Baca, Jimmy Santiago
BACA, Jimmy Santiago
Nationality: American. Born: Jose Santiago Baca, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2 January 1952. Education: Self-educated; received G.E.D. Family: Married; two sons. Career: Poet-in-residence, University of California, Berkeley, and Yale University. Writer and farmer. Awards: American Book award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1988, for Martín and Meditations on the South Valley; Berkeley Regents' fellowship, 1989; Wallace Stevens fellowship, Yale University, 1990; Ludwig Vogelstien award in poetry.
Fired Up with You: Poems of a Niagara Vision, with others. Naco, Arizona, Border Publishing Company, 1977.
Jimmy Santiago Baca. Santa Barbara, California, Rock Bottom, 1978.
What's Happening. Willimantic, Connecticut, Curbstone, 1982.
Poems Taken from My Yard. Fulton, Missouri, Timberline, 1986.
Black Mesa Poems. New York, New Directions, 1989.
In the Way of the Sun. N.p., Grove Press, 1997.
Set This Book on Fire. Mena, Arkansas, Cedar Hill, 1999.
Los Tres Hijos de Julia (produced Los Angeles, 1991).
Working in the Dark. Santa Fe, Red Crane Books, 1991.*
Critical Studies: "Two Contemporary Chicano Verse Chronicles" by Julian Olivares, in Americas Review (Houston, Texas), 16(3–4), Fall/Winter 1988; "Errance et transfert chez Jimmy Santiago Baca" by Yves-Charles Grandjeat, in Multilinguisme et multiculturalisme en Amerique du Nord: Espace seuils limites, edited by Jean Beranger and others, Bordeaux, Marillier, 1990; "Carrying the Magic of His People's Heart: An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca" by Gabriel Melendez, in Americas Review (Houston, Texas), 19(3–4), Winter 1991; "Searching Anaya, Sainz, Fuentes and Baca for a Common, Cultural Center" by Philip J. Davis, in Confluencia (Greeley, Colorado), 11(2), Spring 1996.* * *
Jimmy Santiago Baca's Immigrants in Our Own Land is a powerful first collection of poetry. A Chicano poet, Baca served a ten-year sentence in an Arizona prison, and his poetry grows out of his experience as a convict. The title poem refers not only to the lot of Chicanos and other minorities but also to convicts as immigrants to a new life in prison:
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken …
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters …
Acknowledging the ruts that prison life can create, Baca chooses not to limit the poems to this experience alone. The poet avoids the specifics of how he got where he is, and he finds value both in remembering previous years of freedom and in looking at his present situation. His poetry is refreshingly free of political rhetoric or selfpity, though Baca does see reforms that could be made in the prison system and lists some of them in "The New Warden":
The government even commissioned some of the convicts
To design patriotic emblems…
After the first year, the new warden installed ballot boxes.
A radio and TV shop opened. Some of the convicts' sons
And daughters came into prison to learn from their fathers'
Trades and talking with them about life…
Each day six groups of convicts went into the community,
Working for the aged and infirm.
One old convict ended up marrying the governor's mother.
Though some of these poems, like the one just cited, have rhythms close to those of prose, others are very lyrical. Line lengths vary from short to the longer ones of "The New Warden" to even more extended ones that stretch out like Whitman's paragraph-length "lines." Some poems, such as "It Started," blend shorter with longer lines. Here Baca writes of a state-funded poetry workshop in which he gets encouragement from visiting writers to express himself:
I showed you my first poem ever written,
"They Only Came To See The Zoo"
But you didn't treat me like a wild ape,
Or an elephant. You treated me like Jimmy.
And who was Jimmy?
A mass of moulten fury in this furnace of steel,
and yet, my thoughts became ladles, sifting carefully
through my life…
Besides his skill in maneuvering line length, Baca is also adept at switching tone. "So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans" starts in a playfully satiric vein with "O Yes? Do they come on horses / with rifles, and say, Ese gringo, gimmee your job?" Several stanzas later, however, the tone becomes more brutal:
Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from the nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
"They're taking our jobs away."
He later achieves a powerful vision of class struggle similar to that in William Carlos Williams's "The Yachts":
Below that cool green sea of money,
millions and millions of people fight to live,
search for pearls in the darkest depths
of their dreams, hold their breath for years
trying to cross poverty to just having something.
The tone as the poem ends is elegiac, the parting words an epitaph and plea:
The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
"We aren't giving the children a chance to live."
Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.
Still, the prevailing feeling is one of hope. Baca brings a compassionate heart to his work, embracing humanity as Whitman did in the nineteenth century and as too few poets have in the twentieth. Here, in "Joe," he describes his "celly," a Vietnam vet:
Breakage of love bonds between him and his family,
Sunken cheeks and eyes turning pale
Like a great bear in hibernation during Spring,
Streams rot black, berries shrivel, and the sound
Of gunfire in the distance,
Tractors plowing under his life
As he watches from those great pale eyes,
Tractor blades claw his heart out,
Remove it slowly like a great mountain, drilling a tunnel
Right down the middle of it…
Like Auden in "September 1, 1939," Baca in his work also says that "we must love one another or die." As he says in "I Am Offering This Poem," his poems are acts of kindness and sharing:
It's all I have to give,
and all anyone needs to live,
and to go on living inside,
when the world outside
no longer cares if you live or die;
I love you.