By Fernando González, Miami-based arts & culture writer
Those who argue for the transformative power of the written word will be hard pressed to find a more potent, or moving, argument than the life of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.
His childhood story suggests a Dickensian tale set in the American Southwest.
Baca was born in rural New Mexico of parents of Apache and Mexican descent. The family—his mother, father, brother and a sister—all lived in a two-room shack. When he was 2 years old, he was abandoned and ended up living with one of his grandmothers. But she was unable to care for him, and the authorities eventually placed him in an orphanage. He ran away when he was 11 years old, and for the next few years, he lived by the rules of the street.
In an interview in Las Americas Journal he recalled that “by the time I was sixteen I had been in the county jail maybe about twenty times for assault and battery with the police.” By 18, he was in prison serving five to 10 years in a maximum-security prison in Arizona for drug possession with the intent to distribute. He ended up serving six and a half years in prison, three of them in isolation, the institutional response to his having expressed a desire to learn to read and write and get his GED.
“When you grow up illiterate you have to rely on other people, you are at the mercy of other people explaining to you how the world works,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in New Mexico. “And they tell you things you believe to be true, and every single day you are deceived or betrayed … and you feel stupid for not knowing.”
In a recent interview with “New Letters on the Air,” he spoke of how “a man by the name of Harry from Phoenix,” who worked for the Good Samaritan Home, helping the homeless, randomly picked his name out of a list of inmates who didn’t have anybody to visit, and asked him what he needed. Baca responded that he could send him “a book, an English and Spanish book,” and Harry did.
That was the beginning of Baca’s once-improbable writing career. He started writing letters and poems, and also started reading for his fellow inmates. He recalled the first line he wrote of his first poem. It was sparked by what he called the “impotent routine” of yet another look-see prison visit by a group of politicians.
Did you tell them hell is not a dream and that you’ve been there? Did you tell them?
The poem, “They Only Came to See the Zoo” (excepted below) was published in his collection “A Place to Stand” in 2001.
Our muscles warped and scarr’d
Wrap around our skeletons
Like hot winds
That sweep the desert floor
In search of shade …
The gray pity of our lot
Made you turn away
But our spirits met that moment
Faraway in the land of Justice
And we whispered with our eyes,
But you did not.
It’s been so long now
Since you left.
Did you tell them?
Hell is not a dream
And that you’ve been there?
Did you tell them?
In the interview in Las Americas Journal he explained that it was “some sort of voice in me talking to another voice in me, saying, ‘You’ve lived this: Did you tell them? Did you tell them?’ It was almost a voice of guilt saying, ‘Your obligation is to write!’ And the voice cried out, Did you tell them hell is not a dream and that you’ve been there? Did you tell them? And I had to answer ‘No. I didn’t.’ That was the most powerful five or six lines that got me going. I wondered where the voice came from … I think the real impetus of my writing began when I looked out the window of my cage one day and said, ‘The world doesn’t want me. I’m not accepted by the world. So whatever I write, I will bring the world to me.’”
As it turns out, Baca sent three of his poems to Denise Levertov, then the poetry editor of Mother Jones.
The poems were published by Mother Jones and eventually became part of “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” his first collection of poetry, published in 1979, the same year he was released from prison. He has since published several books of poetry—including “Healing Earthquakes” (2001), “C-Train and 13 Mexicans” (2002), “Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande” (2004), and “Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande” (2007), “Stories From the Edge” (2010), “The Esai Poems” (2011) and “The Lucia Poems” (20120—but also novels, essays and screenplays. Baca’s most recent anthology, published earlier this year, is “Singing at the Gates.”
“People have a way to make you feel ashamed of yourself and make you feel inferior and that sense of worthlessness and no self-esteem often find an outlet joining a gang and destroying yourself because you don’t feel you are important enough to live,” said Baca. “So my way of battling that was to learn how to put what I was feeling into words and then share those words with those around me.”