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About Jimmy Santiago Baca Essay, Research Paper
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
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