Times Past

Brothers with modest Santa Maria roots become community leaders

Dr. Francisco Jiménez at age 6 at a migrant labor camp.
Dr. Francisco Jiménez at age 6 at a migrant labor camp.

Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School is Santa Maria’s newest school, honoring “two brothers who not only attended Santa Maria schools, but who went on to become successful and responsible leaders in their careers, community, and family …,” noted Jody Olivar, Santa Maria-Bonita School District board president.

I first read Francisco Jiménez’s book, “The Circuit: Stories of a Migrant Childhood,” and its sequel, “Breaking Through,” just before the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Shortly thereafter, I chaired a Hancock College-sponsored program on Japanese-American history. Because our earlier all-day program was so popular, we had to turn away many attendees. We changed our venue to the beautifully preserved Ethel Pope Auditorium at Santa Maria High School.

I realized that I was speaking on the same stage where Francisco Jiménez had addressed the student body as its president in 1961.

I saw significant linkages between the Japanese-American experience and the life of the Jiménez family.

I said and later wrote, “Francisco Jiménez’s autobiographical novels are two of the most significant books that I have read. As American as Ben Franklin’s autobiography, they resound with hope for all our dreams and aspirations during this sad period of history.”

I continue to find that resounding hope in the story of the Jiménez family in the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris and San Bernardino. Especially, at this time of Hanukkah and Advent, in Francisco’s story from “The Circuit,” titled “The Christmas Gift.” Like O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” the ending says everything about the spirit of giving.

The autumn rains had made life difficult for the Jiménez family.

They couldn’t get to the fields to harvest cotton in the fields surrounding Corcoran in Kern County. They had no money and had to move on for agricultural work elsewhere. They were living off food they found in the trash bin behind supermarkets.

Just as the family was about to leave the labor camp, Francisco recalls, “a young couple came to our door. Papá invited them in. The man in his early 20s wore a blue, faded shirt and khaki pants.” His wife wore “a simple brown cotton dress.”

The man, taking off his hat, said “apologetically, ‘We’re sorry to bother you, but you know with all this rain, and my wife expecting … well we thought … perhaps you could help us out a bit.’ ”

The man took out a small, “real leather wallet,” asking only 50 cents for it.

Papá said, “We’re broke, too.”

The man was insistent. He offered a beautifully embroidered handkerchief for only 10 cents, saying, “My wife did the needlework on it.”

Francisco recalled Mamá saying, “It’s beautiful.”

She placed “her hand on the woman’s fragile shoulder saying, ‘Qué Dios los bendiga (God bless you).’ ”

Papá repeated, “I am very sorry,” and walked the couple out the door. Francisco knew there would be no Christmas.

But on Christmas Day, he “scrambled to get the presents that had been placed next to our shoes. I picked up mine nervously and tore at the butcher paper wrapping: a bag of candy. Roberto, Trompita and Torito looked sadly at me.” They too had been given bags of candy.

“Searching for words to tell Mamá how I felt, I looked up at her … Her eyes were filled with tears.”

Then Papá, sitting next to her on the mattress, “lifted its corner and pulled out the white embroidered handkerchief. He tenderly handed it to Mamá, saying, ‘Feliz Navidad, vieja.’ ”

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Roberto Jiménez, who died in 2014 at age 75, worked for the school district as a night custodian, eventually retiring in 1995 as the purchasing supervisor. Francisco Jiménez has been a professor and chair of Romance Languages at Santa Clara University for 43 years.

Roberto and Francisco’s family, born in Mexíco, arrived in Guadalupe without papers.

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Another note of hope: You are invited to join the Jewish community and members of Old Mission Parish in front of the mission at the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah at 5 p.m. Sunday and each night through Dec. 13.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.