‘Have you read ‘The Grapes of Wrath?’ ” Miss Bell asked. “It’s a wonderful novel by John Steinbeck.”
Francisco Jimenez had just turned in a rewrite of a paper to his English teacher at Santa Maria High School. English was his most difficult subject.
He replied: “No,” wondering what the word wrath meant.
“I’d like for you to read it.” She handed it to Francisco. “I think you’ll enjoy it. You can read it for your book report.”
Francisco thought, “When am I going to find time to read such a thick book?”
He had been planning to read a shorter book for his report. Miss Bell must have noticed the pain in his expression because she said, “You’ll get extra credit because it’s a long book.”
Immediately after school, Francisco rushed to the library. He had to get his homework done on a tight schedule before going to work.
He picked up the novel, “grabbed my worn-out pocket dictionary from the stack and set it next to it. I muttered the title, ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’
“The word grapes reminded me of working in the vineyards for Mr. Sullivan in Fresno. I looked up the word wrath and thought of the anger I felt when I lost my blue notepad, my ‘librito’ (Spanish for little book, in which he kept a diary as a young boy), in a fire in Orosi.
“I began reading. It was difficult; I had to look up many words, but I kept on reading. I wanted to learn more about the Joad family, who had to leave their home in Oklahoma to look for work and a better life in California.
“I lost track of time. Before I knew it, five o’clock had passed. I was late for work.”
When Francisco came home that night, he continued reading until 1 a.m. He dreamed that his own family was getting their meager possessions together to move to Fresno to pick grapes.
That Saturday night, Francisco skipped the school dance and stayed home to read the novel. It was difficult reading, but he could not close the book.
“I finally understood what Miss Bell meant when she told me to read for enjoyment. I could relate to what I was reading. The Joad family was poor and traveled from place to place in an old jalopy looking for work. They picked grapes and cotton and lived in labor camps similar to the ones we lived in in Santa Maria.
“Ma Joad was like Mama and Pa Joad was a lot like Papa. Even though they were not Mexican and spoke only English, they had many of the same experiences as my family. I felt for them. I got angry with the growers who mistreated them and was glad when Tom Joad protested and fought for their rights.”
He got a good grade on his report, but, “this time, the grade seemed less important than what I had learned from reading the book.”
Francisco Jimenez had made a major leap toward self-discovery. It made him want to be a teacher.
Francisco Jimenez became student body president at Santa Maria High School in 1961-62. He attended Santa Clara University on a scholarship and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages at Columbia University in New York.
He has been teaching since 1972 at his alma mater, Santa Clara University, where he has served as a division director and associate vice president.
Francisco’s story, from when he arrived in Guadalupe illegally at the age of 4, is told in “The Circuit” and “Breaking Through,” two of the most significant books that I have read. They are as American as Ben Franklin’s autobiography and resound with hope for all our dreams and aspirations during this sad period of history.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.