The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Ancestor” is an unrhymed lyric poem that ultimately offers to the reader an invitation to partake of the “sacred ceremony” of life. Contained within the invitation is the warning that the way to the celebration is often blocked by the artifice and soullessness of those who do not recognize or who ignore the invitation issued to all by life itself and by its celebrants. The poem presents the story, in the musings of one of the sons, of three children whose unconventional father instilled in that son and his siblings the true meaning of life. Implicit in the telling of the story are society’s values that are too often believed to be the only of life’s values.

The literal ancestor first introduced by the speaker of the poem is the father of the two sons and a daughter. The only suggestion of the children’s mother, or of more than one mother of the three children, is that young women responded positively to the masculinity of their father: they “plucked from him sweet fruit.” The traditional mother figure of this family is the children’s grandmother.

The father of the children is in no way a traditional father. He neither mends the crumbling walls of the home nor ministers to the physical or emotional scrapes and bruises of his children. Society’s judgment is first suggested in the poem’s opening line, which says that “they were afraid of him.” Recognition of society’s values are reflected in...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Baca employs natural imagery to represent the supernatural, as the indigenous peoples, among whom he counts himself, believe the natural to be the language of the divine. The speaker’s ancestor is said to be “like the orange tree” from which women pluck sweet fruit. The father is shown to offer his children to the wind, the mountains, and the skies. The grandmother prays and guides “down like a root” into the earth, embracing the sunlight and the rains. In addition, the children are said to be “A threefold blossom.” As offspring of nature, they become “three distinct hopes, three loves.” The reader is thus shown that the children, “through sacred ceremony of living, daily living,” are among life’s holy.

The son speaks of his father’s “mystique.” He shows his mystical ancestor appearing “Half covered in shadows and half in light.” When the father offers his children to the elements, he is a priest pronouncing the ordinary divine in his sacred ceremony. The ultimate image is that of transubstantiation: The children are made holy in the father’s and life’s light. The father infuses quickness of soul into them, as he gives quickness of life to each child.

While the poem is presented as beautiful tribute to a father, its opening image is not a beautiful one. Rather, it imposes the concept of unnatural human destruction onto a natural creature. The father, first said to have been feared, is next said to be a...

(The entire section is 461 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Coppola, Vincent. “The Moon in Jimmy Baca.” Esquire 119 (June, 1993): 48-52.

Fuss, Adam. “Jimmy Santiago Baca.” BOMB 84 (Summer, 2003): 58-63.

Harris, Marie, and Kathleen Aguero, eds. A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Keene, John.“’Poetry Is What We Speak to Each Other’: An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters 17 (Winter, 1994): 33-51.

Levertov, Denise. Introduction to Martín: &, Meditations on the South Valley. New York: New Directions, 1987.

Lynch, Tom. “Toward a Symbiosis of Ecology and Justice: Water and Land Conflicts in Frank Waters, John Nichols, and Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Western American Literature 37 (Winter, 2003): 405-428.

Meléndez, Gabriel. “Carrying the Magic of His People’s Heart: An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca.” The Americas Review 19 (Winter, 1991): 64-86.

Moore, George. “Beyond Cultural Dialogues: Identities in the Interstices of Culture in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín and Meditations on the South Valley.” Western American Literature 33 (Summer, 1998): 153-177.

Olivares, Julián. “Two Contemporary Chicano Verse Chronicles.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA 16, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 1988): 214-231.

Shirley, Carl R., and Paula W. Shirley. Understanding Chicano Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Stahura, Barbara. “The Progressive Interview: Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Progressive 67 (January, 2003): 26-30.