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The Circuit: Author Francisco Jiménez’s BGHB Fiction Award Speech

I would like to express my gratitude to the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Committee for selecting The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child for this honor. I am grateful to my editor, Andrea Otañez, and to the University of New Mexico Press for publishing my collection of short stories. I would also like to thank my immediate family for patiently listening to various drafts of the stories and offering valuable comments on them. I am grateful to Santa Clara University for giving me the time and support to write, and to Ann Rider and Anita Silvey of Houghton Mifflin for deciding to publish a hardcover edition of The Circuit in the fall of 1999.

When I received the news from my publisher that my book had won this award, I could not contain my excitement. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to receive such a prestigious award for my work. In truth, this honor belongs to many people who have influenced my life, especially my teachers and the community of my childhood.

When I started school, I did not know a word of English; I knew only Spanish. In fact, I failed my first year of school because I did not know English well enough. I had no self-confidence in English until I met Mr. Lema, my wonderful sixth-grade teacher, whom I describe in the collection’s title story, “The Circuit.” I enrolled in his class after having missed the first two months of school because I was helping my family pick grapes and cotton. I was far behind other children in class, but thanks to Mr. Lema, I made good progress. During the lunch hour, he gave me extra help.

And although I did not speak English well, and Mr. Lema did not speak Spanish, we managed to communicate with each other. He valued my Mexican cultural background and native language while he taught me English. At times it was frustrating for both of us, but he never lost his patience with me. He never made me feel inadequate or inferior because of my poor English language skills.

Miss Bell, my sophomore English teacher, was also highly influential. From her I learned to appreciate literature and the art of writing. She regularly assigned our class to write narrative accounts of personal experiences. Even though I had difficulty expressing myself, I enjoyed writing about my migrant childhood. On one such essay, Miss Bell commented that the experiences I wrote about were very moving, and that my writing showed promise. She then had me read The Grapes of Wrath. It was difficult for me, but I could not put the novel down. It was one of the first literary works to which I could relate. The more I read it, the more I appreciated the power of language to move hearts and minds.

After graduating from Santa Maria High School, I received several scholarships to attend Santa Clara University, where I quickly discovered that my migrant experiences were both an obstacle and a blessing. They were an obstacle to the extent that I did not have the social, economic, and educational privileges most of my classmates enjoyed. However, they were a blessing because they served as a constant reminder of how fortunate I was to be in college. Those past experiences convinced me that I should do everything within my power to forge ahead in my studies and not give up. I compare my situation then to a man who is drowning. A man who is drowning uses the water, the very substance that threatens his life, to save himself. So I used poverty and those experiences that initially pulled me down to boost myself up. Whenever I felt discouraged, I would write about my childhood.

Upon graduating from Santa Clara University, I received a graduate fellowship to Columbia University, where I met Andres Iduarte, a Mexican professor and writer who became my thesis adviser. Following his advice to publish my work, I gathered the notes I had taken over the years and wrote “Cajas de cartón” (“Cardboard Boxes”), which was published in a New York Spanish-language literary magazine. Translated into English under the title “The Circuit,” it was published in The Arizona Quarterly.

For the next several years, I continued efforts to write more short stories, but teaching and administrative responsibilities left me little time. Then in 1994, I applied for and received a sabbatical for 1995. I devoted the entire year to researching and writing The Circuit.

In writing these stories, I relied heavily on my childhood recollections, but I also did a lot of background research. I interviewed my mother, my older brother, Roberto, and other relatives. I looked through photographs and family documents, and listened to corridos, Mexican ballads, which I had heard as a child. I also went to different places in the San Joaquin Valley where we had lived in migrant labor camps: Bakersfield,  Fowler, Selma, Corcoran, Five Points. I visited museums in those towns, and read through newspapers from that era. Unfortunately, I found little or no information or documentation in those sources about migrant farmworkers. I was disappointed, but more convinced than ever that I should write this book. As I gathered material, I began to recall other experiences I had forgotten. Looking back at those childhood memories from an adult point of view, I made a series of discoveries about myself in relation to my family, my community, and our society, gaining a deeper sense of purpose as an educator and as a writer.

My greatest challenge was to write about my childhood experiences from the point of view of the child, and to make them accessible to both children and adults. I wanted readers to hear the child’s voice, to see through his eyes, and to feel through his heart.

Why did I write these stories? I wrote them to chronicle part of my family’s history, but more importantly, 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.

In “The Circuit,” Panchito, the narrator, connects with a teacher who volunteers to teach him to play the trumpet during his lunch hour. Excited and bursting to tell his parents, Panchito runs home, only to find his belongings neatly packed in cardboard boxes, his family ready to move on. I frequently receive letters from readers wanting to know if I ever learned to play the trumpet. Until now my answer has been a simple “no.” Now, however, I can proudly tell them that even though I have not learned to play the trumpet, I have received the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Like the sound of the trumpet, I love the sound of the horn, for according to Bertha Mahony Miller, the founder of The Horn Book Magazine, the purpose of this journal is “to blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls.” So the blowing of the horn for The Circuit will draw attention to and compassion for the thousands of migrant families and their children of yesterday and today. This sound is truly music to my ears. For this reason I am deeply grateful for this honor. Thank you.

Francisco Jiménez is the winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction for The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, published by the University of New Mexico Press.

From the January/February 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. This speech was delivered in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 5, 1998, at the annual meeting of the New England Library Association.

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