Freed by Poetry

by Myra Saturen, photos by Ian Shipman
April 11, 2013

Jimmy Santiago BacaWorld-famous poet Jimmy Santiago Baca learned to read and write in prison. 

Born in New Mexico to parents too poor to care for him, Baca was sent to live with his grandmother, who was 70% blind.  When his grandmother could no longer look after him, he had to enter an orphanage.  Baca's mother was murdered when he was five.  His brothers, too, were slain.  "I never knew a mother's hug," he said, confiding that he never got over his mother's absence.   

As an adolescent, Baca lived with friends and on the street.  By the time he was sixteen, he had been incarcerated about 20 times.  When he was 18, a friend he was living with sold drugs to an agent.  Baca, too, was arrested, going to prison for possession with intent to distribute, even though he did not have any drugs.  He served more than six years, suffering facial beatings that left him with chronic oral injuries.   

Baca's transformation from a bleak childhood and harsh imprisonment into an internationally acclaimed poet, screenwriter, novelist, activist, motivator, and teacher was the subject of talks he gave at Northampton Community College's Main and Monroe campuses on April 11.  The annual poetry day at Northampton is named in memory of poet Len Roberts, an English professor  who brought many renowned poets to the College. Professor of English James Von Schilling noted a commonality between Roberts and Baca: part Native American ancestry. 

Ironically, it was in prison, that Baca freed himself, made himself into who he really was.  "It was an archetypal impulse," he said.  "I wanted to learn to read and write."  At first the impetus was practical--he wanted to correspond with a woman he loved.  He read on and discovered the poets Rilke, Whitman, Neruda.  "I was emblazed with literature and poetry," he said.  He struggled for the opportunity to go to school.  An earlier promise turned to denial.  Finally, though taken to a classroom in chains, Baca felt light on his feet.  "This [education] was a step I had wanted to take for twenty-one years." 

Filled with passion for language, Baca rejected gangs and crime.  "I'm done," he told himself. "I'm tired of being betrayed, of being a student of destruction."  As another kind of student, Baca sent three of his poems to Denise Levertov, the poetry editor at Mother Jones.  The poems were published in 1979, the year of his release, and became part of Baca's first collection Immigrants in Our Own Land.  He earned his GED later that year.

Ever since, he has devoted himself to writing.  "I have the gift to make old men cry and old women sing," he said.  "That is so much more important than robbing people."  Baca is the author of a memoir, A Place to Stand (2001); a collection of stories and essays, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (1992); a play, Los tres hijos de Julia (1991); a screenplay, Bound by Honor, released by Hollywood Pictures as Blood In Blood Out (1993); and the novels Second Chances and A Glass of Water. His work has been translated into 33 languages.  He is the winner of the Pushcart and International prizes and the American Book, International Hispanic Heritage, and Cornelius P. Turner GED awards, in addition to many others.

Most of all, he has achieved a free spirit.  A few years ago, a former warden--having temporarily forgotten Baca  -- attended one of the poet's readings.  When Baca introduced himself, the warden swept his poetry books onto the floor and walked out.  Baca recognized the warden's self-imposed blinders. "The warden was more of a prisoner than I would ever be," he said.  "He is still in prison. I am free."    

AT NCC, dressed plainly in a plaid shirt and baseball cap, Baca interlaced his reading and life storyJimmy Santiago Baca with jokes. A natural raconteur, Baca had his audience laughing along with his free-flowing wit.   

Baca's life is filled with purpose.  He is dedicated to teaching literacy and inspiring people.  "I go to places where I think I can be of use," he said.  Among his favorite destinations are community colleges.  "This is where literature meets life.  Community college students have lived life experiences in abundance.  You've experienced racism, have had someone in prison, known people with AIDS."  Committed to literacy for those who have been deprived of education, he teaches reading and writing all over the world.  

In tandem with literature and education, Baca also advocates for social justice.  He pointed out that 6,000 Mexican women have been raped and murdered at the U.S. border, the crimes ignored by the media. 

His life an outstanding example, Baca urged his listeners to "live life to the highest potential."  He advised his audience to get to know people from cultures other than their own.  "You will enrich your life and those of your children," he said. 

To read Baca's poetry go to


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