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About Jimmy Santiago Baca Essay, Research Paper

Catherine Hardy

Like many Southwestern writers, Baca identifies with the land

around him and the myths that are part of his culture. And like Joy Harjo, Baca seeks

transformation "to make sense of a terrible, terrible history." For Baca, that

terrible history is both personal and cultural. Identified as a mestizo, a person with

both Spanish and Native American heritage, Baca perceives himself as an outsider in much

of his work. Abandoned as a child, Baca’s life is seared with a punishing past, which

includes incarceration in an Arizona prison, where he found salvation in language and the

power of poetry to transform oneself. His first major collection of poems, Immigrants

in Our Own Land (1979), centers around his prison experience. His poems reveal an

honest, passionate voice and powerful imagery full of the dark jewels of the American

Southwest landscape (llanos, mesas, and chiles) and the chaotic urban landscape

(nightclubs, rusty motors, and bricks) woven into a rich lyricism sprinkled with Spanish.

It is this style and careful attention to language that won him an American Book Award in

poetry from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1988 for Martin and Meditations on the

South Valley (1987).

Baca’s semiautobiographical Martin and Meditations on the South Valley follows

the journey of a "detribalized Apache" in much the same way Leslie Marmon

Sildo’s novel Ceremony follows the journey of the Native American character,

Tayo. For Tayo, returning to his Native American traditions and beliefs restores and

guides him back to his genuine self. Baca’s Martin hungers for the stories of his

relatives much in the way Native Americans understand that storytelling is a powerful way

to remain connected to one’s culture and history. It is through stories and returning to

his native land, "Burque" (Albuquerque, New Mexico), that Martin, like Tayo,

finds a sense of restoration and peace although Baca always reminds us that the American

Dream remains out of reach for most Chicanos and Native Americans.

In Black Mesa Poems (1989), Baca becomes a voice for a larger circle of the

disenfranchised who work the fields, who push to keep a life going from day to day, who

edge near violence daily, and who have almost forgotten the rich roots of their culture.

Ironically, it is in Baca’s storytelling that these lives will be remembered and their

history recorded. In his collection of essays, Working in the Dark (1992), which

won the 1993 Southwest Book Award, Baca directly discusses his troubled history, the power

of language, and the loss of dignity among Chicanos. In an article from that collection,

"Chicanismo: Destiny and Destinations," Baca eloquently and poignantly portrays

himself as someone who aches to lead his people to freedom much with the sweeping

exuberance of Walt Whitman or dark determination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While Baca’s work has cultural and sociological significance to American studies at the

end of the 20th c., it also belongs among a growing number of works written by

men who, inspired, empowered, or perhaps enraged by the women’s movement of the 1970s,

have sought to redefine their role as a man. Some of these writers include Robert Lowell,

Robert Slt, and James Wright. One of Baca’s poems that addresses this issue is "El

Gato," a mournful and dynamic wail about a young boy whose life spirals further into

violence each day. At the end of the poem, Baca urges all men to learn to "cry"

to undo the old wounds of the past and the suffocating thinking they have inherited as


The search for a genuine identity is a common theme in American literature. Baca ’s

journey in his poetry for his genuine identity is an especially critical one because as

Rudolfo Anaya and others have recognized, until all the voices of the nation are heard, we

will not know the true literature of the U.S.

from Encyclopedia of American Literature. Copyright ? 1999 by the Continuum

Publishing Company.

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