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.)

José Santiago Baca Biography

(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.)

José Santiago Baca Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

For his poems, Jimmy Santiago Baca (BAH-kah), born José Santiago Baca, draws not only from his life’s experiences but also from the Southwest, where he was born. He displays a rich appreciation for language, as well as his cultures. His writings also reveal important insights into the human and spiritual conditions of his people. He has been called the people’s poet. Like many other great writers, Baca loves language, and, like other writers steeped in the cultures of the Southwest, he credits language with power, attributing his “rebirth” to language. The power he refers to is both mystical and real. For him, language has both a literal and figurative power of creation and self-renewal. Much of his work is about transformation, metamorphosis, and self-actualization.

Baca’s mother was Chicana and his father an Apache Indian. Coming from this heritage, Baca understands the problems caused by poverty and poor education as well as other social issues that affect many people in New Mexico. His parents divorced when he was two years old. Much of his writing seeks to recover those elements of himself lost between the years following his parents’ divorce and his rebirth through language. His mother’s second husband killed her, and his father died of alcoholism. Baca lived with grandparents for a while, but at the age of five he was placed in St. Anthony’s Home for Boys in Albuquerque. He also spent many years on the streets, learning to survive. Between the ages of eleven and twenty, Baca traveled to southeastern states before returning back to the Southwest. When he was twenty, he was charged with drug possession and sentenced to five years at the prison in Florence, Arizona. The sentence was later extended to six years, and he spent four of those years in isolation.

Baca’s experience in what he called “this huge cemetery called the prisons of America” became the means for him to turn away from his past life. He claims that he spent a good amount of time in solitary...

(The entire section is 821 words.)