Jimmy Santiago Baca Biography

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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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 Land, a book whose title refers to the condition of inmates in a dehumanizing system and to his own feelings of estrangement in American society. This was a turning point for Baca, who realized that he could reclaim the community he was separated from and sing “the freedom song of our Chicano dream” now that poetry “had lifted me to my feet.”

With this foundation to build on, Baca started a family in the early 1980’s, restored an adobe dwelling in Albuquerque’s South Valley, and wrote Martín; &, Meditations on the South Valley because “the entire Southwest needed a long poem that could describe what has happened here in the last twenty years.” Continuing to combine personal history and communal life, Baca followed this book with Black Mesa Poems, which links the landscape of the South Valley to people he knows and admires. Writing with confidence and an easy facility in Spanish and English, Baca uses vernacular speech, poetic form, ancient Mexican lore, and contemporary popular culture.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jimmy Santiago Baca, born in 1952 to Chicano parents in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had a deprived and unsettled childhood. He spent his early childhood first with grandparents, until he was five, and then in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, orphanage. He ran away from the orphanage when he was eleven and for the next nine years lived on the streets and in various detention centers.

In 1972, Baca was arrested and convicted for possession of heroin with intent to sell. He was sent to prison in Florence, Arizona, where he stayed for the following seven years. There, according to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ordered his release in 1979, he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, including electric shock therapy.

Despite its harshness, however, Baca’s prison experience turned him around as a person and set his life on a new course. Poetry became his savior. In prison, he began reading and writing, first a journal and then poetry. He was encouraged by several people, including Will Inman, former publisher of New Kauri poetry magazine, who visited Baca in prison. He also submitted poems to Mother Jones magazine, where the distinguished poet Denise Levertov was poetry editor. Describing Baca as “an extraordinarily gifted poet,” Levertov published three of his prison poems in Mother Jones and began a correspondence with him.

Louisiana State University Press, noted among academic presses for its support of poetry, published Baca’s collection Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979). The poems in Immigrants in Our Own Land center...

(The entire section is 1,791 words.)