Our required book for this week was Francisco Jimenez' The Circuit, a collection of short autobiographical stories about the author's childhood experiences as the son of migrant farm workers and illegal immigrants in the 1940s. Touching and poignant, I think this book really drives home the problems faced by today's migrant workers. In my opinion, it gives a tangible human face to the people we now refer to only as "illegal immigrants."
Francisco Jimenez is the son of Mexican farm workers who emigrated illegally from Guadalajara to southern California in the '40s, and he grew up in a series of labor camps as his family moved from job to job. His experiences, here presented in the form of short vignettes from throughout his early life, form the basis for The Circuit. I've long thought that too many Americans refer to illegal immigrants abstractly--that is, we refer to them as one shadowy entity, a faceless group of vaguely unpleasant boogeymen that is somehow holding America back economically and socially. In my opinion, that's a totally wrongheaded approach. I'm not sure whether Jimenez intended to send a message to white America with this book or not, but I certainly picked up something. After reading it, I thought Jimenez is trying to say, "Yes, we exist. Yes, we are human. We're just trying to find a way to make ends meet."
The right wing in this country has long demonized illegal immigrants (a term which, in the political parlance of today, is unfortunately synonymous with "Mexican"), telling horror stories of illegal aliens coming here simply to mooch off the healthcare and education systems without having to pay a dime in taxes. One of my former roommates (who I don't speak to anymore, partially because of sociopolitical issues like this) told me once about how an illegal Mexican immigrant crashed a car into one of his friend's cars and fled the scene of the crash for fear of being caught by the authorities and deported; he then had some choice words about "border jumpers." Not only do I think it's unfair that immigrants, illegal though they are, are treated and spoken about in this fashion, but I also think that the people saying those things seem to have an extremely short memory. We are a nation built on immigration, both legal and illegal. If you don't have any Native American ancestors in your family tree, you are a descendent of immigrants, and that's a fact. Jimenez knows this, and I think he sought to humanize those people who are so often marginalized by right-wing pundits simply because they came here for a better life. Jimenez' parents (indeed, his entire family) worked long, difficult days in the fields picking vegetables, a job no American worker would to do, yet today they would still be ostracized simply because they jumped the border. That's what I don't understand about people who constantly scream about how all illegals need to be deported: these are people who have families to feed and support, just like us, and they do the jobs no one else wants to do. In a way, illegal Mexican immigrants work harder than most natural-born American laborers, and for less pay, fewer benefits, and no recognition. Like Jimenez and his family, they work their fingers to the bone for a few dollars a day and nary a complaint is heard from them. But when a white, natural-born American citizen has to take a small pay cut, he goes crazy...then rants that night at the dinner table in his suburban McMansion about "those lazy Mexicans" who are just here to leech off "hardworking Americans." The duplicity is mind-boggling.
Jimenez, however, doesn't use The Circuit as a soapbox to expound on the myriad problems faced by immigrant workers. Rather, he uses the book as a way to put a human face on an issue that many Americans vaguely refer to as a "problem." The stories, which are sequential (though they do not necessarily take place one right after the other), show not only what life was like for Jimenez and his family in their adopted country, but also how one family perseveres in the face of adversity that would tear most families apart. There are no stereotypical lazy Mexicans here; on the contrary, the work ethic shown by Jimenez' family and their fellow workers is astounding. Even while heavily pregnant with another child that the family almost certainly can't afford, his mother continues to work as the camp cook, thus satisfying her own desire to be useful as well as providing a necessary service to the rest of the camp. His father, when plagued by back problems, wants to keep working, but his fellow workers keep him off his feet and assume his workload of their own accord. Jimenez himself writes heart-rending passages about how upset it made him to leave school every time his family moved to another camp, and eventually he becomes a field worker like his parents, striving each and every day to earn enough money to eat and buy a few other necessities. Each family member contributed to the survival of the overall family unit, and as a result, they grew even closer than before. Jimenez does his best to emphasize mutual love and support, faith, and hard work in order to break the stereotype of the freeloading illegal alien.
After reading this book, I will never understand how so many people can say that illegal immigrants are just here for a free ride. The struggles that the Jimenez family encounters in The Circuit are legion, but somehow they emerge as a tighter, more cohesive family unit than ever before. Something tells me that a white, suburban, middle-class family from the Heartland wouldn't be so lucky. The Circuit is Jimenez' defiant reply to all proponents of locking down America's borders. But rather than accusing the American public of being ungrateful--instead of saying, "What would you do without us?"--Jimenez instead says, "We are really not that different from you." As I said earlier, he puts a human face on a group of people that too many natural citizens view as an abstract problem, and that is where The Circuit succeeds so beautifully.