“That cold, early morning, Papá parked the Carcachita, our old jalopy, at
one end of the cotton field. He, Mamá, and Roberto, my older brother,
climbed out and headed toward the other end where the picking started.
brother, who was six months old. I hated being left by myself with him
while they went off to pick cotton.”
Such was life for four-year old Francisco Jiménez in 1947 in Central
California. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, he and his family had recently
crossed the border in search of a better life. Fifty-five years later, Francisco
accepted an award as Outstanding U.S. Professor of the Year as Dr.
Unknown Hero: The Francisco Jiménez Story is the tale of how a Mexican
child who speaks no English somehow manages to escape the migrant
worker camps, grow up and earn a PhD from Columbia University and be
recognized as one of the best college professors in the United States.
Unknown Hero brings to the screen the incredible stories of young
Francisco, his brother Roberto and their family through illustrations and
modern day interviews.
“At dawn, my brothers and I scrambled to get the presents that had been
placed next to our shoes. I picked mine up and nervously tore at the
butcher-paper wrapping: a bag of candy. Roberto, Trampita, and Torito
looked sadly at me and at each other. They too had received a bag of
candy. Searching for words to tell Mamá how I felt, I looked up at her. Her
eyes were full of tears. Papá, who was sitting next to her on the mattress,
lifted its corner and pulled out from underneath the white embroidered
handkerchief. He tenderly handed it to Mamá, saying “Feliz Navidad,
As relevant today as they were over 60 years ago, Jiménez’s stories
recount the struggle of migrant workers trying to escape poverty, provide
for their families and build a future for their children. Hope, faith and
education prove to be their ticket to the American Dream, but surviving in a
foreign land, speaking a foreign language and battling prejudice takes its
“Miss Scalapino started speaking to the class and I did not understand a
word she was saying. The more she spoke the more anxious I became.
By the end of the day, I was very tired of hearing Miss Scalapino talk
because the sounds made no sense to me. I thought that perhaps by
paying close attention, I would begin to understand, but I did not. I only got
a headache, and that night, when I went to bed, I heard her voice in my
Life as a migrant worker is life as a nomad: following the crops up and
down the state, entire families uproot themselves every couple of months
to barely earn a living. Children change school as often as the Seasons.
Education becomes a moving target, harder and harder to cling to as the
children are forced to start over three to four times a year.
And every day, fear of “la migra” haunts them.
“After the bell rang and everyone was seated, Miss Ehlis began to take
roll. She was interrupted by a knock at the door. When she opened it, I
could see Mr. Denevi, the principal, and a man standing behind him. The
instant I saw the green uniform, I panicked. I wanted to run but my legs
would not move. I began to tremble and could feel my heart pounding
against my chest as though it wanted to escape too. Miss Ehlis and the
immigration officer walked up to me. Putting her right hand on my
shoulder, and looking up at the officer, she said sadly, ‘This is him’.”
Unknown Hero brings to life Dr. Jiménez’s compelling life-story through
stunning illustrations, archival footage and family interviews. It’s a journey
that is all too familiar for the nearly one million immigrant farm workers in
California. For a community that is essential to the success of California’s
economy, yet often left out of its spoils, Francisco’s story offers a guiding
light. This documentary shines that light a little brighter.
Release: In Production
Michael Whalen - Writer,Producer,Director
Nicole C. Whalen - Associate Producer
Liam Satre-Meloy - Camera/Sound
|Production Stills, March 2008