Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736

Jimmy Santiago Baca was born José Santiago Baca into the chaos of a fractious family living in an adobe shack on the outskirts of Sante Fe in 1952. His father, Damacio Baca, of Apache and Yaqui lineage, and his mother, Cecilia Padilla, a woman with a Hispanic background, left him...

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Jimmy Santiago Baca was born José Santiago Baca into the chaos of a fractious family living in an adobe shack on the outskirts of Sante Fe in 1952. His father, Damacio Baca, of Apache and Yaqui lineage, and his mother, Cecilia Padilla, a woman with a Hispanic background, left him with his Indio grandparents when he was two. Baca stayed with them for three years, then was placed in a boy’s home and later foster care, before drifting onto the streets of Albuquerque’s barrio at thirteen. In and out of detention and correction facilities, he was in prison at seventeen when he “confirmed” or recognized his identity as a Chicano after leafing through a stolen book, Cuatrocientos cincuenta años del pueblo Chicano = Four Hundred Fifty Years of Chicano History in Pictures (1976), the only kind of text he could understand, because he was functionally illiterate. Speaking of his father, but alluding to his own situation at that time, he observed, “He was everything that was bad in America. He was brown, spoke Spanish, was from a Native American background, had no education.”

In a characteristic act of defiance, he took a guard’s schoolbook, glanced at it, and realized that “sounds created music in me and happiness” as he gradually enunciated some lines of a poem by William Wordsworth. Recalling that he was a vato loco (crazy dude) serving a five-year term in a federal prison on drug charges, he began a self-directed program of personal education that rapidly led to an explosion of creative energy. Within a short time, he was writing poetry about his present state and his troubled past, composing letters for other inmates, and listening to the stories of older men whose stories “made barrio life come alive.” A number of his poems were published in the magazine New Karui, and with the assistance of Denise Levertov, a prominent poet and social activist, Baca was able to produce a chapbook, Jimmy Santiago Baca, in 1978.

After his release from prison, Baca traveled to North Carolina to live with Virginia Love Long, with whom he had been corresponding, then returned to Albuquerque, where he worked as a janitor at a treatment center for abused teenagers. There, he met Beatrice Narcisco, a therapist who recognized that, in spite of his unsettled nature, “he was great with children,” and they were married six months later. During the 1980’s, Baca began to build a national reputation as a poet and received a B.A. in English from the University of New Mexico in 1984, but he was unable to completely withdraw from drug addiction. Martín; &, Meditations on the South Valley, the first of three books that Baca published with the eminent New Directions press, won the American Book Award, which led to teaching opportunities at Yale and the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1993, Baca cowrote and produced the film Bound by Honor and spent much of the 1990’s living with his family on the Black Mesa of Albuquerque’s South Valley, editing and contributing to various anthologies concerned with issues he cared about, producing films, and reading poetry throughout the Southwest. At the end of the decade, he published two compact books of poetry, the intensely personal Set This Book on Fire and a collaboration with the photographer James Drake and the poet Benjamin Alier Sáenz, Que linda la brisa, which included Baca’s eight-part searing re-creation of the flow of consciousness of transsexual prostitutes living on the fringes of society. In the twenty-first century, Baca continued to work extensively with at-risk youth in workshops, read his poetry throughout the United States, and declared himself “back in action after a long sabbatical from the publishing world,” issuing from Grove/Atlantic a memoir that concentrated on his life inside a maximum security prison, A Place to Stand, and a new book of poems, Healing Earthquakes, tracing the course of a romantic relationship from beginning to end. In 2005, he created a nonprofit foundation, Cedar Tree, that offers writing workshops and assistance with documentary films. His Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande and Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande reflect his life and a connection he feels with nature and creativity as he runs along the Rio Grande. More meditative and less intense than his earlier volumes, they were followed by the more intense Rita and Julia. In 2009, Baca published his first novel, A Glass of Water.

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