Jimmy Santiago Baca went into a maximum security prison in Arizona at the age of 22 to serve five years for selling drugs.
He’d had two years of formal schooling. He’d never read a book and didn’t know how to write. He taught himself in his cell.
Immigrants In Our Own Land, a 56-page volume of his poems, was published last fall by Louisiana State University Press, a year after his release. Poet and critic Denise Levertov writes, “Jimmy exhorts not others but himself; full of a rich, sensuous, romantic talent, his poems let us participate in a process of personal growth and developing consciousness, not without bitterness and rage but not dominated by these emotions.”
In prison, insisting that he be left alone to read and write, he refused to work and was immediately branded a troublemaker. He also crossed the leaders of a powerful extortion gang, which operated with the knowledge, and cooperation, of prison authorities. Prisoners were threatened with death unless they, or their families, paid protection money. The threats were often carried out.
Jimmy cooperated with other prisoners to expose the racket. A local newspaper headlined the story, the State Legislature investigated, and the warden was finally asked to resign. A guard told Jimmy he’d never leave prison alive. One of the convicts who’d testified before the Legislature was found with his throat cut.
Jimmy made it out and came to live in North Carolina with Hurdle Mills poet Virginia Rudder. Twenty-eight years old now, he spends much of his time writing; his work has appeared in New Directions, Mother Jones, and other publications. The title of his book refers to the Chicanos who are “regarded as immigrants by the white community, even though our ancestors, all the early tribes, the Aztecs and Yacquis, were the first to settle this country.” Racial pride is strong in Jimmy — he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was “pretty much a street urchin” the first 15 years of his life — but his love for all people is stronger.
SUN: In “Song of Survival” you talk about an “hour of enlightenment.”
BACA: Yes. I was just standing, there was nothing wrong, emotionally or otherwise, and suddenly something took me, just went right down the middle of my whole existence and split it in half, and I turned around to look at the bed, and I saw what seemed to be the opposite extreme of eternity: Where there was supposed to have been a wall with a mirror and a bathroom there was just, just. . . . The Indians say that life is limitless, it’s just beyond expression, and I peered away from the darkness, and I wasn’t even in my body then, I was somewhere else, but I saw light. Shining way down. (laughs) Sure enough it frightened me. I didn’t have anywhere to run and I wanted to run. So for two weeks after, because I thought I had sinned, I walked about eight miles from work, instead of driving home. And all the way I prayed because I thought I had done something against the god that made everything.
SUN: This happened before you went to prison?
BACA: Yeah. I was living out in the desert.
SUN: When was that?
BACA: The latter part of 1970. And that’s when I had a vision going through the desert in California. I wouldn’t call it a vision; I would just call it a mind-picture. I saw a prison cell, and I knew I was destined to go there. I knew that was mine. And I loved it. I didn’t want to avoid it because I knew that I would find something there that I needed. Desperately. And I was willing to pay the price for it.
SUN: So you chose it, you chose to live through it.
BACA: When you’re stripped of everything you know certain things. It’s inevitable that you know. Just as you’re born to cry when you come out of the womb, you’re born with responses that are much deeper than that. And these are the truths that are called Truth. It’s indelible upon existence. That’s what it is, and that’s what you are, and those truths are with you and if you’re stripped of everything, you can’t shake yourself from those.
When I went to prison, not in my whole life had I ever read a book. I didn’t even know how to write a letter, how to address a letter, I’d never even used a stamp before. I was directed to that as the only salvation I had. And damn if it didn’t work.
SUN: You didn’t write anything before then?
BACA: No. And it’s funny because I took out my notebooks, my first notebooks, and I didn’t know how to spell “sea” or “light” or “darkness”. It was just scribbles of screams and singing. And it was singing beyond all the grammatical mistakes and all the naive exclamations of honor and sincerity and love toward mankind. Beneath it all, there was something quivering down there and I had to find it. It was me.
SUN: The dramatic way to put it is, if you hadn’t gone to prison, you wouldn’t have discovered that you are a writer.
BACA: I’ll say it this way: if I had not written, I would have died. I would have wanted somebody to kill me because that’s what kind of pain I felt when I wanted to express something. Or I would have killed somebody, and I would have gone to the madhouse if they would have taken me there, and I would have asked them to put me under some kind of drug where I wouldn’t know my name anymore and I could completely dissolve myself. When you reach such a dimension you no longer recognize the same things as other people. You’re admonished, you’re kicked, you’re laughed at. And the deeper you go into it, the more you feel that force. And as it becomes material, you’re able to bend it. The force becomes very potent and very powerful. And you can form the world from it. You can do things that otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to do. And really in the end, sight — the ability to see — is what moves things. Not moving it through time but coming to a juncture in your own consciousness where you’ve found a perfection in the world. I wrote to explain certain things to myself. I wanted to figure it out. I’d been writing for about a year and I told myself, “I think I’m ready for a poem, I think I can try one.” I was very fearful of poetry. I remember I was sitting there at the window and the sun was coming in. So I took my pen and I was going to write the poem that I’d first envisioned in the desert, about coming to prison someday. I sat down and I wrote it all out, all three stanzas, and I had one line missing and I looked at it and WHACK! — I was away somewhere else — and WHACK! — the door clanked real loud, and the guard yelled, “Baca, shower time. Get your ass out here!” So I put my pen down and I grabbed my towel and I my grabbed my bar of soap and I ran out to take a shower and I’m in the middle of the shower, all this soap on me . . . (snaps his fingers) WHACK! That line falls. And I ran out of the shower. I slipped, and I hit the floor, and the guard looked at me and he thought I’d flipped out. I jumped up with soap all over me and just ran inside my cell and put that line down. He closed the door and refused to let me out because he thought I’d left earth. And then after that there was an invisible boundary around me because people thought I was going to be crazy, which suited me fine because it gave me more room to think. If I hadn’t written I would have taken the other route. Because I believe in the other route just as much as I believe in writing. I don’t condemn people that are very passionate. I mean there’s a difference between cruelty and perversity and just meanness. Some human beings are like animals caught in traps. If you come upon a jaguar and he has his foot caught in a trap he’s going to snarl and roar and try to claw you. But the jaguar’s not really a bad animal. It’s the trap. Some people that don’t have traps on them are like that naturally. Those are the people you have to watch out for, that I watched out for.
SUN: In prison, what did you have to watch out for?
BACA: It was a wasteland. In a land like that you’re able to see little signals about human beings that will tell their whole personality, by one move of a finger, by how a person breathes, by how many times he bats his eyes, you’re able to tell whether he can get what he wants. I was a a garden, a garden plot, somebody that was being seeded with a new life. I was approached by some people that saw me and instinctively they knew that I could help them in some way just by talking to them and they knew that I wouldn’t take advantage of them. I was approached by other people that had lived in prison so long that they wanted to take something from me. It was predatory. And the only way I knew to confront that was to tell myself that I can’t be evil. I was more fearful of being evil than I was of getting hurt or being in prison or killing somebody.
When I went to prison I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t going to go along with anything. I simply refused to work for two cents an hour. They did that so people wouldn’t read, or study. When the warden and I met, the warden said, “You ain’t gonna do what you want to do and nobody walks out of this prison without me being able to tame him first.” And then he proceeded with his strategy of calling me sissy or punk and started cursing my mother, my father, my family, trying to annoy me so that if I swung out at him, he would have reason to put me with the gangsters. But I didn’t swing out at him and I promised myself not to speak at all to him. Be psychopathic if I must. I refused to work. I just told him I wanted to be left alone in my cell. So he decided to start punishing me by taking my clothes away, or giving me disciplinary reports for having a spoon of sugar in my cell or for not combing my hair, or for having wrinkles in my bed. And then they started sending me to the hole, trying to break me.
SUN: What was the hole like?
BACA: It was just a little place about the size of an ordinary bathroom and they stick you in there without lights or sheets or clothes or anything. They come three times a day and open up a little gate on the door and pass you your tray and close it back up again. He sent me there two or three times. It didn’t break me. Everything seemed to work very nicely for me.
SUN: Can you do anything about the corruption in prison? Can you run a clean prison in this society?
BACA: I think we could, but it would have to be under different conditions. Anybody can see what prison is spawning today. It’s in all the statistics. The vast majority of people that have gotten out of prison and seen what their status is in society turn to drugs, or alcohol. Most of them are flying from job to job.
You can go into prison, and see extortion rackets, homosexual rackets, murders, everything. It’ll always be like that. If you accept that it creates criminals, then you can start from that point and go forward. But not until you give up idea that prison is “helping people.” It’s not. Yet there are people who need to be imprisoned. There are people there who, if you let them out of their cells, would slash the first person they see.
The more of a reputation you have in prison, the better off you are. Then you can move around. Movement is a big thing in prison.
There are certain placements. You can either be behind the walls, or you can be in the minimum security camps where you’re able to go to town once in a while, get a piece, get a smoke, or drink, or even have a good job, where you can go to the city every day. If you go along with the system perfectly, you’re able to do that.
SUN: The system meaning also the gang system, as well as the official system?
BACA: They go hand in hand. When I beat up some gang leader, I got four or five desserts from a guard. He said, “You want to take a shower, let me know, I’ll let you out. You did a nice job on that dude, I was hoping somebody would whip him.”
Guards is a very big word. People think of a guard as somebody protecting Carter. In prison, guards aren’t like that. I was having a guard bring me chili, because we didn’t get any chili in prison. I’d be writing every night, and finally this one guard came over there, he was pretty quiet, he seemed judicious about inmates, he came and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just writing.” And that’s when I was coming out in THE SUN, and I showed it to him. “See this?”
We got to talking. Next day he brought me a little bag full of chili, little bitty chilis. He gave me about a hundred of them. You take them and pop them in your mouth and it burns your whole mouth. He said, “Don’t worry about it, I’m quitting tomorrow. I can’t take this place.” He’d only worked there two or three weeks.
The whole system is based on favors. It’s pretty much like a family. It becomes a home where you live, just like you’re all brothers and you get to know each other growing up. And you know the habits of the warden, the guards, and they know you, because you walk around in your underwear all day almost. You’re enclosed like an animal. There’s no need to put your pants on, or shirt. You just have your boxer shorts on, for two, three weeks at a time. You completely lose hold of getting on a schedule and doing something. You don’t do anything.
The guards get to know what you’re like, and you find out what they’re like, and you find out that after work, they just go have a beer and go home, and that they need money, and they are very dumb. And they happen to be working in a prison because it’s not a job an intelligent man would want.
So someone tells them, “Listen, my old lady brought me in some heroin last week, and could you run this upstairs to this dude up there and get the money for me, and I’ll give you twenty dollars?”
So he goes upstairs and he gets the money and brings it down, someone gives him twenty dollars, and before you know it, they’re asking him, “Hey, can you bring me in a couple of twenty-two pistols, or pick up a little heroin for me?”
He does that, they give him a hundred and fifty, two hundred dollars. They they work their way up to $500; some of the guards make $500 or $1000 for runs. It’s just between the convict and the guard.
Nobody else knows about it. I knew a lot of guards that were doing it. They can do anything they want to do. If they decide one day that you know too much, or the situation’s getting too hot, they’ll throw you away. They’ll put you in the basement and say you tried to escape.
A dungeon is what it really is. You stay there two years, until your skin peels to a papery white, from having no sunlight. Your gums start to bleed, and your tongue is always dry. Your mind gets distorted.
There are thousands of guys rotting in prison that we don’t even know about.
If prison elevates strength, then you have to be weak. If prison elevates violence, you have to be kind.
SUN: How did you deal with 30 days in solitary? You can’t write or read in there, can you?
BACA: No. I’d try to think. I would walk back and forth and think about how I could overcome prison. How could I best take out its cornerstone. Some brilliant thoughts occurred to me in there that made me laugh out loud.
My intention was to get as far away from prison as I could, and how can you do that while you’re in prison? You have to learn to stand for everything that is the opposite of what prison stands for. If prison elevates strength, then you have to be weak. If prison elevates group conversations, you have to be silent and alone. Everything opposite. And if prison praises this, you have to be that. Which I did.
I got cursed, spit at, had piss thrown at me, had lies told about me, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I went to the vast, vast extremities, of what stood against prison.
If I’m going to write the truth, I believe in first living it out. Oh, you can write poetry, real good poetry. But the method that I like to use is that if I’m going to write about a cop mistreating people, what I’d like to do is set it up where I could confront him. Then I could go back and write about it and talk about the people that he’s mistreated, and the people that have mistreated him, and why he’s become what he has become. That puts you into a human sphere.
If you’re a priest, you can’t test yourself by living in a temple. The only way you can test yourself is to go out into the slums, go into the bars, and there, where you have opposition and when you have tests and trial, then you see what’s what. And there’s not many people that can do that. They don’t want to do it because, for instance, if you are trying to be a very good man, and you go to a bar, and you haven’t had sex with a woman, and you see a beautiful woman, and you let yourself slip, then your body and your mind and spirit are terribly taxed. Then is when the struggle begins, the true struggle. Then is when you feel the blood in your veins begin to convulse and your heart begin to pound quicker. And that’s the way I tried to live. I don’t ever want to stagnate. That’s what my decisions were based upon: that everything that I had learned, I didn’t want just to learn. I wanted to test it. Not in theory, but in practice. And that was pretty serious, because the testing grounds were the battlegrounds, they were where people died, and the manner in which things were tested was not in a laboratory setting, but with fists and a blade and violence. And I thought, “What better test than that?” If we do have a spirit, what better way to test the spirit than with violence, the thing that most people fear?
SUN: What would be a specific way to change prison?
BACA: Sit down with any convict at random. Not the one the warden picks out. And don’t go to the places the guard takes you. But select a place you want to go. Don’t ask, “What can we do?” without talking to the convict. He is just as much a thinker and human being as you are. He’s the first person in the world to want to help himself, but there’s not a damn thing he can do with those bars in the way. The bars dissolve all energy and creativeness. It’s stupid to send a guy to school at night or during the day and have him come back to prison and lock him up. If education is supposed to open up the spirit or mind of men and you lock them up at night, that shows the stupidity of society.
This whole society is like that, it’s upside down. The best thing to do would be to go into prison and say, “Look, I want to help. How can I help?” And the convict will say, “What’s happened here is that we don’t have any books or any say-so, I don’t have any freedom . . . so if we all wanted to get together to have a class we couldn’t do it. What’s happening here is that people don’t trust each other.” We can start treating people as human beings who have certain needs. You cannot expect grown men to go without sex — to be barked at like they were children or to be locked up in eight-by-nine foot cells. You can’t expect a man who’s been locked up like that to go to the parole board and say, “Bye, I’m going out into society.” He’s the sacrificial victim. This society has sophisticated it a little — they don’t put the person on the altar and take his heart out but they do throw him in prison. And they sacrifice a man’s destiny. And there’s fear. There’s physical fear because a convict is someone who will have quite a bit of self-respect for himself. He loves life — he’s like a child, he like to play music, and dance with women, and drink. He’s not very schooled in the laws of society and how we are supposed to fit into it. He’s more free spirited. He loves to feel himself breath and run and play basketball or baseball. We need to get them to understand how to work with society, that they can’t be a society unto themselves. We need to show them how they can help — because it gives them pride to help someone. They’re brought up like that: defending friends in a fight, defending their honor. I’ve been helped by a lot of them. They’re good people.
What’s terrifying is that they are building a lot more prisons. In an average prison, the average age has dropped from 27 to 18. And the way the court systems are working now, they are getting too backlogged, so they’re reverting to easier sentences. The easier sentences are mandatory sentences. Which means you haven’t got a chance to get out of prison, even if you do behave well, until the time is up. So you can screw up all this time and when the day comes to be released, they’ve got to release, which doesn’t give a man any initiative. And now they’re throwing all these 19 year old kids that don’t have any responsibility in prisons. They’ve been nourished on drugs, and disco dances, and all these idiotic films on TV. These guys are all loaded up with this nonsense. And the only thing that means anything to them is to go to a party and get as high as you possibly can, and try to get a woman and spend the night with her, wake up in the morning and start the same routine again, just party, party, party.
People should break loose, not like in the Sixties, but with new innovative feelings and ideas that are simple, that have no basis in learning institutions, that don’t come from sitting in the classroom. It’s good, sitting in the classroom. But you can’t look to the institutions of learning for the moral way of living. You have to look at those people that mix pluses and minuses together to get some weird, weird formula. And that’s exactly how I try to live. I try to mix the moon with the sun, and the stars with the water. And I try to come up with a new universe.
I’ve been trying to become more sensitive to people. I didn’t have any parents and I didn’t grow up in the environment of a household where you learn the sensitive things of life like learning to forgive, and to ask forgiveness, to cry and to laugh freely.
SUN: Did your parents die when you were young?
BACA: No, my mother split when I was about two or three. And I didn’t see my Dad but about three times a year when he would drop in.
SUN: Who took care of you?
BACA: Oh, it was pretty much of an urchin life. I stayed with my grandmother for a while and then she couldn’t do it because she was blind and I was running around, you know how kids are, tearing curtains off and playing Zorro. So my aunt took care of me for a while and from my aunt’s house I went to an orphanage from which I ran away a lot of times. I ran away so much and became such a recalcitrant person that another aunt took me. She was an opportunist. She thought if I can get these kids they’ll work for me instead of I for them. When my brother and I realized that’s the way it was we both decided to get up and go.
I didn’t have a mother or a father image and so it’s very difficult for me to understand exactly what Freud’s talking about. It’s difficult for me to understand people that continue to linger on their morbid faults that stem from childhood. And it’s difficult for me to believe that those cannot be broken and the person cannot grow into his or her own self. I am continually caught in disbelief that people that I once esteemed without knowing them can really be such utter fools and ignorant of their own selves. And yet, conversely, it must be almost an unbreakable iron chain that connects them to their mother and father and their feelings.
Actually, growing up as I did, you cannot help but grow into a tremendous caring for all that is about you, because you’re not subjected to reading or writing, and you live in a sort of fairyland where you enjoy the rough people. You’re stimulated by beauty and you think that everything is all right. The nuns in the orphanage always carried the mystic sense of medieval castles and with their flowing skirts and their hearts just a consecration of piousness to some great god. And yet I find out later that they were fucking the kids and that they were forced to be nuns by their parents and I find out that there is no justice, or very little of it, and that all these supposed judges who get together at night clubs are just as assinine as a bunch of idiots that get together in some bar or somewhere and decide to talk about their conquests of all the women. And the judges are the same way. And that realization made me confounded. It’s really a God-given grace that I didn’t experience being mothered because if I had, I would not have been the person that I am. And yet I don’t mean to say that the need was not there. When I became 15, or so, I did search for a mother unconsciously and I found that in the nuns, in authority. And so I respected authority as a motherhood-type thing.
And yet my nature was to run away from authority like a wild pony. I couldn’t stop that nature but I did respect the authority of motherhood turned into an institution because I didn’t have the real thing. But when I finally had enough confidence in myself to confront that authority and asked that authority to have integrity, as I have had integrity in my own way, I found out that the authority was just ludicrous. I became very angry about it and decided that I would not have anything to do with it and decided that I would rather write my own ideas on paper and formulate my own values than follow something that would lie to a child.
So essentially, in my childhood I learned from trees, from the seasons, from the wind, and from the sun. And I learned very, very little from people. I never felt myself to be in a predicament even though I had no home.
When I went to prison, I knew I was doomed. I don’t want to sound clicheish, but the acceptance of your own doom brings on such profound humility that you begin to reorder the movements of your hands, the movements of your speech, and on towards the movements and the structure of your entire day. And you can plan five years and discipline yourself to those five years. After you realize that you’re doomed, you have a chance to find something other than what you had and was lost. Many people, when they realize they’re doomed, don’t accept it. They become desperate and you find them drinking or taking drugs or arguing with their spouses or feverishly throwing themselves into their studies. They don’t accept the damnation that they will come to. And it comes to each person before the age of 22 or 23. That certain realization that everything that has represented you up to that point, what your parents have taught you and who you were among your friends, suddenly comes to a halt, a drastic freezing halt. You realize that nobody has truly understood you and you have not understood the world, and you have vague illusions about it that you live by, and it finally comes down to realizing you didn’t catch the boat and you’re drowning, and that’s a hard thing to accept. That’s why you see so much shallow conversation, shallow people, shallow culture. And all that shallowness is founded in the entire upward structure of people continually piling stuff on and on. And that’s one thing I accepted. I accepted my damnation, and then I thought, “What are you going to do now?” And I was just like a newborn child, an embryo in dark space, no knowledge, no sensation, no language.
I’m either dying or living and knowing it. That’s where the intensity comes in.
And then from that embryonic stage, you go forth and begin to touch something, and then teach yourself how to communicate that feeling, and then ask yourself, “Do you want this or don’t you want this?” And from there you start life again. People don’t believe in beginnings and endings. They believe that life is just one long shot; like a bullet, it’s fired up from the womb and hits its mark and there’s nothing left but ashes. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that we can have anything in this life, that we can possess anything. But I do believe in a sort of self-hypnosis of the spirit in which you can become happy and meaningful. I’m either dying or living and knowing it. That’s where the intensity comes in. You must live intensely, each moment, recognizing new feelings and new ideas about you and the world around and perceiving those with the innocence of a child and the vigor of a wise man.
I’m not content to look at nature as Thoreau might have, or as a scientist might have. Most of the time I’m looking at things and see absolutely nothing. There’s a tremendous tragic boredom that goes from me to the object I’m looking at and back to me, because I know it can be explained scientifically, philosophically and poetically but I know that there is also another explanation lurking within me that will bring out a tremendous exuberance of exploding feeling and that’s what I’m looking for.