The History of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Poetry

Many writers and poets have drawn inspiration and motivation from their childhood, past experiences, and hope for the future. Abandoned to an orphanage at a young age, Jimmy Santiago Baca was convicted of drug possession by the age of twenty-one. During his many years in prison, Baca learned how to read and write, eventually publishing his early poems from within the prison walls.  Despite his accomplishments and prestigious awards, Baca remains a humble person by helping kids who are facing the same struggles he faced growing up. Through his poems he shows “the splendor of human existence amidst the desolate surroundings of prison life” (Baca 7). In his poems, Jimmy Santiago Baca takes the reader through the feelings of loss, dejection, and the quest for identity that relates to his life in prison.

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Jimmy Santiago Baca grew up with a tough childhood. His parents divorced at an early age, and he was shuffled between relatives and orphanages. During his teenage years, he was in and out of detention centers and was always found spending his time on Albuquerque’s streets and urban barrios. Baca first began to write poetry during his stay in prison, realizing how to express his thoughts and ideals through poetry. While Baca was in prison for drug charges, he immersed himself in the world of books, reading the works of many famous poets. Through the process of self-discovery, he taught himself English and Spanish, and finally received his GED. His experience in prison consisted of “lockdowns, solitary confinements, electroshock therapy session, and beatings by prison guards… [pushing] him to the lowest ebb of his life” (Baca, CW: SS 3). After prison, Baca left for North Carolina before returning to New Mexico, where he spent time living in Albuquerque working odd jobs such as a night watchman, janitor, and laborer. Once the birth of his first child occurred, Baca finally settled down with his wife and began “fully [embracing] his past… with the predominantly Chicano community” (Baca, CW: SS 6). Since then, Baca has begun to seriously publish his works of literature to the public.
Jimmy Santiago Baca is considered a renowned Chicano poet because of his “rich imagery and lyricism of his poetry” (Baca, DA 1). In his works, he suggests that poetry is not always restorative, but resilient when human life is given a chance. When he was given that chance, Baca discovered a state of freedom and humanity away from the dreary realities, by celebrating the human spirit in extreme situations through his poems. Each poem represents a little part of his life from the process of reestablishing his life after his years in prison. His poems never have had a consistent pattern, some may have rhythms similar to prose, but others are very lyrical. The line lengths may vary from short to long, while some poems might have a blend of short and longer lines. With his line maneuvering, Baca had skills in switching tones (Duane, CP 1, 2).The subject of his poems were developed from his experiences, which include his personal responses to the troubled life he lived as a young adult. Baca’s poetry include the reoccurring “themes of transformation, metamorphosis, and self-actualization” (Baca, CW: SS 4), which were constant thoughts and changes of Baca. Therefore, his works display the truths of the human heart while in hardship, with the help of “wisdom, courage, beauty, and above all, hope” (Taylor, KYAPBG 1). The central focus of Baca’s poetry is said to bring compassion from the heart and embracing humanity in times of extreme dislocation.
Baca’s poem – “Who Understands Me But Me” contains many elements of perseverance, determination, and realization which are evident in most of his poetry. The poem starts off with the speaker receiving new restrictions, but the speaker finds a way to live with the restrictions. Among the restraints and negativity, the speaker develops a positive attitude. With the new restrictions and experiences in hand, he begins to realize his own identity; the speaker learns to “[find] parts of [himself] never dreamed of by [him].” The poem ends with the speaker questioning who understands him when he says something is beautiful.
Mainly, the poem seems forthright and lifeless, repetitive and simple, but this poem has great meaning behind what is seen on the surface level. Throughout the poem, the readers are able to experience “the physical and mental barriers” (Baca, DA 2). which occur during prison life. The restrictions in the beginning of the poem are represented using anaphora to add emphasis on the continuous struggles which are faced in prison. “They take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart” creates an indifferent tone from the speaker. “I followed these signs like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep in myself” explains that his experiences paved a way for the speaker to “explore the universal theme of an individual’s painful search for identity and meaning” (Baca, DA 2). The tone of the poem shifts from indifferent to uplifting and empowering to show that the experiences learned were positive improvements for the speaker. Since the speaker has gone through many sufferings, he proves that those sufferings helped him for the future. Everyone evolves within themselves every day, but when the time comes for hardships to be encountered, the experiences may become beneficial for their prospect of life.
The feelings of loss, dejection, and the quest for identity experiences from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s life in prison are shown throughout his poetry. Baca offers means on how to rebuild a broken life, rather than dwell on the painful past. Ever since then, he has been able to change the lives of many Hispanic and Amerindian peoples, by displaying the true insight from the intimidating prisons that guide the changing views of their lives.