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“These children need a champion”: an interview with Gretchen Bircher

Gretchen Bircher is an instructional aide at Adam Elementary School in Santa Maria, California. (She’s also my amazing mom!) Today she is submitting a proposal to the Santa Maria–Bonita School District, advocating that a new elementary school be named in honor of Dr. Francisco Jiménez — author, recipient of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and an alum of the district’s schools.

Francisco-Jimenez

Dr. Francisco Jiménez

1. Tell us a little about Dr. Jiménez’s life and accomplishments.

GB: Francisco Jiménez was born in 1943 in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. When he was four years old, his family immigrated without papers to California’s San Joaquin Valley, where they hoped to find a better life. But things were very hard for the family, which eventually grew to ten. They moved constantly to follow the crops (working the “circuit”), living in tent camps and worse. Francisco began working in the fields at the age of six.

Only English was spoken in school, so Francisco had a difficult time communicating with his teachers. He loved learning, though, and kept a notepad with him to write down new words and ideas.

At one point, his family was deported to Mexico. Immigration officers came to Francisco’s eighth grade classroom to take him away. They were fortunate to find a legal way back to the U.S. when a sharecropper agreed to sponsor them.

Francisco realized that education was his means to escape the fields. He dreamed of staying in one place so that he could attend school full-time. That dream came true when the family settled in Santa Maria, California. He persisted in his education and was elected student body president at Santa Maria High.

After graduating from Santa Clara University, Francisco attended Harvard, then earned both a master’s degree and PhD from Columbia under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He went on to become Chairman of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Santa Clara University as well as the Director of the Division of Arts and Humanities.

In 1997, Dr. Jiménez published his autobiographical work The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, which won numerous awards, including the Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. He followed The Circuit with several more award-winning books. His stories have been published in more than fifty textbooks and anthologies and have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish. In Santa Maria, we have The Circuit and its sequels Breaking Through and Reaching Out in our classrooms and school libraries.

2. What would be the significance of naming the new elementary school in his honor?

GB: The significance would be twofold: first, it would honor an amazing man who, despite incredible odds, went on to have a distinguished academic and literary career. Secondly, it would give the many farmworker students in our district a role model, someone who has been where they are now and who has succeeded through education.

Dr. Jimenez deserves to have the school named after him, but even more than that, our students need it. I’ve been an aide in this school district for twenty-six years, and I’ve seen how much these children need a champion. They need someone to relate to, someone from the same background who has succeeded, to show them that the fields aren’t their destiny. It’s about time that they had a hero of their own! Dr. Jiménez is a perfect choice.

People around the world are inspired by his books, and I think there should be schools named after him all over the world! But particularly here in Santa Maria — Dr. Jiménez went to schools in our district; he worked in the same fields as some of our students.

Last March, I attended a lecture presented by Dr. Jiménez at Allan Hancock College here in Santa Maria. The auditorium was packed. I was moved and impressed by the deep affection Dr. Jiménez has for Santa Maria and the profound emotional response of the audience. During the question-and-answer portion of the presentation, people (including children) got up to speak to Dr. Jiménez. They were crying, thanking him and telling him how much his work means to them. It was an amazing and powerful experience.

jimenez_the circuit3. As an educator, have you observed unique challenges facing migrant children in the school system? How do your school and school district address these challenges?

GB: Not all of our farmworker children are migrant. Some move with the crops and some stay in the area all year. I worked with AmeriCorps in a tutoring program at one of Santa Maria’s subsidized farmworker housing units, which allows one parent to leave to follow work while the rest of the family stays here. But many of our students live in difficult circumstances, including multifamily housing situations.

Another challenge occurs at school registration; without birth certificates, medical records, etc., a child’s age and appropriate grade level can be difficult to determine.

Often these children are very much like Francisco was when he first attended school. They sit, look, and listen. Their parents work very, very hard in the fields and generally speak little or no English. Although it is not a bilingual curriculum, all classrooms have a Spanish-speaking teacher and/or aide. Some of our families are Mixtec — they are from Mexico, but have their own spoken language and do not speak Spanish. None of the teachers in our district speak Mixtec and we have very few translators in the district because they are very hard to find. We call on them at parent-teacher conference time.

Our district has a free breakfast and lunch program for all students, as well as a grant that provides for a daily snack of fruits or vegetables. Students from the nearby California Polytechnic University come into the classrooms with a nutrition program to teach the children how to choose and prepare healthy snacks.

An after-school tutoring program helps students with their homework. Our students’ parents are hardworking and caring, but they are often unable to help their children with schoolwork due to language and education barriers they face.

4. You mentioned the importance for your district’s farmworker students to see that “that the fields aren’t their destiny,” that there are other possible futures for them. Have you seen this in action?

GB: Some of our students won’t finish school, but others will. Some go on to our local community college. We have former students who visit the elementary school and tell us that they want to be teachers. They have that same drive, that love of education, that helped Dr. Jiménez succeed.

5. Is there a piece of wisdom from Dr. Jiménez’s writing or lectures that particularly inspires you in your work as an educator?

GB: I love this quote from Dr. Jiménez’s 1998 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award acceptance speech:

“I wrote (these stories) to give voice to a sector of our society that has been largely ignored. Through my writing I hope to give readers insight into the lives of migrant farmworker families and their children, whose backbreaking labor picking fruits and vegetables puts food on our tables. Their courage, their hopes and dreams for a better life for their children and their children’s children, give meaning to ‘the American Dream.’ Their story is the American story.”

For The Horn Book’s reviews of The Circuit and its sequels, plus additional recommended reading on the experiences of migrant farmworker children, click here.

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Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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Comments

  1. Donna Ehret says:

    Excellent job done by Gretchen Bircher. The work and preparation that she has done to submit this proposal is amazing! She feels very strongly about naming the new school after Dr. Jimenez and I hope that her idea gets the support it deserves.

  2. robert cordova says:

    Congratulations to my brother!! You deserve it little brother robert.

  3. Michael Martin says:

    An inspiring man! We need more heroes like him. Good job, Gretchen. Thank you for bringing his accomplishments to our attention by getting the school after him.

  4. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    The school will be dedicated as Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School on July 29th!

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