Jimmy Santiago Baca began to write poetry as an almost illiterate vato loco (crazy guy, gangster) serving a five-year term in a federal prison. He was twenty years old, the son of Damacio Baca, of Apache and Yaqui lineage, and Cecilia Padilla, a Latino woman, who left him with his grandparents when he was two. Baca stayed with them for three years, then went into a boys’ home, then into detention centers and the streets of Albuquerque’s barrio at thirteen. Although he “confirmed” his identity as a Chicano by leafing through a stolen picture book of Chicano history at seventeen, he felt himself “disintegrating” in prison. Speaking of his father, but alluding to his own situation when he was incarcerated, Baca observed: “He was everything that was bad in America. He was brown, he spoke Spanish, was from a Native American background, had no education.”
As a gesture of rebellion, Baca took a guard’s textbook and found that “sounds created music in me and happiness” as he slowly enunciated the lines of a poem by William Wordsworth. This led to a zealous effort at self-education, encouraged by the recollection of older men in detention centers who “made barrio life come alive . . . with their own Chicano language.” Progressing to the point where he was writing letters for fellow prisoners, he placed a few poems in a local magazine, New Kauri, and achieved his first major publication with Immigrants in Our Own...
(The entire section is 411 words.)