Spanish professor, author has taught at Santa Clara since 1973
THE SANTA CLARA
January 29, 2014
When he was four years old, Professor Francisco Jiménez’s family migrated from Mexico to California to escape poverty and build a better life. Unfortunately, they ended up living hand-to-mouth for many years, constantly residing in tents and working in the fields following seasonal harvests.
After years of struggle, Jiménez realized his talent for writing during his sophomore year of high school. He wrote an essay about one of his family experiences and his teacher, “Mrs. Bell,” recognized his talent and gave him a copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. As a migrant himself, he identified with the Joad family in the novel.
“I could see myself in that family, so for the first time I realized the power of literature to move hearts and minds,” he said. “So after reading that novel and Mrs. Bell’s remarks, I thought that perhaps someday I would write about those experiences.”
Today, Jiménez — an honored and highly awarded writer — is the Fay Boyle Professor of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara, and served as the department chair from 1997 to 2000. He will be retiring at the end of this academic year.
According to Jiménez, he first wanted to become a teacher in the sixth grade. He hoped to be like “Mr. Lema,” a generous teacher who had offered to teach him how to play the trumpet, though his family moved before he could learn.
With the assistance of loans and scholarships, Jiménez attended Santa Clara, but felt out of place. He used his childhood experiences to give him the courage to not give up. He eventually excelled academically and graduated in 1966 with a B.A. in Spanish and History.
Under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, he attended Columbia University, where he received an M.A. in Spanish Language and Literature, as well as a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature.
His feelings of inferiority returned his first year at Columbia, so he continued to reflect on his childhood experiences. After showing his writing to an advisor, he compiled notes for his book “The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child.” He realized that he wanted to write for families who had the same experiences he did.
“I also realized that all through my schooling I had never read a work that talked about the Latino experience, so I felt it was important to fill that gap,” Jiménez said.
In addition to “The Circuit,” Jiménez authored its sequels “Breaking Through” and “Reaching Out.” He has also written several award-winning children’s books.
His son, Pancho Jiménez, is a Santa Clara alumnus and senior lecturer in the Art and Art History Department. He said in an email that his father’s books “tell a story that is not commonly told” and “give voice to the voiceless.”
Jill Pellettieri, chair and associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, has used Jiménez’s books as teaching tools in her Spanish courses over the years.
“His collections of short stories have been transformational-— exposing and humanizing the migrant experience to those who were blind to it, and inspiring thousands upon thousands of migrant children to realize their value and their potential,” Pellettieri said. “Professor Jiménez’s positive impact on young people is immeasurable.”
Senior Lecturer Elsa Li, who has known Jiménez for over 30 years, said she admires his determination to break free of the paltry wages and poor working and living conditions of the migrant circuit.
“He is kind and compassionate with a great generosity of spirit,” she added. “His loyalty to his friends and his dedication to his students contribute to make him a remarkable person.”
His former students describe Jiménez as a passionate, hardworking teacher.
“The experiences that he brought to the classroom truly allowed me to engage with the material in a way that left me wanting to know more,” said senior Bianca Zardetto.
Sophomore Isaac Nieblas said Jiménez exceeded all of his expectations as a professor.
“He has had such an impact on me because I can see myself in him,” Nieblas said “Coming to (Santa Clara) and even before that, I never met a professor that was ‘me,’ that shared the same stories and parallels.”
Religious Studies Professor Socorro Castañeda-Liles was Jiménez’s student when she attended Santa Clara, and found comfort in his company.
“When I was a student here, there were even fewer Latinos than there are now, and whenever I felt like I didn’t fit in, I’d go to his office hours and I was able to take a moment to take a deep breath and relax in a safe place,” said Castaneda-Liles.
After his retirement, Jiménez will continue to promote literacy and education, as well as write and speak publically. His newest book will be available in April.
He plans to stay involved in the Santa Clara community.
Contact Krista Clawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.