José Santiago Baca Biography


(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...

(The entire section is 536 words.)


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

(The entire section is 736 words.)