Jimmy Santiago Baca, 1978
Immigrants in Our Own Land, 1979
Swords of Darkness, 1981
What’s Happening?, 1982
Poems Taken from My Yard, 1986
Martín &, Meditations on the South Valley, 1986
Black Mesa Poems, 1989
Immigrants in Our Own Land, and Selected Earlier Poems, 1990
In the Way of the Sun, 1997
Set This Book on Fire, 1999
Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems, 2001
C-Train (Dream Boy’s Story) and Thirteen Mexicans, 2002
Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, 1992
A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet, 2001
Los tres hijos de Julia, pr. 1991
Bound by Honor, 1993
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 confinement. Because he felt his imprisonment diminished his sense of self, he looked for productive ways to spend his time. Like many inmates, he was functionally illiterate. He taught himself to read and obtained his GED (General Equivalency [high school] Diploma). Poetry caught his attention first; he read the works of Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Federico García Lorca, as well as those of William Wordsworth, Mary Baker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg.
While in prison, a fellow inmate encouraged Baca to write and send his works to Mother Jones magazine, at which Denise Levertov was poetry editor. Baca claims he needed help to address the envelope containing his submissions. After his first successful submission to Mother Jones, he received encouragement from Levertov, and he began to transform himself into a poet. Rather than allow bitterness and hatred to imbue his works, Baca used writing as a process of reconstructing his life. Themes of transformation, change, and self-actualization permeate his work, which is also connected to personal circumstance.
Having discovered the power of language for transformation and reconstruction, Baca used his gifts for writing to respond to his circumstances–those of the past and those he endured in prison. Upon his release, Baca went to his sister’s home. There he began the process of discovering his former self and constructing his new identity. He says that upon leaving prison he could not recognize the person he had been; the changes he saw were marked. He said of a photograph of himself at age sixteen: I knew it was me, but my mind had taken such cosmic leaps through language, and consequently those leaps entailed a sort of immolation, a sort of ritual burning of past . . . and language, the vowels, the consonants, the syllables all became a sort of pyre which the past was placed on, and burned in the flames of language.
I knew it was me, but my mind had taken such cosmic leaps through language, and consequently those leaps entailed a sort of immolation, a sort of ritual burning of past . . . and language, the vowels, the consonants, the syllables all became a sort of pyre which the past was placed on, and burned in the flames of language.
In his book Healing Earthquakes, Baca presents a “poetic” biography. The poems recall his past life, his time in prison, discovery of memories of his grandmother and her loving influence on him, finding love, transcending his experiences in prison with drugs and alcohol, and finally his rebirth through language. His poems demonstrate his skillful and passionate use of language and his connection to his community as well as his journey through life. Along the way, he has received awards, including the American Book Award for poetry of the Before Columbus Foundation for Martín; &, Meditations on the South Valley, the National Heritage Award, a Wallace Stevens poetry fellowship, and a Ludwig Vogelstein award.
This American poet combines the freedom expressed by Whitman with his own power, passion, and connection to his Chicano/Apache roots. The messages within his poems ring true to those who know, understand, and love the people and landscape of the American Southwest.