to the river for water, sleep on dirt floors, or use candles for light.

From then on, about the only thing Roberto liked about living in
El Rancho Blanco
was hunting for chicken eggs and attending church on Sundays.

I liked looking for eggs and going to Mass too. But what I enjoyed most was listening to stories. In the evenings, after supper, Papá's brother,
Mauricio, and his family came over to visit. We sat around a fire built with dry cow chips and told stories while shaking out grain from ears of corn.

On one such evening Papá made the announcement: We were going to make the long-awaited trip across
la frontera
to California. Days later we packed our belongings in a suitcase and took the bus to Guadalajara to catch the train. Papá bought tickets on a second-class train,
Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México.
I had never seen a train before. It looked like metal huts on wheels strung together. We climbed in and took our seats. I stood to look out the window. As the train started to move, it jerked and made a loud clattering sound, like hundreds of milk cans crashing. I got scared and lost my balance. Papá caught me and told me to sit. I swung my legs, following the rhythm of the train. Roberto sat across from me, next to Mamá. He had a big grin on his face.

We traveled for two days and nights. During the night, we didn't get much sleep. The wooden seats were hard, and the train made loud noises, blowing its whistle and grinding its brakes. At the first train stop I asked Papá, "Is this California?"

we're not there yet," he answered patiently. "We have many more hours to go."

Noting that Papá had closed his eyes, I turned to Roberto and asked, "What's California like?"

"I don't know," he answered, "but Fito told me that people there sweep money off the streets."

"Where did Fito get that idea?" Papá said, opening his eyes and laughing.

"From Cantinflas," Roberto said assuredly. "He said Cantinflas said it in a movie."

"Cantinflas was joking," Papá responded, chuckling. "But it's true that life is better there."

"I hope so," Mamá said. Then, putting her arm around Roberto, she added softly, "
Dios lo quiera.

The train slowed down. I looked out the window and saw we were entering another town. "Is this it?" I asked.

¡Otra vez la burra al trigo!
" Papá said, frowning and rolling his eyes. "I'll tell you when we get there!"

"Be patient, Panchito," Mamá said, smiling. "We'll get there soon."

When the train stopped in Mexicali, Papá told us to get off. "We're almost there," he said, looking at me. We left the station. Papá carried our dark brown suitcase. We followed behind him until we reached a barbed wire fence. According to Papá, this was
la frontera.
He pointed out that across the gray wire barricade was California, that famous place I had heard so much about. On both sides of the fence were armed guards dressed in green uniforms. Papá called them
la migra,
and explained that we had to cross the fence to the other side without being seen by them.

Late that night, we walked for several miles away from town. Papá, who led the way, paused, looked all around to make sure no one could see us, and headed toward the fence. We walked along the wire wall until Papá spotted a small hole underneath the fence. Papá got on his knees and, with his hands, made the opening larger. We all crawled through like snakes. A few minutes later, we were picked up by a woman whom Papá had contacted in Mexicali. She had promised to pick us up in her car and drive us, for a fee, to a place where we would find work.

The woman drove all night, and at dawn we reached a tent labor camp on the outskirts of Guadalupe, a small town on the coast. She stopped the car by the side of a narrow road, near the camp.

"This is the place I told you about," she said wearily. "Here you'll find work picking strawberries."

Papá unloaded the suitcase from the trunk, took out his wallet, and paid the woman. "We have only seven dollars left," he said, biting his lower lip. After the woman drove away, we walked to the camp, following a dirt path lined on both sides by eucalyptus trees. Mamá held me by the hand very tightly. At the camp, Mamá and Papá were told that the foreman had left for the day.

We spent that night underneath the eucalyptus trees. We gathered leaves from the trees, which smelled like sweet gum, and piled them to lie on. Roberto and I slept between Papá and Mamá.

The following morning, I woke to the sound of a train whistle. For a split second I thought we were still on the train on our way to California. Spewing black smoke, it passed behind the camp, traveling much faster than the train we had taken from Guadalajara. As I followed it with my eyes, I heard a stranger's voice behind me. It was that of a woman who had stopped by to help. Her name was Lupe Gordillo; she was from the nearby camp. She brought us a few groceries and introduced us to the camp foreman, who spoke Spanish. He loaned us an army tent, which we pitched with his help. "You're lucky," he said. "This is the last tent we have."

"When can we start work?" Papá asked, rubbing his hands.

"In two weeks," the foreman answered.

"That can't be!" Papá exclaimed, shaking his head. "We were told we'd find work right away."

"I am sorry, the strawberries won't be ready to pick until then," the foreman responded, shrugging his shoulders and walking away.

After a long silence, Mamá said, "We'll manage,
Once work starts, we'll be fine."

Roberto was quiet. He had a sad look in his eyes.

During the next two weeks, Mamá cooked outside on a makeshift stove using rocks and a
Doña Lupe had given her. We ate wild
and rabbit and birds, which Papá hunted with a rifle he borrowed from a neighbor.

To pass the time, Roberto and I watched the trains go by behind the labor camp. We crawled underneath a barbed wire fence to get a closer look at them as they passed by several times a day.

Our favorite train came by every day at noon. It had a distinct whistle. We heard it coming from miles away. Roberto and I called it the Noon Train. Often, we would get there early and play on the railroad tracks while we waited for it. We ran straddling the rails or walked on them as fast as we could to see how far we could go without falling off. We also sat on the rails to feel them vibrate as the train approached. As days went by, we could recognize the conductor from afar. He slowed the train every time it went by and waved at us with his gray-and-white striped cap. We waved back.

One Sunday, Roberto and I crossed the fence earlier than usual to wait for the Noon Train. Roberto didn't feel like playing, so we sat on one of the rails, arms wrapped around our legs, foreheads on our knees. "I wonder where the train comes from," I said. "Do you know, Roberto?"

"I have been wondering too," he answered, slowly lifting his head. "I think it comes from California."

"California!" I exclaimed. "This is California!"

"I am not so sure," he said. "Remember what—"

The familiar Noon Train whistle interrupted him. We stepped off the rail and moved a few feet away from the tracks. The conductor slowed the train to a crawl, waved, and gently dropped a large brown bag in front of us as he went by. We picked it up and looked inside. It was full of oranges, apples, and candy.

"See, it does come from California!" Roberto exclaimed. We ran alongside the train, waving at the conductor. The train sped up and soon left us behind. We followed the rear of the train with our eyes until it got smaller and smaller and disappeared.


That cold, early morning, Papá parked the
our old jalopy, at one end of the cotton field. He, Mamá, and Roberto, my older brother, climbed out and headed toward the other end, where the picking started. As usual, they left me alone in the car to take care of Trampita, my little brother, who was six months old. I hated being left by myself with him while they went off to pick cotton.

As they walked farther into the field, I climbed onto the roof of the car, stood on tiptoe, and watched them until I could no longer tell them apart from the other pickers. Once I lost sight of them, I felt pain in my chest, that same pain I always felt whenever they left Trampita and me alone. Sobbing, I climbed into the car and wrapped my arms around Trampita, who slept in the back seat. He woke up crying and shivering from the cold. I covered him with a small blanket and gave him his bottle of milk. He calmed down and went back to sleep.

BOOK: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child
8.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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