Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico of Native American and Mexican descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was raised by his grandparents until the age of five, when he began a two-decade rotation through various institutions, beginning with the orphanage where his aunt surrendered him.
Baca spent six and a half years in Arizona State Prison on a drug charge, including three years in isolation. He also endured a stint housed with prisoners on death row after he announced his intention to become literate, an ambition he says the prison regarded as dangerous.
Baca followed through on this intention, teaching himself to read and write, and finding his voice as a poet. He published his first volume of poetry in 1979, the year he was released from prison, and earned his GED later that year. Baca went on to write numerous books of poetry and nonfiction and has been recognized with some of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, and the International Hispanic Heritage Award. His memoir, A Place to Stand, was made into a documentary film that was released in June 2016.
Baca has devoted his post-prison life to writing and teaching others who are overcoming hardship and has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries, and universities. As part of that effort, he has distributed thousands of books to incarcerated adults and youth. In 2005, he created Cedar Tree, Inc., a foundation that works to give people from all walks of life access to education and the opportunity to improve their lives.
Recently Baca spoke with Kids Read Now about the profound effects of illiteracy in childhood and beyond.
How do you get basic information if you can’t read? An awful lot of daily tasks require at least some reading.
Baca: One of the disastrous consequences of not having language is that you get absolutely everything wrong. When you can’t read, you have no idea how the world works. You assume so much because you’re living in this isolation of illiteracy. For instance, when I was a kid living in the detention center, we just assumed that everybody who was not part of the juvenile system just got things for nothing–that they didn’t work for their cars, or the things they had.
Ultimately, you’re at the mercy of other people who know more. You take one step wrong, and they shame you. And everything you do is wrong. That’s what turns people; that’s what criminalizes them.
That’s why I believe in good literature for children. Good books can help socialize kids who don’t have any other role models. Books can show them about the rest of the world and show them that they’re not alone– that it’s okay to express your feelings.
You find out that, yes, you’re going to be lonely sometimes–that you may not always be happy, but that you can get through it.
How did you learn to read? Was there a class in prison?
Baca: I taught myself. It wasn’t hard. I mean, people think it is, but it’s not. I picked it up right away. And when I began to pick up words, man, it was like “Wow.” It was like being an infant. The first time you read a word, it’s like the first time you smell. It’s the first time you see colors. It’s the first time you hear sounds. Everything had a firstness to it, a new beginning to it, and that just drove me to stay awake 18 hours a day. It was a passion. The fact that I could read something and then attach it to a person was amazing. I learned how to write a sentence, and I could attach that sentence to the guy living next to me. Eventually, I started writing poems.
How did things change when you could read and write?
Baca: The prison administration saw literacy as a threat. They knew that if you can read and write, you can explain things. I could do an analysis of what had happened and determine that they were wrong. They tried to shut me down; they put me as far away from the population as they could. But I still had access to books through people who somehow found my address and sent them to me.
Plus, I read all the books that circulated in the prison. Sometimes I would go from reading Hemingway to reading a pornography book. And it was really cool. I went from Mary Baker Eddy to Che Guevara. And it was like, “Wow, what a world. We have these people, man, and they have all these ideas.”
The only problem was when you’re in prison, if you have language, you don’t really have a lot of people to talk to.
What was it like when you were released?
Baca: Well, one thing is, as powerful as literature is, you quickly learn that it’s not reality, it’s just what the author set up. Say he writes about a poet who comes out of prison, and gets married and has a family, and gets hired by a university. Well, then, you expect that. But when you come out, you meet other poets and they’re all on starvation diets. And they’re living in little tiny apartments with no electricity. So right away your standards are set really high, and when you can’t meet those standards you find yourself disappointed, mostly in yourself. Plus, when you teach yourself to read in prison, you end up mispronouncing a lot of words and people correct you.
I also learned that whatever an author or poet writes, the individual writer can be totally opposite to that. A writer can sit down and write an entire book about the danger of doing drugs, and be the biggest drug addict in the world. But the other side of that is that writing can allow you to get beyond those shortcomings. It’s both requiem and redemption. Requiem in that you’re always dying, but redemption because writing can save you. It saved me.