Rage into power
We souls who wax philosophical about the power of literacy to free the spirit thrive on writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca. Part Native American and part Chicano, Baca begins his recent memoir, A Place to Stand, with his earliest memory of prison, when, at five years old, he went with his mother to the jail to find his father, incarcerated for drunkenness. His fed-up mother looked through the bars and told her husband she wouldn’t pay $100 to bail him out.
Baca looks back now and recognizes that his path inevitably led him into prison, too. “I felt socially censured whenever I was in public,” he explains, “prohibited from entering certain neighborhoods or restaurants, mistrusted by government officials, treated as a flunky by schoolteachers, profiled by counselors as a troublemaker, taunted by police, and disdained by judges, because I had a Spanish accent and my skin was brown. Feeling inferior in a white world, alien and ashamed, I longed for another place to live, outside of society. By the time I arrived at Florence [a maximum-security prison in Arizona], a part of me felt I belonged there.”
At 21, Baca began serving five years for drug dealing. He lived in the same tiny, dark, smelly cell into which he had stared at his father 16 years before. He learned the heartless pecking order, the pent-up rage that prisoners turn on themselves, their cellmates, and new inmates. When he spoke out against the inhumanity of the system, he found himself thrown into the even darker hole of solitary confinement.
“But if prison was the place of my downfall,” writes Baca, “a place where my humanity was cloaked by the rough fabric of the most primitive manhood, it was also the place of my ascent. I became a different man, not because prison was good for me, but in spite of its destructive forces. I prison I learned to believe in myself and to dream for a better life... Very simply, I learned to read and write.”
Now, 35 years later, Jimmy Santiago Baca has become a symbol of hope and his voice the sound of rage turned to power. His has written poetry, essays, memoirs, short stories, and screenplays; he has received literary honors almost annually since 1987. But he doesn’t rest on his laurels. Baca works hard to convey the power of literacy to at-risk teenagers, to disenfranchised laborers, and to jail inmates. While he visits Charlottesville to participate in the Book Festival, hosted by the International Residential College at UVA, he plans to spend several hours speaking with inmates at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Jail.
Jimmy Santiago Baca will read and speak on Friday, March 22, an event of the Virginia Festival of the Book. 8pm, 402 Wilson Hall. 243-2965 or 243-1978