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The Circuit Summary
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The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child is a collection of short autobiographical pieces by Mexican-American writer and professor Francisco Jiménez. First published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1997, the book contains twelve stories from the author’s childhood, most of them centering on his family’s arrival in America from Mexico and their subsequent moves from one fieldwork job to the next. The Circuit offers an eye-opening first-person account of the immigrant experience, told from the perspective of a sensitive little boy who faces adventure, hardship, and unexpected joy as he adjusts to life in America.
The volume opens with the story “Under the Wire,” a literal description of how young Francisco and his family come to the United States. Before their exodus from Mexico, Francisco harbors pie-in-the-sky dreams about what his new life in California will be like. He imagines limitless riches that will bring his family stability and access to all the opportunities denied them in Mexico. However, the reality is much different than what Francisco imagines. He and his family travel by train for two days and two nights until they reach the border town of Mexicali. There, Papá finds a small hole in the barbed wire fence separating California from Mexico. He makes the hole slightly bigger and holds it open for Francisco and the rest of his family to squeeze through. Once on the other side, Francisco and his family make their way to a tent community near Guadalupe, where they go to work picking strawberries. This is Francisco’s introduction to the work and life his family will be part of for the next several years. Quite quickly, he learns that California is not the land of milk and honey he had hoped it would be.
Subsequent stories chronicle the family’s many moves as they do what many migrant workers must do: They follow the work. They live in Corcoran, where they pick cotton. They live in Fresno, where they pick grapes. They live in Santa Maria, where they pick strawberries.
In Santa Maria, Francisco attends school for the first time. This immediately proves to be a major challenge as he only speaks Spanish, and everything taught is in English. This is just one school-related struggle Francisco grapples with; in addition to learning a whole new language, he also gets into a fight with a bully, and because Francisco and his family are fieldworkers, he doesn’t even get to complete the school year. Nevertheless, there are positive experiences, too. Francisco wins a prize for his artwork, which provides a source of comfort and pride.
Meanwhile, Francisco’s family keeps growing. He already has an older brother, Roberto, and a younger brother, Trampita. Mamá gives birth to another little brother, Torito, who falls ill and nearly dies. Thankfully, little Torito pulls through, but the experience shakes the family. A third little brother, Rubén, and a sister, Rorra, are born later in the book.
After Santa Maria, the Jiménez family moves to Corcoran. Francisco makes a new friend shortly after his arrival, but this friend mysteriously vanishes—and neither Francisco nor anyone else ever finds out what happened to the boy.
The moves continue, on to Fresno and other places to follow the fieldwork opportunities. New adventures await at every turn. In one story, Francisco finds a teacher with whom he really connects. Mr. Lema is fun and inspiring, and Francisco flourishes under his guidance. However, then, another move and Francisco must leave Mr. Lema’s class. This time, Francisco is heartbroken at having to go.
He is also heartbroken when his little sister, Rorra, takes two of the prized pennies he has been collecting and spends them on gumballs. Though the slight is minor in the grand scheme of things, Francisco takes it hard.
Thanks to Mr. Lema’s influence and his own boundless curiosity, Francisco enjoys school increasingly as he grows up. With each new move comes a new school, but he knows he will always find at least some solace and benefit there. For Francisco, growing up also involves working in the fields with more regularity. Nevertheless, as long as he can still go to school and learn, Francisco is content.
His contentment shatters when the family’s home burns down. Inside was his notebook, where he kept meticulous track of all the lessons he has learned in school. Without his notebook, Francisco feels lost.
Finally, he and his family move back to Santa Maria, the place Francisco liked best. Once there, he keeps excelling in school. Then one day, he gets up to recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence that he has memorized. Just as he’s about to speak, the United States border patrol arrives and takes Francisco away.
Francisco’s story is not over, however. The author charts his further experiences in three sequels to The Circuit. Breaking Through, Reaching Out, and Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University continue Francisco’s journey all the way through to college. Each book in the series is appropriate for young readers in the third through eighth grades.