Immigration Stories

PassportTwo Latino/a Books About the Immigrant Experience

Ours is, largely, an immigrant nation: its citizens having ultimately come from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Vietnam; from Polish shtetls, Scandinavian farms, Khymer communities, and countless other places. In that regard, it is worth noticing the remarkable fact that the story of immigration is often a memoir about childhood (think of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” for example) and frequently a story for children. There seems a vital link between a story of childhood and the immigrant experience. 

In his prize-winning The Circuit, Francisco Jiménez tells how his family crossed the border and came from Mexico to California in the 1950s. They labored as migrant farm workers, living in the growers’ camp, picking vegetables and fruit and cotton. Beset by poverty and illness, the family survived by togetherness. And whenever there was time, young Francisco would go to school. There he encountered problems until he could become proficient in English; and there he was helped by the best kind of teachers, those who compassionately paid attention (devoting their lunch hours to language lessons and providing a coat when they noticed him shivering).

In this memoir’s collection of stories, the very best are subtle parables. “Inside Out,” for example, tells how, feeling lost in the first grade at an English-speaking school, the young boy defensively narrowed his attention in the classroom to a jar with a caterpillar inside; eventually he, too, “came out” at the end of the year when he won a blue ribbon for his drawing of a butterfly. “Learning to Play the Game” relates how another farm worker stood up to abusive treatment by a contractor, and how this encouraged the boy to put a neighborhood bully in his place. And “Moving Still” speaks about his difficulty with a school assignment: memorizing the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and its phrases “all men are created equal,” “certain inalienable rights,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Circuit is a collection of heartbreaking stories. After you have put it down, you will still be haunted by its moments of vulnerability: the very young Francisco watching his baby brother in the car while his family picks cotton in the fields; their constant moving from one camp to the next when a crop is done or rains come; the family’s anxious prayers when an infant is sick and a doctor an unaffordable luxury. Here is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but from a Mexican-American point of view.
Steinbeck’s 1930s is, in fact, the era of another Latino/a book about immigration: Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning Esperanza Rising. More fiction than memoir, this novel is likewise the story of a Mexican family coming to California at a time when the Golden State was crowded with many refugees from poverty and the Dust Bowl.

For twelve-year-old Esperanza, however, crossing the border means less a chance to rise than a fall from grace. In Mexico, she lived a life of luxury as the only daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner; but when her father is killed and her avaricious uncles conspire, Esperanza and her mother are forced to flee north with little more than the clothes on their backs. In her new and impoverished situation in a farm workers’ camp, Esperanza is eager to help but first must learn how to sweep with a broom, bathe herself with water from a tin tub shared by others, and (disguising her age) work alongside adults in the fields.

Akin to situations described in The Circuit, Esperanza and her family pick fruit and vegetables in the Central Valley, suffer from illness and racism, and hesitate to join a farm workers’ strike because there are so many mouths to feed. At times, she feels defeated; at other times, impatient. But by the end of the novel–when her mother recovers from a long and debilitating illness, when she is at last reunited with her beloved grandmother, and when she dreams of eventually owning her own little home–Esperanza comes to embody her name (in English, “Hope”).

In an afterword, Muñoz Ryan tells how her novel was inspired by the experiences of her grandmother Esperanza Ortega who came to the United States, worked in the fields, and lived in the growers’ camps. While the 1930s was a time when many different kinds of people competed for work, in those days, instead of divisive resentment, such circumstances created fellow feeling and compassion. Interviewing past residents of those camps, Muñoz Ryan was told by an aged Mexican immigrant: “We were all so poor. The Okies, the Filipinos, they were poor, too. We all knew the feeling of wanting to work and feed our families.”

…………………………….

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child
Ages: 9 – 12 yrs.
By: Francisco Jiménez
University of New Mexico Press: $14.95 (Paperback)

Esperanza Rising
Ages: 9 – 12 yrs.
By: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Scholastic : $6.99 (Paperback)

Both authors have written related works: Breaking Through describes Jiménez’s high-school years and Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León tells the story of the next generation of her family.

Breaking Through
Ages: 9 – 12 yrs.
By: Francisco Jiménez
Houghton Mifflin: $6.95 (Paperback)

Becoming Naomi León
Ages: 9 – 12 yrs.
By: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Scholastic: $6.99 (Paperback)

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (May 2006). See also “Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera.”

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03. March 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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