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Immigrant stories: Dad inspired Jimenez to get a good education

Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Walter Gallacher Special to the Post IndependentSusana "Susie" Jimenez grew up working in the vegetable fields and fruit orchards with her migrant farmworker family. Her dad always told her to remember how that hard work felt, and to stay focused on getting a good education.
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Nine years ago, Susana “Susie” Jimenez came to Aspen after graduating from culinary school. She quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding chef, and eventually started her own catering business. This year she was a finalist on the Food Network’s “The Next Food Network Star.”

This Thanksgiving, Jimenez prepared six turkey dinners for her Aspen clients and returned home to Carbondale in the afternoon to host Thanksgiving dinner for 20 of her friends.

Jimenez: My family is from Michoacan, Mexico. My dad came here with his older brother 45 years ago to pick citrus in Florida. There was a drought in Florida that year, so they went to California and worked in the vineyards. While they were there they discovered there was lots of work and they ended up sending for the whole family.



It became the family’s routine, heading north in the spring to work in the fields and live in the migrant camps and pick fruit, and caravan home to Mexico in the fall after all the work was done. Both my dad and my mom spent most of their lives working in the fields. And they taught us to work right alongside them.

Gallacher: What were the migrant camps like?



Jimenez: They were gated areas with about 100 little houses for 100 families and everyone worked from 4 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon. I can remember feeling like a turkey in a cage, forced to work and work. There was a men’s bathroom and a women’s bathroom. I can remember brushing my teeth with all these other kids from the camp in the morning.

My dad went to some of the camps by himself because that’s how some growers worked them. They didn’t want families around to distract the men from the work. He used to come home after being gone for a month looking exhausted.

We all traveled together from one migrant camp to the next. My dad worked the fields for so many years that he developed a good relationship with all of the growers. They knew they could rely on him to bring them good workers who would get the job done. So he had work lined up for us for six months and we just moved from orchard to field.

To this day I don’t know how to swim and my friends give me a hard time, but my summers were devoted to working in the fields and picking cherries. There was no time for swimming.

I never had a problem with it. I was helping my family. It was hard work, but it was all we knew.

I can remember when my father would ask us, “Are you tired?” and we would say “Yes.” And he would say “Remember this feeling, because if you don’t work hard and educate yourself, this is the way it will always be.” That stayed with me. I knew that I didn’t want to be working that hard for the rest of my life.

One of my first jobs as a kid was to wash my parents’ clothes when they came in from the fields. They had to work even when the planes were spraying. My mom said they would just put bandanas over their faces to keep from breathing the pesticide. I had to scrub and scrub to get that crud off.

Gallacher: Did you get to go to school?

Jimenez: Yes, but that was difficult because when the farm work stopped in mid-November, we would all follow each other back to Mexico, stay in Mexico until March and then head north again to start pruning trees and vines. Our schedule was hard for teachers to understand. I can remember them saying, “What do you mean you’re leaving for three months? You can’t just leave.” My parents’ response was, “Well, we have to go home to Mexico no matter what, so please give them homework.”

The teachers finally agreed and sent homework with us and while we were in Mexico my dad made sure we did it. He would always ask us if we had our homework done, and when we complained, he would say, “Remember how tired you were in the fields? Get to it!”

Gallacher: Who helped you with your homework?

Jimenez: My two older sisters dropped out of school to work in the fields and help my sister and brother and me. My parents didn’t speak or read English, so it was up to our sisters. It was about this time that my parents realized that they needed to settle down. That’s when they bought a house in California. They had their papers by then, so it wasn’t a problem and it made school easier.

We still continued to work the orchards. That was our trade, picking fruit. When I think back on that part of my life, it seems crazy that I became a chef. But I guess it fits on some level. I picked so many different fruits and vegetables as a kid, I feel like it gave me a better sense of what to do with them in the kitchen.

Gallacher: Tell me how you became a chef.

Jimenez: I never really thought about it when I was a kid. My mom was encouraging me to just be a wife. I moved out of the house when I was 17. I wasn’t running away, but in Mexican culture you move out when you get married. You walk out in your wedding dress. It was difficult. My family wouldn’t talk to me for a long time.

My parents were very traditional people and I started to feel like they were holding me back from the things I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to go to school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want the life my parents had planned for me.

My mom tells me now that I was always the outspoken one who always wanted more. I can remember always taking extra classes in high school. My mom thinks that came from me, but I think it was my dad always reminding me, “Do you like being in the fields?”

And I would answer, “No.” And he would say, “Then work harder.” It was my dad.

So at 17 I had just finished high school and I was working as an office manager, making a living. I worked really hard for the next three years and saved my money.

I just had so much in my head that I wanted and I decided that I was going to pay the price and do what I wanted and do it on my own terms. I wasn’t trying to be selfish. I just wanted a different life. I know that hurt my parents, but I felt like I needed it to make myself happy. Otherwise I felt like I was going to go crazy.

Anyway, while I was living at my boyfriend’s house I started cooking with his sister. I knew all about Mexican food and I knew fruits and vegetables, but she introduced me to things like risotto and truffles. She really wanted to show me other things.

I bought a cookbook and we started discovering new dishes together. It was there that I found my passion for cooking. It just came naturally for me. She told me that I had an understanding of food that must have come from all the years I spent with my parents in the fields. She told me to go to culinary school.

At first I thought it was a crazy idea. I think I was afraid that it would be too confining, because in my culture women cook and, for many of them, that’s all they do. But I got over that and finally decided that I wanted to go to San Francisco to culinary school.

My boyfriend said no, he wasn’t going to move. I told him I was going without him. His sister took me aside and handed me a check for six months in the dorm.

“I already filled out an application and mailed it in for you,” she said. Two weeks later I was accepted.

I had just made peace with my family and gotten really close again with my parents and I was leaving for school. I started school in October, and five months later my dad got sick with a brain aneurysm.

I got to see him before he died and I asked him if he wanted me to quit school and come home to take care of mom.

“No,” he said, “I want you to be the first one in our family to finish school. I want you to create something for yourself.”

I will never forget that moment. I am so glad I had that time with him before he died. His last words have helped me to keep going. I think he finally got what I was doing. He realized that it was what he did.

– To access the Immigrant Stories archive go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com


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