The Poem

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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 son’s acknowledgment that his father was not ever-present to mind the home fires. Yet the son, rather than fearful or judgmental, is awestruck. He watches for and after and he wonders at his father. He says that what his father gave was “beyond the coordinated life” and “Beyond the ordinary love.”

This father is a gypsy. He appears and disappears without signal, sign, or trace. When present, he absorbs his children’s unspoken thoughts and fills their home “with love and safety, for a moment.” While he does not give his continued presence or material things to the children, he “made [them] grow up quick and romantic”; he gives them “true freedom.” When present, he does not try to instill society’s values in his children. He does not speak to them or others of their intelligence or of their future wealth. He says that they are good, and he loves them beyond society’s capacity to love.

The grandmother—whether paternal or maternal is not specified—often looks long at him and says nothing; she only prays and guides “down like a root in the heart of the earth.” The children look after him and “find nothing,/ not a stir, not a twig displaced from its bough.” They only see him march away, “going somewhere like a child/ with a warrior’s heart.”

The grandmother, rooted in the earth, is shown to embrace the sunlight and the rains. The father, like a tree, is shown to offer his children to the wind, the mountains, and the skies. The son concludes his monologue with the proclamation that he, his brother, and his sister, having arisen “out of the long felt nights and days of yesterday” and having partaken of “the sacred ceremony of living,” blossom.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 461 words.)

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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 “horse/ with broken knees no one would shoot.” In the poem’s context it is society’s view that this father of these flourishing children is useless to society’s purposes. He hauls none of its loads or baggage. Yet a grudging respect is suggested in no one’s shooting or seeking to destroy one whom they might be expected to destroy and in the “Then again,” which introduces the image of women enjoying his sweet fruits.

There is an overriding mythic quality to “Ancestor.” The title is abstract and bestows a temporal reverence upon the father even before the father (in past tense) is introduced. The first words echo but elevate a fairy tale’s familiar “Once upon a time” to “It was a time.” The father is shown to appear out of nowhere and to disappear just as mysteriously. He is elevated by the speaker and by the poem as he is shown to elevate life and his children to the realm of the sacred. The story brings to its reader the sense of awe and wonder that the lore of the indigenous peoples brings to its readers. The poem’s central figure is shown to represent the human and the divine origin and potential of each member of the human family.


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