Study Guide

The Circuit

The Circuit Summary

Shmoopsters, we'd like you to meet Francisco and his family. There's Papá, Mamá, Francisco's older bro Roberto, and his younger bro Trampita. This fam lives in Mexico, but they're about to go on a major adventure to California, where they want to build a new life. Needless to say, they've got big dreams for what lies ahead.

The family is super excited to head to California because it's supposed to be the most amazing place ever, but they end up spending the next handful of years picking crops and doing lots of moving around. Basically every year they live in Corcoran to pick cotton, Santa Maria to pick strawberries, and Fresno to pick grapes.

In Santa Maria, one of their first cities in California, Francisco has two new experiences:

  • New Experience One: Francisco starts going to school. It is tough because it's in English and Francisco speaks Spanish, plus all the moving his family does means he only goes to school for part of the year. His first school experience contains loads of struggles—like learning a new language and getting into a fistfight with a bully—but he also wins an art prize, so that's cool.
  • New Experience Two: Francisco's newest and youngest baby bro, Torito, gets sick and almost dies. Luckily he survives in the end, though. Phew.

When Francisco's family moves to Corcoran after living in Santa Maria, he's already onto his second school in California. The good news is that he makes a friend there right away, but the bad news is that this friend also disappears and we have no idea where he goes. (Fast fact: This book is an emotional roller coaster.)

Over the next few years, Francisco and his family move around a lot. And when we say a lot, we mean they move around so much it can make your head spin. But they have lots of adventures along the way. Papá accidentally kills the family's pet parrot; Francisco gets some new siblings—younger bros, Rubén and Torito, and little sis, Rorra; and Francisco finally finds an awesome teacher named Mr. Lema. But don't get too excited because his family moves soon so that teacher-student relationship leaves his life pretty quickly.

Over time, Francisco gets used to all this moving around. He also gets pretty strong with all the labor he does, since eventually he helps his family pick cotton, strawberries, and grapes. Plus Francisco really starts to dig school. So overall things are looking up… but then two tragedies happen that get us down in the dumps again.

  • The First Tragedy: Francisco starts collecting pennies, and he has two old ones that are his favorites… but then his sister takes them to buy some gumballs. Oops. This may not seem like a huge deal, but Francisco is pretty torn up about it.
  • The Second Tragedy: Francisco starts using a notebook to keep track of all the school stuff he's learning. He takes really good care of this notebook every day, but then their house catches on fire and his notepad ends up in smithereens. Yep, he's bummed all over again.

By the end of the book, Francisco and his family move back to Francisco's favorite city, Santa Maria. He's doing great in school—you might even say Francisco's kicking butt.

So since everything is going so well, you just know it's all about to come crashing down. And sure enough, right before Francisco is ready to recite the portion of the Declaration of Independence that he's worked so hard on, border patrol comes to take him away. It's pretty much the biggest downer ever, and a rough note to end the book on.

  • Chapter 1

    Under the Wire

    • When The Circuit starts, we don't know our narrator's name yet, but we do find out that he's got some seriously big dreams. You see, when he was a kid in the late 1940s, he lived in Mexico in a town called El Rancho Blanco, but his family has been chatting about moving to California. And you can bet he's excited. 
    • And he's not the only one—the whole entire family is stoked. The narrator's Mamá, Papá, and older bro Roberto all can't wait to travel to California. Roberto gets extra amped up after visiting his cousin, Fito, in Guadalajara. Fito has some modern amenities like running water and electricity, and Roberto can't wait to have those things too. 
    • Finally it's time for the trip. Wahoo. The narrator and his family hop on a train to California. While on the train, they chat about what Cali will be like. 
    • Fast fact: Our narrator has a nickname—it's Panchito. 
    • Eventually the train reaches its destination: Mexicali (a.k.a. the area just south of the California border). The narrator and his family call this area la frontera and they can't wait to cross it. 
    • There's just one problem: a humongous barbed wire fence patrolled by guards with guns. Yep, that's border patrol and this family is going to have to find a way around them. 
    • So they walk a super long way until they find an area where they can crawl under the fence. Papá pays a woman to drive them to Guadalupe, a coastal town where they're hoping to find work as laborers. 
    • The next day, they meet some nice folks in the worker's camp. The good news is that the camp foreman lends them a tent to sleep in, but the bad news is that they can't start picking strawberries for another two weeks. And that's a big bummer. 
    • So here's how they spend the next two weeks while they wait to start work: Mamá is a resourceful lady and she finds a way to cook outside on a stove she whips up herself, while Papá hunts for small wild animals for Mamá to cook up. Roberto and Panchito watch the train come by at noon every day, which they think is pretty fun. Plus the conductor always waves at them, and once he even drops a bag of fruit and candy out the window as a gift, which is actually pretty cool.
  • Chapter 2


    • Looks like this family found work because they're off to pick cotton. Well, everyone except Panchito and his baby brother, Trampita, whom he has to babysit in the car. Panchito's pretty bummed about this gig. 
    • After his parents and Roberto come back for their lunch break, Panchito is by himself again. But this time he makes a big decision: he's going to prove that he can pick cotton too. So he basically ditches Trampita in the car and picks cotton instead. 
    • By the end of the day, our narrator's cotton pile is small—like really small—so he mixes in some dirt so that it'll weigh more and be worth more money. 
    • He's all set to make his parents proud, which means we know that his parents are going to be seriously ticked off. And they are. His mom is mad that Trampita wet his diaper and broke his bottle, and his dad is mad about all the dirt Panchito tried to cheat with. 
    • All in all, this day has turned out to be a sour one. At least Panchito has Roberto to make him feel better.
  • Chapter 3

    Inside Out

    • It's time for the first day of school, and our main man is nervous. You see, he's never been to school before and Roberto has some scary stories, like how everything is in English, which he and his family don't speak. 
    • Our narrator and his bro will be starting in the middle of the year. They were picking cotton in another part of California called Corcoran in the fall, but now that it's January his family has moved near Santa Maria to pick strawberries. And a new place means a whole new chance to try out school. 
    • By the way, in the middle of all this school talk we find out that Mamá is pregnant with another baby. 
    • Okay, so our narrator is super nervous—but after taking the bus to school and meeting the nice principal, Mr. Sims, he's starting to feel better. He can't understand when his first grade teacher, Miss Scalapino, talks in English—which happens pretty much all the time—but there is a cool caterpillar in a jar, so that's a plus. 
    • Guess what? Panchito's real name is Francisco. Nice to know, isn't it?
    • Francisco has made a friend named Arthur, who also speaks Spanish, so that's cool, and Mr. Sims notices that Francisco needs a jacket so he gives him one from the used bin. Yep, he's a nice guy. 
    • So since all this good stuff is going on, you just know some bad hullabaloo is on the way—and that bad hullabaloo is called Curtis. You see, Curtis claims the jacket is his and he's going to fight to get it back. Oh goodie. 
    • The rest of the day pretty much stinks. The only good things are seeing the caterpillar spinning itself into a cocoon, and that Francisco's parents aren't too mad at him. Phew. 
    • A few days later, Francisco gets a seriously awesome surprise. He'd drawn a butterfly pic weeks earlier and now Miss Scalapino gives him an award for it. Yay for recognition. 
    • The day just gets better when that cocooned caterpillar emerges as a butterfly. Talk about good timing, right? And Francisco decides to keep the good times rolling, so he gives his pic to Curtis and now we're feeling all gooey inside.
  • Chapter 4

    Miracle in Tent City

    • Francisco tells us a bit about the place in Santa Maria where he lives. They call it Tent City because it's a bunch of tents, but it's not exactly it's own city; adding to its charm is the fact that the city dump is nearby. 
    • Remember how in the last chapter Francisco mentioned that his mom was pregnant? Well now she's about to pop. But she still spends her days cooking from 4:00AM on so that all the workers in Tent City get fed, and also finds time to set things up for the new baby.
    • Sheesh, that woman is one super Mamá. 
    • Francisco and Roberto help out with the cooking and the baby-readying. They even go dumpster-diving to find wood to make a floor in the tent. 
    • Everyone is seriously stoked when the youngest bro, Juan Manuel, is born. He also gets a cool nickname: Torito (which means little bull). 
    • But all these newborn good times come to a halt when Torito gets sick. And when we say sick, we mean knocking on death's door kind of sick. You see, Torito's fever goes from bad to worse really fast, and before the family knows it his whole body is stiffening up and they're worried he's dead. Luckily, he gets through the night and starts breathing again, but overall things aren't looking too great. 
    • Mamá and Papá don't want to take Torito to a hospital, because they don't have money. But there's a woman in Tent City named Doña María who's got her own ways for curing folks; she tries rubbing some eggs on Torito's stomach. Sadly he gets stiff again so Mamá and Papá rush him to the hospital. 
    • While they're gone, Francisco is super scared. He prays for his little bro, but when Mamá and Papá return Torito is still at the hospital.
    • He stays there all the next day and Francisco isn't allowed to see him, which stinks. Plus, his parents are really sad. They even seem almost mad at Francisco, which is pretty confusing. 
    • That night, the whole family prays to Santo Niño. 
    • After prayer, Francisco has a super crazy dream. First off, in this dream Santo Niño shows up with a basket of white butterflies. Okay, that seems pretty cool. But things get extra crazy real fast because then Francisco dreams that he wakes up to find a pic of Torito dressed like Santo Niño. This dream gives Mamá the inspiration to make a blue cloak for Torito, because it matches Santo Niño's. 
    • Finally some good news: Torito comes home from the hospital. He's still pretty ill, but they have more hope. Mamá and Papá also remind the kids that they've promised to pray to the Santo Niño every day for a year, and they better keep their promise. We're wondering what this promise comes from, and one year later we get to find out. 
    • Here's the story Mamá tells from one year ago: at the hospital, Torito was in seriously bad shape and the doctor said they'd waited too long to bring him in. This meant he was going to die unless a miracle happened. And Mamá says that a miracle sure did happen.
  • Chapter 5

    El Angel de Oro

    • Francisco and his family are back in Corcoran picking cotton; before this they were in Fowler for grape season. 
    • Here's the thing about Corcoran: it's super rainy. And that means everyone has to stay inside their cabins. But the best part about staying inside is that Francisco gets to check out the awesome goldfish that the folks have next door. He and his mom love to look through their window and watch that little bugger swimming around, so they give it a special name: el Angel de Oro (a.k.a. The Golden Angel). 
    • Francisco is going to go to a new school now that he's back in Corcoran, and on his first day he meets a new friend, Miguelito, who also lives in the cotton labor camp. 
    • Miguelito is pretty great, and he and Francisco hang out at the creek behind the cabins and check out the little fish; Miguelito breaks off branches that they can turn into fishing poles. 
    • It's all going fine and dandy until the next day. When Francisco looks for Miguelito, he and his whole family have already left the camp.
    • Francisco doesn't know where they went, which means we don't know either, but one thing's for sure: losing a friend is a big downer. 
    • Once it stops raining in Corcoran, Francisco notices that the water is drying up and that means the fish in the puddles are now dying in the mud. He tries to move as many as he can to the creek, but he leaves one fish in a can outside the cabin with the goldfish. You can guess where that little grey fish ends up—right in the bowl with the Golden Angel. 
    • Francisco sends his fishing pole down the creek, too.
  • Chapter 6

    Christmas Gifts

    • It's just before Christmas and it's moving time again. Francisco and his family are packing up their Corcoran cabin and heading out to another farm. 
    • Before they leave, two young lovebirds stop by trying to sell some of their possessions. The couple doesn't have much money and they're looking for any help they can get, so they try to sell a wallet and a hand-embroidered handkerchief, but Papá explains that his family doesn't have money either. He's super bummed that they can't help out. Francisco is bummed because he's really been hoping for a new ball for Christmas—all this money talk makes him nervous.
    • Francisco and his family head out of Corcoran, and end up at a farm to pick some more cotton and set up their temporary home in one of the rancher's tents. 
    • With the new digs, there's also some news for us readers: there's another new baby bro in town. This newest tyke is called Rubén. 
    • When it's Christmas Eve, Francisco is seriously psyched. He's totally convinced he's getting a ball for Christmas, though that night he sees his mom wrapping gifts and crying. 
    • Since Francisco's hopes are high as can be and there was all that gift-wrapping and crying happening, we just know that on Christmas morning he's going to be disappointed. And yep, he and his bros all get candy and they're bummed, including Mamá. 
    • But there's one special gift in store: Papá got Mamá the pretty handkerchief the young woman was selling. Aw…
  • Chapter 7

    Death Forgiven

    • Shmoopsters, we'd like you to meet Francisco's pal El Perico. He's yellow, red, and green, and he's covered in feathers (don't judge). Oh, and he's also a bit of a squawker. 
    • Yes, he's a parrot. 
    • A family friend smuggled the little guy into California, and now he's living with Francisco and his fam while they're picking grapes. (They've moved from cotton to grapes between the last chapter and this one.) 
    • So everyone in the family loves El Perico like nobody's business, but the parrot has his own favorite friend: a cat named Catarina that lives nearby. Sure, it sounds a little dangerous for a bird to have a cat as his best bud, but our feathery friend looks forward to seeing his gal pal every time her owners visit. 
    • One time, when Catarina's owners visit Francisco's family without their furry pet, El Perico gets angry—we're talking squawking up a storm kind of angry—and this makes Papá raging mad.
    • Things go from bad to worse when Papá starts waving around a broom, only to hit the parrot to the ground. Uh oh… The poor guy doesn't survive the fall, and the whole family is super down about it.
    • The next day Francisco and his bros bury their favorite pet. Francisco visits the grave every day, but before you know it he and his family are moving back to Corcoran for more cotton-picking. Bummer.
  • Chapter 8

    Cotton Sack

    • Since almost every story in this book starts with a move to a new city, you can bet this one isn't any different. It's time to move from the grape vines in Fresno back to Corcoran for cotton. 
    • The good news is that at one of the cotton fields, Francisco and his family find work and a cabin to call home. The bad news is that Francisco doesn't get his own sack for cotton-picking, and he's upset about it. 
    • It starts raining, which seems to happen a lot around cotton season. During the rain they sleep huddled together to stay warm, and look forward to sleeping in a bit. Oh, and there's a new baby sister, Rorra, to join in the slumber party.
    • Mamá makes awesome homemade tortillas and beans for breakfast, then the brothers help wash the dishes before they all play games and tell ghost stories for the kids. Papá is sleeping off a cold.
    • The rainy day fun is over when the boss honks his horn at 6:00AM, telling his workers that the cotton is dry. 
    • At the fields, Papá, Mamá, Roberto, and Francisco pick cotton all day. Francisco helps fill up his mom and dad's bags since he doesn't have his own, and when the bags are stuffed they weigh them so the boss knows how much to pay his workers. Some days, Francisco goes to school and picks cotton only when he gets home. 
    • So Francisco and his family have been picking cotton from late-October to mid-November, and now those cotton plants are bare as can be. 
    • So it's time to look for other cotton fields that still have some white fluff on them, and that's no easy task. Plus, when they finally find a field with some cotton, it's so cold outside that Francisco's hands freeze up. He really wants to prove that he can fill his own cotton sack, so our main man comes up with a kinda gross solution: he pees on his hands. Hey, he's just trying to get by. Sadly for Francisco, his hands get cold immediately after so his plan didn't really work out. No solo cotton sack for this dude.
  • Chapter 9

    The Circuit

    • So in the last chapter Francisco and his family were picking cotton in November, but by the beginning of this one, we've fast-forwarded to summer and it's the end of strawberry season. It's time to move to Fresno again, and Francisco is extra bummed this time. He's seriously tired of all this shuffling around trying to find work. 
    • The next day, they pack up the car and head off. They find work for a dude named Mr. Sullivan. He let's Francisco and his fam live in his garage, which are kinda gross new digs filled with worms, but they make it work. 
    • The next day the grape picking starts and it is hard—since there's so much work to do with all the grapes, Roberto and Francisco don't start school until the season is over. 
    • By November, Francisco and his family have stripped all the grapes. Roberto has to start picking cotton, but Francisco gets to go to school, which makes him kinda nervous. 
    • When he gets to school, Francisco has to remember how to talk in English again. He ends up in a sixth-grade classroom with a cool teacher named Mr. Lema. There's an awkward moment in class where Francisco is asked to read aloud and he can't, but Mr. Lema is super nice about it and at lunch he starts helping Francisco learn to read English better. Yay.
    • Francisco has a pretty great month working with Mr. L., and his new teacher-friend even says he'll teach Francisco to play the trumpet. 
    • So—of course—when Francisco gets home, it's time to move again. Ugh.
  • Chapter 10

    Learning the Game

    • Gear up to flash forward in time again. It's now the end of seventh grade and Francisco is sad that the year is over. Most kids are happy about summer vacation, but for our main man, summer vacation means picking strawberries, grapes, and cotton before starting school part way through the year. It isn't exactly relaxing. 
    • When Francisco gets home, the guys in town want to play a game called kick-the-can. Carlos, this dude who kinda seems like a bully, bosses everyone around, and when a kid named Manuelito wants to join, Carlos says no way. But at least Francisco forgets about school ending while he's playing the game, so that's cool. 
    • The next day Francisco is off to pick strawberries. He meets a new bloke named Gabriel, who's picking strawberries for the first time.
    • They all eat lunch together and learn that their new pal is a seriously hard worker who has three kids whom he sends money to each week. 
    • One day, Francisco and Gabriel go work for a nearby farm where the guy in charge is a total jerk. He tells Gabriel to pull a plow, which is pretty demeaning. Gabriel says that oxen are meant to pull machinery and he isn't the same as an ox—things get heated, the two men almost get into a big fist fight, and the contractor in charge leaves. Sheesh, that was intense. 
    • After work, it's time for kick-the-can and yep, that bully Carlos is still around. You can bet that Francisco isn't in the mood to have a bully on the block, so Francisco tells Manuelito he can come play. When Carlos fights back, Francisco stands his ground and says he just won't play then—so Carlos gives in and Manuelito gets to play. Yay.
    • But there's bad news the next day: Gabriel has been fired. Sad face.
  • Chapter 11

    To Have and to Hold

    • Guess what? It's moving time again. And since strawberry season is over, this means Francisco's family is heading to the Fresno area to pick grapes. This year they're going to try out a town called Orosi. 
    • During the road trip, Francisco checks out his penny collection. He has his two favorites on top: a 1910 Lincoln Head that belonged to his dad (1910 is the year Papá was born and the year the Mexican Revolution started), and an 1865 Indian Head that he got this from his fifth-grade buddy Carl, back in Corcoran. 
    • So back to the road trip: the other prize possession Francisco has with him is his notebook. It's small and blue and boy is he proud of it.
    • It all started back in sixth grade. Remember how he had to leave Mr. Lema's class when his family moved? Well in his new classroom in Santa Maria he has a teacher named Miss Martin and she seems pretty great, too. Miss Martin started a game where she'd write down an English word on the board and everyone had to look it up as fast as possible. Francisco decides to use this spiffy technique to learn as many English words as he can, so he writes them down and memorizes them, even after leaving Miss M's class. Eventually this notepad becomes the place where Francisco writes down everything he wants to remember from all his classes, so it's super important to him. 
    • Okay, we're back to the road trip again, because Francisco and his fam finally arrive in Orosi. The awesome thing is that they get to live in a house in this new town. And it has two bedrooms so all the boys get their own, while Mamá and Papá share a room with little Rorra. By the way, Rorra seems super interested in Francisco's fancy pennies, and he's being super possessive of them. 
    • After their first long day of working in the grape fields, Francisco checks on his beloved pennies… but his favorites are gone. Oh no.
    • Francisco confronts Rorra, and it turns out she took the pennies and put them in the gumball machine at the store. Needless to say, Francisco is seriously ticked off. 
    • The next day Francisco picks grapes again, and this time he's working hard on memorizing his spelling rules too. He's got his notepad safe in wax paper so it stays clean. 
    • After work, Francisco and Roberto get kerosene to work their kitchen stove, but when they pour it into the stove it turns out to be gasoline instead, and the stove lights on fire, basically setting the whole house aflame.
    • Everyone has to leave, and Francisco's notebook is still inside. Pretty soon, the whole house is burned down, and Francisco is in tears. 
    • A few weeks later, though, Francisco realizes he's already learned everything in his book.
  • Chapter 12

    Moving Still

    • The family is in Corcoran at the start of this chapter and Papá has a problem—his back is hurting him big time, and it's the end of cotton season so they'll probably have to move to make ends meet. 
    • But there's an even bigger problem on the block: la migra, a bunch of officials who search for undocumented workers who aren't legally allowed to work in California. Papá has already gotten his documents set, so he can work, but a lot of the family—including Francisco—would be in big trouble if la migra found them. 
    • There was one time back in Santa Maria where they almost got caught. Luckily dad was the only adult home and his green card made everything okay. 
    • Since la migra have been looking for undocumented workers in Corcoran, Francisco and his family decide to head back to Santa Maria.
    • At least one good thing about Santa Maria is that they've spent lots of time in that town, so it's basically like returning home. 
    • This means it's road trip time. Again. And right off the bat we can tell Francisco is seriously stoked—he can't wait to get back to his old friends and old school, plus they get to live in the same barrack they had last year, so that's cool. 
    • Soon, Roberto and Francisco are signed up for school, and so are some of the younger brothers. Francisco is in eighth grade. And he's got two cool teachers this year: Mr. Milo and Miss Ehlis. 
    • Mr. Milo arranges the desks so the highest scoring students sit in the front, and our main man is always in the first or second seat.
    • That's right—Francisco's a bit of a math wiz.
    • But there's some rough stuff going on at home. Papá still has back problems, which means he can't pick crops anymore. Roberto has a solution: he'll get a job in town that'll keep them in Santa Maria all year long. Francisco obviously loves this idea. 
    • Roberto turns to Mr. Sims, that cool principal that we met back in Chapter 3, for some help. Mr. Sims gets Francisco an interview at a shoe store, and the whole family is psyched about it. Especially Francisco. But it turns out the job isn't working in the shoe store but working as a gardener, which Roberto doesn't want to do. Huge bummer. 
    • Miss Ehlis is having everyone memorize part of the Declaration of Independence and recite it out loud. Francisco feels too scared to recite it in front of the class, so he plans to do it just to Miss E. 
    • You know how we felt all that sadness about Roberto not getting the job he wanted? Well Mr. Sims offered Roberto a janitor position at a school instead, and he can have the job all year long. The family is stoked. 
    • So now Francisco spends his time memorizing the Declaration of Independence passage and helping his big brother out at his new job. 
    • When Friday comes around, Francisco practices reciting his passage on the bus. He's seriously ready to go. But before Francisco gets a chance to show off his new skills, there are some scary dudes at the classroom door. Yep—it's border patrol. Wait, what? But Francisco was about to have a big shining moment in school… 
    • Sadly, Francisco and the immigration officer head to Roberto's school and there's nothing our main man can do about it. 
    • And that takes us to the end of our emotional roller coaster. Tissues, anyone?