May 2, 2016

From Saved to Savior: Jimmy Santiago Baca Gives Back Through Poetry

Last Wednesday, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca delivered the Latinx Heritage Series Keynote Lecture, as part of an event organized by El Movimento Estiduantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MEChA) de UChicago and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

Illiterate until age 21, Baca spent five years in prison, during which he discovered something that would change the course of his life: poetry. Baca credits poetry for “literally” saving his life, for the books that he had tied around his waist served as his armor when an inmate who attacked him stabbed a thick volume of English poetry instead of flesh.

The story of Baca as a convict-turned-poet suggests that he has “made it.” However, Baca insisted that he does not understand what “making it” means, saying that he does not take himself seriously, nor does he feel the need for external validation.

“I don’t need to legitimize myself,” he said. “I turned all the tenures down; I also turned down money from philanthropist organizations.” He was also perplexed by how institutions tried to co-opt him. He chuckled, for example, at the fact that there is a whole room at Stanford University named after him. Similarly, he found it absurd that the university wanted to buy the letters that he had written to other poets.

“I had my truck filled with [these] letters,” Baca said, “and I was going to take them to the dump!”

Many think Baca made a mistake in turning his back on the various institutions that have tried to employ him, but Baca refuses to be part of a system that he says effectively requires him to ignore the community he came from.

“If you walk into a system that excludes half of the men and women in this country,” he said, “your check is going to say, ‘We’re going to pay you this much money if you ignore these people.’” Baca defies these institutions while recognizing his inability to single-handedly take down the inequality they represent.  “The one thing I can do today,” he declared, “is say ‘fuck you’ to the system.”

Such a comment aptly reflects the way Baca makes his own choices regardless of how others judge him. For example, he defended the fact that he does not go to writers’ conferences or prioritize writing above everything else in his life, an attitude that other writers consider heretical.

“I want to be a good parent,” he told the audience. “Is that some big, major surprise?”

Despite not taking himself too seriously, Baca values the consequences of his contributions to the community. He talked about being offered an honorary Ph.D. in his home state and sharing the stage with a man who was honored for discovering a planet. (“I’m on stage with a dude who discovered a planet!” Baca exclaimed, seemingly still in disbelief.) But his incredulousness was replaced by another kind of shock, he said, the moment his name was announced and all the people he had taught to read and write in the audience gave him a standing ovation, filling the whole basketball arena with noise.

“I just started crying,” Baca said. “I had discovered a planet for them. It was the literary planet; they were able to name their universe. It was a new discovery for them.”

Now, Baca continues to expand this universe for those similar to him by giving ex-convicts a second chance and supporting the Chican@ community. He has built a retreat house exclusively for ex-convicts and founded Cedar Tree, a nonprofit organization that organizes writing workshops for ex-cons and offers them internships. His upcoming projects include memoirs and biographies of Chicanos, a community whose voices are underrepresented in the literary sphere.

“Those are the kind of people we need to teach to read and write,” he said about these communities. “[We need to teach these] wild horses, so they won’t be slaughtered and killed.”

During his talk, Baca described what it means for him to be a successful poet. “Being a successful poet means you make a lot of enemies, means you say a lot of wrong things, but [at the] end of the day, you go to sleep,” he said.

Yet Baca is more than a good poet or good parent. In his poem, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” Baca writes, “We are born with dreams in our hearts,/ looking for better days ahead.” Through his poetry, he aims to help others make those dreams and better days a reality.

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