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Jimmy Baca shares his experiences in writing and poetry at CPL

By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent

Award winning poet and author Santiago “Jimmy” Baca shared snippets of his tragic life and how he went from being incarcerated in an Arizona prison for drug charges to a bestselling author and activist.

“I write, that is what I do,” he said casually to an audience of 30 people at Cleveland Public Library’s ‘Writers & Readers Series’ on Sept. 24, 2011. He captivated their attention with humorous yet heart-breaking anecdotes from his life and by reading segments of his poetry.

Born in New Mexico to Indo-Mexican parents, Baca’s life is tales of tragedies interwoven into lessons that ooze from his prose.  Thomas Corrigan, president of the Library Board of Trustees, said Baca’s writing, “Contribute to the understanding of mankind.”

Baca’s parents were murdered when he was five, his grandmother blind from diabetes and grandfather dying from cancer had to release custody of him and his siblings to an orphanage. He would run away repeatedly to his grandmother; “The beatings didn’t mean anything because I wanted to be with my grandmother,” he said.

He shared his struggle to belong and being despised by whites, and blacks for being Mexican, “The Chicanos would beat me for not being Chicano enough.”  Bruised from multiple beatings he was intrigued to find himself turning purple, and in the excitement ran to his friend and proclaimed he too was turning black—“He told me: ‘You can’t be beaten black, you have to be born black’ – It was the worst thing anyone had ever said to me; I couldn’t escape the one thing I wanted to be most, which was being me.”

Baca found the one tool that transformed him while in jail—reading. He fought to earn his GED and in prison penned his first book. Fellow inmates turned to him to read and write their letters. An interaction with a notoriously dangerous inmate first sparked the power of education.  “He said to me, ‘How can a Mexican know what’s in a white man’s heart,’ and I realized language is the most powerful weapon man can have.”  He realized the only way to transform him was through literacy, and he has taken this message across the nation and world to libraries, universities, and prisons, conducting workshops.

He has received numerous awards—a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, Pushcart Prize, International Hispanic Heritage Award, Southwest Book Award, and the Cornelius P. Turner GED Award.

He said librarians are his role models, especially since they were the only professionals to stand up to the injustice of the Patriot Act. A movie based on Baca’s life is currently in the works. His documentary ‘Lost Voices’ which features his journey to  prisons to teach inmates the power of poetry is shown in high schools around the nation.

He is always amazed and grateful for the joy he has found among tremendous sorrow in his life and said he prefers the life of isolation—“I like being alone.”

Felton Thomas Jr., Director at CPL, said the library’s mission is to keep the public engaged in learning and the vast collection of foreign language and cultural literature is a vital treasure for Clevelanders to enrich themselves. “The heart of our mission is to inspire reading and bring the greatest writers here,” he said. Thomas said the library is keeping up with the revitalization of downtown Cleveland with renovations and expansion of its own at the Louis Stokes branch.

To learn more about the programs and authors scheduled for the Writers & Readers Series visit: www.cpl.org

Copyright © 1989 to 2011 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/04/11 13:05:07 -0700.





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