Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University

by Francisco Jiménez

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Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1960

Author: Francisco Jiménez (b. 1943)

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston). Illustrated. 208 pp.

First published: 2015

Type of work: Memoir

Time: 1966–73

Locale: New York

In Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University, professor and former migrant worker Francisco Jiménez chronicles his years pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University. Permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Francisco Jimenez.

Courtesy of Charles Barry

Principal personages

Francisco Jiménez, the author, a graduate student at Columbia University who spent much of his early life as a migrant worker in California

Laura Facchini, his girlfriend and later wife

Francisco “Pancholín” Jiménez, their first-born son

Miguel Jiménez, their youngest son

Andrés Iduarte, a professor at Columbia University and Jiménez's thesis adviser and mentor

For Francisco Jiménez, the journey to Columbia University's graduate school extended far beyond simply his flight from California to New York in September 1966. Born in Mexico in 1943, Jiménez traveled to the United States with his family at the age of four and spent much of his childhood as an undocumented migrant worker in southern California. Although the family was deported when Jiménez was in eighth grade, they later returned to the country legally, and he completed high school and earned his bachelor's degree from Santa Clara University before setting his sights on pursuing a master's degree and doctorate at Columbia. The author of a variety of books, Jiménez is best known for the critically acclaimed autobiographical works The Circuit (1997), Breaking Through (2001), and Reaching Out (2008), which chronicle his life from early childhood through his years as an undergraduate. The 2015 memoir Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University follows and builds upon those earlier works, documenting the author's studies at Columbia as well as the numerous life changes that occurred and influential figures Jiménez encountered during that period.

The narrative of Taking Hold begins on September 12, 1966, the day Jiménez caught a plane from California to New York. Arriving in the very early hours of the morning the following day, he made his way to Columbia University, where he settled into the graduate dormitory John Jay Hall. The first several chapters of the book document his experiences acclimating to New York, where he struggled to learn the subway system and adjust to the sounds of traffic. In addition to emphasizing the ways in which New York was a completely different environment for him, the opening chapters also allow Jiménez to delve somewhat into his background. Among his first actions upon arriving in New York was writing checks to each of his parents, sending some of the money from his graduate stipend to help support his family. He makes it clear that in his family, it was essential for everyone to contribute to the family's financial well-being. His outlook regarding money is further suggested by his early decision to limit his number of meals and purchase his own inexpensive food to keep in his room, rather than buying expensive meals in the college facilities.

Jiménez's background likewise influenced his initial interactions—or lack thereof—with some of his classmates. At the end of the first chapter, he writes that he was invited to a reception for the students who were attending Columbia on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which included himself. Upon arriving, however, he recounts that he was intimidated by the young students he encountered there, many of whom were well traveled, held degrees at prestigious universities, and generally occupied an entirely different socioeconomic milieu than Jiménez's family. He ultimately left the reception before it truly began. The incident sets the stage for the remainder of the memoir, which often details the ways in which his understanding of issues related to class, race, and ethnicity affected his perception of society and work as a teacher and scholar.

Jiménez devotes nine of Taking Hold's twenty-four chapters to his first year at Columbia, which proved to be an influential period in his life on both academic and personal levels. During that year, he took his first courses with Andrés Iduarte, a Mexican-born professor who would go on to become his thesis adviser as well as a key mentor. Jiménez likewise had the opportunity to study with figures such as Francisco García Lorca, the brother of the deceased Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Amid his academic development, Jiménez also chronicles his personal development, particularly in regard to his girlfriend, Laura Facchini. Although the two had dated during college, Laura ended the relationship soon after his arrival at Columbia, stating in a letter that she did not want to distract him from his studies. He notes that he initially accepted the breakup, despite his strong feelings for Laura, but remained in touch with her throughout the year.

In a chapter titled "Choices Made," Jiménez discusses the two significant choices he made during his second semester at Columbia: he chose to remain at Columbia despite having been accepted into Stanford University's graduate school, as he felt that he would be able to complete his graduate work faster at Columbia, and he decided to propose to Laura. Those two decisions would shape his personal and professional life from then on, and the remaining events chronicled in his memoir radiate out from that point. Coming roughly halfway through the memoir, Jiménez and Laura's wedding, which took place during the summer after his second year at Columbia, serves as a clear point that divides Jiménez the student from Jiménez the academic and family man.

As a graduate student during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jiménez attended Columbia University during a turbulent period in US history and in the history of the university itself. His awareness of events such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement is evident throughout the book, and at times he refers to his own past political action, which included marching with labor and civil-rights leader César Chávez in California. In the chapter "Rebellion from Within," he provides his personal view of the 1968 protests that began at Columbia due to the university's plan to build a gymnasium that had separate entrances for university students and residents of neighboring Harlem, which some students argued was tantamount to segregation. Following the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the spring of that year, protests grew larger as student groups protested the university for eulogizing King, who was murdered while leading a strike, even as it sought to prevent many of its black and Hispanic employees from unionizing. A strong believer in nonviolent protest, Jiménez himself avoided participating in many of the later protests, which included property damage and the occupation of university buildings. From his dorm, Jiménez witnessed the policy brutality carried out against the protesters after the university called in law enforcement. He notes that the events of that period further impressed on him the importance of seeking social justice through exclusively peaceful means.

Although Jiménez's academic life is a constant presence throughout Taking Hold, the second half of the memoir focuses less on his doctoral studies and more on his new life with Laura as the couple sought to find a home and start a family together in New York. Jiménez notes that he and Laura initially struggled to find an apartment and faced discrimination from rental agents who refused to rent to them after learning their last name. Despite such challenges, the two eventually secured an apartment on Staten Island, where Laura found work as a teacher and from which Jiménez regularly commuted to Columbia. In addition to documenting his family life, he recounts the beginnings of his part-time teaching career, which confirmed for Jiménez that he wanted to teach professionally after earning his doctorate. He also discusses some of his research for his thesis as well as his effort to design a class on Mexican American literature and culture for Columbia, an effort that eventually proved successful despite initial resistance from some faculty members. Alongside such professional successes came the births of his sons Francisco, whom Iduarte nicknamed Pancholín, and later Miguel. Jiménez notes that in addition to providing his son with a nickname, Iduarte encouraged Jiménez to write about his childhood experiences, and he links that advice to his later success as a writer.

After several years of study, Jiménez earned his doctorate in 1972 and remained in New York into the following year before taking on a position at Santa Clara University. The memoir concludes by documenting his journey back to California, which serves as an effective reversal of the journey chronicled in the book's first chapter. Instead of traveling to a new place where he would be far from the support of his family, he returned to the state where he spent much of his life and to his former university, where he was set to begin not only a new career but also a new chapter with his wife and children.

Jiménez's works about his early life have commonly been described as fictionalized autobiographies. Taking Hold is no exception, recounting the events of the author's years in graduate school in the form of a cohesive narrative. In his author's note following the main text, Jiménez explains that he wrote the memoir from the perspective of his younger self and "[made] use of [his] powers of imagination and invention to approximate or create dialogue and to fill in small details [he had] forgotten with the passage of time." As Jiménez's fourth memoir documenting the events of his early life, Taking Hold is characterized by its focus on the period between 1966 and 1973, a key moment in the author's life that both shaped his later development as a teacher and writer and was shaped by the previous events of his childhood and young adulthood. Indeed, the book's subtitle is in some ways a misnomer, as the book does not document the full period between Jiménez's migrant childhood and years at Columbia.

However, the experiences and lessons of childhood were always with Jiménez, as the structure of Taking Hold suggests. While the memoir largely recounts the events of the late 1960s and 1970s, the narrative is interspersed throughout with anecdotes from and information about the author's early years, both in the form of narrative asides and in the context of Jiménez rereading his own writings on his childhood. The background information he provides enables readers unfamiliar with his previous works to gain a greater understanding of his background and further emphasizes the extent to which the author's early experiences shaped his later academic interests and outlook on life.

About the Author

Francisco Jiménez is the author of numerous books, including the autobiographical works The Circuit (1997), Breaking Through (2001), and Reaching Out (2008). He holds the position of professor emeritus in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University.

Review Sources

  • Chaudhri, Amina. Review of Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University, by Francisco Jiménez. Booklist, 1 May 2015, p. 93. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=102538796&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.
  • Cusido, Carmen. "Taking Hold Is an Engaging, Inspiring Account of a Migrant Worker Turned Ivy League Graduate." Review of Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University, by Francisco Jiménez. New York Daily News, 19 Jan. 2015, www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/hold-migrant-worker-turns-ivy-league-scholar-blog-entry-1.2084451. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.
  • Hunt, Jonathan. Review of Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University, by Francisco Jiménez. The Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2015, p. 126–27. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=102480062&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

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