Jimmy Santiago Baca Baca, Jimmy Santiago - Essay

José Santiago Baca


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Immigrants In Our Own Land 1979

Swords of Darkness 1981

What's Happening 1982

Poems Taken from My Yard 1986

Martín and Meditations on the South Valley 1987

Black Mesa Poems 1989

Set This Book on Fire 1999

Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems 2001

Jimmy Santiago Baca (novella) 1978

Los tres hijos de Julia (play) 1991

Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (essays and short stories) 1992

Bound by Honor [also known as Blood In… Blood Out (screenplay) 1993

In the Way of the Sun (novel) 1997

A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet (memoir) 2001

Ron Arias (review date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Arias, Ron. Review of Immigrants In Our Own Land, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. American Book Review 4, no. 2 (January-February 1982): 11-12.

[In the following review of Baca's first poetic collection, Arias surveys the “gifted” poet's autobiographical journeys of discovery, his essay-like observational pieces, and scattered protest verses.]

A poet named Jimmy Santiago Baca is running around a prison track field when he stops to look at a chain gang pulling weeds by the prison preacher's house. It's hot and in the distance away from the prison is a nearby town courthouse. In the shade, a hard-eyed preacher, sipping tea, watches the men work.


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Michael Hogan (review date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hogan, Michael. Review of What's Happening, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. American Book Review 6, no. 1 (November-December 1983): 19-20.

[In the following review of What's Happening, Baca's third volume of verse, Hogan highlights the disappointments in this collection as Baca fails to adequately control his powerful and passionate poetic voice.]

Jimmy Santiago Baca first sent poems to me when I was working as an editor of an anthology of prison poetry in 1974. I noticed then two strengths which contained within them a strong potential for weakness if his craft were not carefully controlled or if he became too impressed by academia's wooing of the...

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Liam Rector (review date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rector, Liam. Review of Martín and Meditations on the South Valley, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Hudson Review 41, no. 2 (summer 1988): 393-400.

[In the following excerpt, Rector calls Martín and Meditations on the South Valley an engaging work of combined narrative and lyrical force, and a moving heroic tale in verse.]

… First, there's finally something new from New Directions. Not long ago I read every New Directions book I could get my hands on, needing no more than the sight of the publisher's name on the spine to recommend that a book be pulled from the shelf. All publishers lose mortal gas unless they make inroads into the coming...

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Julián Olivares (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Olivares, Julián. “Two Contemporary Chicano Verse Chronicles.” Americas Review 16, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1988): 214-31.

[In the following essay, Olivares offers a comparison of thematic and narrative strategies in Baca's Martín and Meditations on the South Valley and Tino Villanueva's Crónica de mis años peores, considering both works as semi-autobiographical verse texts.]

Upon engaging an autobiographical text, the reader has certain expectations. He expects that what he is about to read is true and that the experiences related by the autobiographical subject are eventful. Implicitly, the author is claiming that his experiences are...

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Scott Slovic (review date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Slovic, Scott. Review of Black Mesa Poems, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Western American Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 1991): 180-81.

[In the following review, Slovic praises the “vibrant observation,” resonating imagery, and universalizing spirit of Baca's Black Mesa Poems.]

Black Mesa Poems is an impressive achievement, at once universal and thoroughly regional, even private. To read Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetry is to tramp across the uneven terrain of human experience, sometimes lulled by the everydayness of work or relationships, and then dazzled by a flood of emotion or vibrant observation.

Baca has a compelling fondness for...

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Jimmy Santiago Baca (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “Portals of Poetry.” In Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio. pp. 56-76. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1992, 168 p.

[In the following excerpt, Baca describes the origins of his poetic voice, the sensuousness of poetry, and his development as a young writer.]

Of those who have asked me about my life, some have prized my suffering, and others my arrogance; some my quiet meditative obsessions, and others my childish innocence. But I myself have never seen the poet in me, I have never seen clearly the face of this man who has devoted himself to poetry, enchained to its practice, who demands that writing be my life, who...

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Jimmy Santiago Baca and John Keene (interview date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Baca, Jimmy Santiago, and John Keene. “‘Poetry Is What We Speak to Each Other’: An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Callaloo 17, no. 1 (winter 1994): 33-51.

[In the following interview, conducted by telephone in 1993, Baca discusses various topics related to his work as a poet, including the personal necessity of poetry, the blending of femininity and masculinity in his writing, the concept of “Chicanismo,” the American prison system, and the exploitation and degradation of indigenous cultures.]

[Keene:] Mr. Baca, in your book of essays, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, you speak at length and eloquently...

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Robert Franklin Gish (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gish, Robert Franklin. “Jimmy Santiago Baca: Writing the Borderlands of Ethnic and Cultural Crisis.” In Beyond Bounds: Cross-Cultural Essays on Anglo, American-Indian & Chicano Literature, pp. 145-50. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gish concentrates on Baca's efforts to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries as a writer.]

“Language made bridges of fire between me and everything I saw. Writing bridged my divided life of prisoner and free man.”

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio


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George Moore (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: 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, no. 2 (summer 1998): 153-77.

[In the following essay, Moore analyzes Martín and Meditations on the South Valley in terms of Baca's struggle to define Chicano identity amid a “dynamic of cultural forces”—Aztec mythology, Spanish colonialism, and Indo-Mejicano history among them.]

Jimmy Santiago Baca has established himself as one of the leading Chicano poets of the American Southwest, in part, perhaps, by his willingness to continue the dialogue between...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 25 (18 June 2001): 78.

[In the following review, the unsigned critic comments favorably on the “intensely personal, contradictory, and completely forthcoming” love-inspired poems of Healing Earthquakes.]

Building on the achievement of the epic poem Martín & Meditations on the South Valley and his memoirs Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio and the forthcoming A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet, World Heavy-weight Poetry Bout champ Baca's new book-length work [Healing Earthquakes] is a...

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Donna Seaman (review date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Booklist 97, no. 21 (July 2001): 1971.

[In the following review, Seaman illuminates Baca's confessional, autobiographical and “ultimately archetypal” poetic record of love in Healing Earthquakes.]

In his memoir, A Place to Stand …, Baca describes how he kept journals while in prison, recording the wild flux of emotions his memories and experiences aroused. This penchant for page-therapy, for writing in order to understand life, is the force behind Baca's newest book of poetry, a veritable torrent of confessions and prayers, autobiography and...

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Jimmy Santiago Baca and Elizabeth Farnsworth (interview date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Baca, Jimmy Santiago, and Elizabeth Farnsworth. “Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Online News Hour (9 August 2001).

[In the following interview, Baca mentions his memoirs, love of language, poetic collection Healing Earthquakes, and eclectic writing methods.]

[Farnsworth:] The writer Jimmy Santiago Baca has two new books out this summer: Healing Earthquakes which is a collection of love poetry, and A Place to Stand, a memoir of his childhood in New Mexico and his six years in a maximum security prison after being convicted, wrongly he says, of possession of drugs with intent to sell. Santiago Baca taught himself to read and write and published his first poetry while there. Since then his eight volumes of verse have won numerous prizes, including the American Book Award. In 1989 he held the Wallace Stevens endowed chair at Yale University.

Thanks for being with us.

[Baca:] Thank you very much.

Why a memoir, prose, about your past after many years of writing poetry about it?

Well, there are some things that a writer has to do to move on, and this was one of those things where I had to … In order to go, to broaden out myself as a writer and to sort of expand my wings, so to speak, I had to go … I had to deal with a memoir because it kept getting in the way.

It's an amazing story. You tell the story of your childhood. You were deserted by your parents. Your grandparents took care of you for a while. Then you ended up in a orphanage and finally in prison. Tell the story of how the … the specific story of how words and language entered your life and helped save you.

Well, you know, words … Words were like butterflies and I always had spring inside my heart. I speak metaphorically, of course. But words were magical prayers to me. They were single stars that were … That came out of people. In dark times it seemed that words were really special to me. We didn't really have a lot of books around the house when I was growing up except the bible, and I think that's about it. Then, of course, I never had any books until I was in county jail, when I took that one book.

Tell us what happened.

Well, I stole the book from the clerk, the desk clerk, and I took it up to my cell. Late at night I was tearing pages out of it so I could cook up some coffee. Everyone was yelling for their coffee. They were wondering why I wasn't coming because I was … I was on time most of the time, and what happened was I got … As the fire beneath the coffee can was flaring, I caught a couple of words that I recognized phonetically. As I read more and more, I quit tearing the pages out of the book and I began to read more and more. It was about a man who was walking his dog around a lake. And that triggered phenomenal memories in me of my grandfather and the love I had for him and how we went around the pond with our sheep and dog. Incidentally the man's name that I was reading later on that night I fell asleep enunciating the name words—words—Wordsworth.

Then in prison you just kept loving words more and more and you started writing to somebody who sent you books. Eventually you had poetry published in Mother Jones Magazine even while you were in prison. How did you go from being almost illiterate to that?

It was really funny because I didn't know how to address a letter and I didn't know how to … I didn't know people paid for poetry. I'm not sure if that's a good thing. But a friend of mine came by. I think he was tired … I was charging people cigarettes and coffees to write letters to their mothers and write letters to their girlfriends and poems and so forth, for Mother's Day. He came by and said, hey, they're buying poems here. I asked how to address it. I took my shoebox and grabbed a bunch of poems that I had written on baby paper. And I sent them to a place called San Francisco—never expecting to hear back from them. When $300 came in my books at the prison that I was in, I bought the whole cell block ice cream that day. Everyone ate ice cream.

You love language, you say. I'm going to ask you to read a poem in a minute. First tell us how you love language and why. You've called it almost a physical thing for you.

Oh, I love language. I love language. Language, to me, is what sunrise is to the birds. Language, to me, is what water is to a man that just crossed the desert. I remember, as a boy, when grown-ups, they looked like huge redwood trees to me in a storm, or they looked like boats without a map in a bad storm at sea. And the grown-ups in my life were always caught up in dramas. And the one thing that they all had in common was they couldn't express that storm inside of themselves. And I was so caught up in that drama that I vowed one day I would grasp hold of the power that could evoke their emotions. For me, at least, I wanted to know how to say what was happening to them and I wanted to know. …

Go ahead. Sorry.

I just wanted to know … I wanted to name things.

Read a poem for us where you do name things. This is from Healing Earthquakes, your new book of poetry.

Yes. This is “number 18,” part one. “Yesterday driving across the bridge with my friend the brilliant orange cottonwood leaves along the river made me think of love. And the red plum tree next to the bus stop bench of enduring resilience, and the brown leaves in the gutter became my disappointments. I imagined a ghostly specter visiting my bedside and piling those brown leaves on my tiny heart. That was when my friend asked me who or what did God give his unending blessings? He expected me to say the innocent, but I replied that God gives his blessings and miracles to what rots and is broken and is crumbling—that which is decomposing. Blessings in the rot, in the dark matter that is breaking apart like a fractured wall, bricks falling to the ground because life wants opened fields, not separation—everything integrating into one black mass of decreation and creation—birthing and dying. In the wound is freedom; in the young crippled boy struggling to step up to the bus, the imperfect. Walls everywhere. Every business has barred windows. Walls, walls. We admire the Mercedes driver with smoked tinted windows. His walls allow no intrusion. But the hitchhiker's walls have come down. The kid on the street corner with purple locks is saying look at my purple hair. It's my wall. But walls that fall are where life feasts on miracles or where God lives and does the work of true living.”

I love this poem both for the language but also because it seems to express sort of the central theme of your work. Tell me if I'm right about this: The necessity of the walls to fall and the sort of holiness of what isn't perfect.

I think you're right, yeah. I have this passion for what's not perfect. I have a passion for opening up the heart to the world. I have a passion for people that have the courage to live with their souls on their skin, so to speak.

And for bringing down walls of all kinds, prison walls. You do a lot of work in workshops, walls of racism. You not only write about this but you work on this, don't you? You teach literacy. You work with people who have been harmed by whatever.

Yes, yes. I just finished a big workshop at Chino Prison and I have an ongoing workshop at a dance studio here, and I do a lot of things but basically the impetus for the work that I do is generated from a passion that we all need to communicate. I think in the communication is our dance.

You're writing pretty much alone now. I read that you've spent a lot of time in recent years alone. I guess you would have to spend a lot of time working to finish two books that both came out at the same time. Tell us about how you write and why it's important for you to be alone.

I think that loneliness really is my intimate companion. I used to try to avoid it. But now I embrace it. I write … I get up in the morning about 5:00 and 5:30 and then I sort of roust about, water the plants, read a little bit, maybe, go outside. I start writing and I write very eclectically. I'm sort of eccentric in the sense that I'll write a … ten minutes and get up, walk around, sit down, write five minutes, get up, walk around. I'll do different things according to what I'm writing. With this particular book of poetry, Healing Earthquakes, I had a different approach. I sat down and just wrote passionately, a burst, a shower burst so to speak. When I'm writing something else like short stories or a novel, they each have their different approaches that affect me physically and that I follow physically. So that's how I do it.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, author of A Place to Stand and Healing Earthquakes, thanks for being with us.

It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Baca, Jimmy Santiago, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy. “Jimmy Santiago Baca.” In This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, pp. 181-93. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Discusses the Chicano experience in the American Southwest and Baca's personal process of writing and poetic composition.

Additional coverage of Baca's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 81, 90; Dictionary of...

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