An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca
Aladama, Frederick Luis, MELUS
From Chicano down-and-out street tough and maximum-security-prison denizen to poetry slam champion, holder of the Wallace Stevens Chair at Yale, and recent winner of Germany's most prestigious International Award, Jimmy Santiago Baca has led a most unusual life. Filled to the brim with great pleasures and sufferings, harmonies and contradictions, his breathtaking poetry, fervent memoir, sharp-sighted short stories, social dramas, and other creative work ate a testimony to this and form an important corner stone to Chicano/a and American letters today.
Born in 1952 in New Mexico to a Chicana mother and an Apache Indian father, he learned swiftly and suddenly the pains of not belonging. After Baca's father died of alcoholism and his mother packed her bags for California, the young Baca found himself first living with his grandparents and then deposited in an orphanage. After years of growing up within the walls of the orphanage and dropping out of high school, Baca hit the streets of Albuquerque to find solace with other like-minded, deeply alienated Chicanos. Barely getting by and treading deep the streets of cities scattered throughout the Southwest, in 1973 and at age 21 he found himself charged with possession and intent to distribute drugs, and was sentenced to a six-years lock up in a maximum security prison in Florence, Arizona.
Four years of isolation plus electric shock treatment did not break Baca's spirit. Indeed, Baca turned his internment into a self-fashioned chrysalis: starting from scratch, he first learned how to read and write, subsequently he applied himself to master words and aesthetic forms, and ultimately he devoted himself to become a creator with both. All along this unusual apprenticeship he never lost sight of his one and only goal: to use the power of literature to build new worlds, new meanings, new emotions, and new interpretations in order to help his readers reach a position from which the actual world could be perceived under a different light and could be related to in fresh, much more complex, finally compassionate, and racist-free ways.
With a GED tucked safely under his arm and a library patiently stored in his brain from his secluded years of assimilation of the wonders and craft of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, William Wordsworth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg, to name only a few, Baca walked out of prison ready to face the world as a self-identified Chicano poet. That is to say, both as a Chicano and as a poet--an inseparable whole for his aim was from the start to give literary expression to his uniquely located and time-bound experiences, not to craft "poetry for poetry's sake." Through literature, he hoped, those experiences could make the leap from the private sphere of the atomized individual to the public domain of the communicable, the diversely evaluated, the possibly shared or challenged, and ultimately the socially effective. Words, for Baca, were the seeds he would plant to grow roots in a land that had constantly discriminated against, excluded, displaced, and discarded not only him but also his Chicano/a compatriots, the Mexican and other Latino immigrants, the African Americans, the Asian Americans, as well as numerous other groups of fellow citizens.
Baca's pinta (prison) poetry resonated loud with audiences inside and outside of the State penitentiary. While still in prison, his first poems saw the light of day in Mother Jones, and a year before his release he published his first chapbook, Jimmy Santiago Baca (1978). In these early poems, his already exceptional lyrical voice speaks out against the dehumanizing conditions of prison life. The year of Baca's release from the penitentiary in 1979 also marked the publication of his first collection of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems. The deprecatory stance has here a wide range dealing with racism, oppression, and exploitation in our social system, and the finely honed lyricism speaks as well to the Chicano/a condition more generally. …