Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
Jimmy Santiago Baca’s collection Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio is a blunt and honest gathering of essays, journal entries, and poetry that describe some of the more poignant incidents in a long journey that Baca has made from a “troubled and impoverished Chicano family”...
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Jimmy Santiago Baca’s collection Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio is a blunt and honest gathering of essays, journal entries, and poetry that describe some of the more poignant incidents in a long journey that Baca has made from a “troubled and impoverished Chicano family” to a position of prominence as a widely admired poet. Baca’s subject as a writer is the life and history of Albuquerque’s South Valley. Baca passionately explores the crucial episodes in a process of self-growth and self-discovery beginning with his most desperate moments as an empty, powerless, inarticulate young man, through an expanding series of revelations about life and language in prison, and ending with his eventual construction of a self based on his relationships to the land, his family, and his identity as a “detribalized Apache” and Chicano artist.
The heart of the book is the fourth section, “Chicanismo: Destiny and Destinations.” After covering his discovery in prison of the redemptive powers of language, and his sense of a loss of Chicano culture in an Anglo world, Baca recalls the one positive feature of his youth: the three years he spent in the home of his grandparents before he was five. This memory kept a dim vision alive through the years when Baca began to realize that “none of what I did was who I was.” In the first part of the “Chicanismo” section, Baca delivers a systematic critique of the methods used by a dominant Anglo culture to stereotype, demean, and distort Chicano life. Drawing on his prison experience and on his troubles in school and in various temporary jobs, Baca describes how he felt doubly imprisoned as an immigrant in his own land and as one under the control of unknowing authorities.
As part of a plan to reclaim his cultural heritage, Baca reaches back into history to show how valuable and vital Chicano culture has been. In a satirical commentary on the Columbus quincentennial, which Baca debunks with a punning title “De Quiencentennial?” (whose quincentennial is it, anyway?), Baca introduces some of the positive, admirable facets of the life of the South Valley near Albuquerque. One of the strongest features of the life of la raza (the race) has been an oral tradition that, as Baca points out, has defied attempts to suppress or extinguish its vitality, “Our language, which I have inherited, is a symphony of rebellion against invaders.” In the last section of the book, “Gleanings from a Poet’s Journal,” Baca demonstrates this linguistic power as he explains how he wrote in the dark when Chicanos could not find access to print, how the barrio is like an “uncut diamond” for the artist to shape, and how Baca responds to queries about his “Indian-ness.”