Jimmy Santiago Baca 1952-
American poet, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright.
An acclaimed Chicano poet, Baca is renowned for his richly lyrical and autobiographical verse. Baca's poetry mingles his experiences of rage and dispossession as a former convict with poetic narratives of spiritual regeneration and renewed connection with his community and ethnic heritage. In such notable works as Martín and Meditations on the South Valley (1987) and Black Mesa Poems (1989), Baca elucidates themes of self-actualization and personal metamorphosis by drawing upon his own transformation from an illiterate prisoner to a celebrated poet who delights in the discovery and expression of language. Featuring both realistic and mythologized portraits of himself and the Chicano community in his works, Baca helped bring widespread, national attention to the literary and cultural contributions of Chicanos in America, as well as to the plight of those who are poor and underprivileged. In addition to his work as a poet, Baca is also a noted novelist and screenwriter; his first film, Bound by Honor, was produced in 1993.
Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to parents of Chicano and Native American descent, Baca experienced a troubled childhood. His parents divorced when he was very young, and his mother was subsequently murdered by her second husband. Raised by his grandparents until the age of five, Baca was then relocated to an Albuquerque orphanage where he remained for six years. Dissatisfied with his life in the institution, he ran away at age eleven and survived on the streets and in juvenile detention centers until 1972. That year Baca was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession—charges he consistently denied. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a seven-year term at the federal prison in Florence, Arizona, and reportedly subjected to electro-shock treatments for recalcitrant behavior. Functionally illiterate at the time he was incarcerated, Baca taught himself to read and write in prison, producing a journal and several short poems. With the encouragement of his fellow inmates he sent several of his pieces to Mother Jones magazine, attracting the attention of poetry editor Denise Levertov, who published three of the poems in the periodical. Baca's first collection of verse, Immigrants In Our Own Land, appeared in 1979 at approximately the same time as he was released from prison. Baca published several additional volumes of poetry in the 1980s, including his broadly successful Martín and Meditations on the South Valley. After the appearance of this work Baca's fame as a poet and spokesperson for Chicano culture rapidly developed. Soon he was lecturing and reading his works extensively across the United States, as well as hosting poetry workshops. By the late 1980s Baca had lived as poet in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University. Mainstream media coverage, the staging of his drama Los tres hijos de Julia (1991), and the production of the film Bound by Honor contributed to his growing celebrity in the Chicano community and on a national scale. In the 1990s Baca, now one of the most extensively read and respected Chicano poets in the United States, settled with his wife and two sons to the Black Mesa region in New Mexico and continued to write prose and poetry, including the novel In the Way of the Sun (1997) and the collection Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems (2001).
The poetry of Immigrants In Our Own Land, Baca's first significant collection, is largely focused on his experiences in an Arizona prison. Detailing personal torment, thoughts on injustice and oppression, and his feelings of camaraderie with his fellow inmates, Immigrants In Our Own Land outlines a vision of hope and faith amid suffering. In addition to its title poem, which alludes to the impression shared by many Chicanos of being aliens in the southwestern United States despite their long history there, the collection also includes the powerful “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans,” one of Baca's more political pieces. What's Happening (1982) also largely deals with Baca's prison experience, while additionally depicting the poet's attempts to reestablish his identity after incarceration, both in personal, psychological terms, and in relation to the wider community. Martín and Meditations on the South Valley represents a considerable development in Baca's poetic works. It takes the form of two complementary, semi-autobiographical narrative poems that detail in near-mythic terms the world of a poor, disestablished Chicano youth, Martín, as he grows up on the streets and wanders through the American Southwest in search of identity, meaning, and stability. Eventually finding what he is looking for in Gabriela, Martín makes a home for himself, starts a family, and reconnects with his Chicano roots. Baca incorporated an earlier collection of lyrical works, Poems Taken from My Yard (1986) into Black Mesa Poems (1989), in which he once again evokes the working-class world of the barrio and emphasizes themes of regeneration and reconciliation brought about by a renewed connection with community, history, Chicano culture, and the landscape of the American Southwest. Among Baca's other works, his chapbook entitled simply Jimmy Santiago Baca (1978) contains several short poems and a prison journal, while the essays and autobiographical stories of Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (1992) reveal his frequently expressed love of language and thoughts on the process of poetic composition.
Despite certain limitations in terms of technique and theme, the lyrics of Baca's Immigrants In Our Own Land were heralded as the impressive first works of a new poetic voice from the American Southwest. While critics of his succeeding collections, especially What's Happening, expressed concern over Baca's potential inability to adequately modulate his passionate expressions, such unease was largely allayed when Martín and Meditations on the South Valley appeared several years later. Considered a breakthrough volume, Martín and Meditations on the South Valley earned Baca a National Endowment for the Arts grant and was honored with the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1988. Other critical accolades accompanied the volume, tempered only by a small minority of commentators who wondered if Baca had accurately rendered the realities of the southwestern barrio in his portrayal of Chicano life. Many such detractors were silenced with the publication of the follow-up book Black Mesa Poems, which is generally considered Baca's most impressive literary effort to date. Extending his themes of Chicano reintegration and communal strength, Black Mesa Poems evinces a continuation of Baca's epic reinterpretation of his own life and rediscovery of his ethnic heritage, critics have observed. Among his subsequent works, commentators acknowledge that Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems suggests a further expansion in Baca's poetic technique and thematic development, particularly in his strongly metaphorical representation of the feminine and nurturing qualities of Chicano culture.