Baca, 61, delivered a lecture at the main branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, spoke to about 200 kids from Toledo Public Schools at The Believe Center about the importance of literacy as inspiration to youth at an event sponsored by Books 4 Buddies, and addressed Latino leaders at a breakfast held at the headquarters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) on Broadway.
The New Mexico author is the third Latino literary figure to be featured in the library’s excellent lecture series—the others being Isabel Allende and Daisy Martínez. Baca informed the library’s 200-plus crowd that he was part Native American and part European and life was one of dualities. He shared with the captive audience that he had a mystical, out-of-body experience when he was 6 or 7 years of age after he received a serious injury, and he saw his “flesh face” and his “spiritual face.” Being Native American, Baca told the crowd that people had both male and female sides to their spirits, illustrating more duality.
Baca went to prison at the age of 21 for dealing drugs, after being orphaned as a child and drifting in and out of gang life. He spent about six years behind bars in his native New Mexico, where he came to a crossroads between discovering the literature that saved his life and the dangerous violence that marked prison and the world that followed for many ex-convicts. He chose instead to write about his experiences.
His release from prison in 1979 led him to write several works, including Stories from the Edge, in which he vividly describes a desperate search for inner freedom behind bars and A Place to Stand, his critically-acclaimed 2001 autobiography, which is scheduled to be released as a film in 2014. A winner of the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award, Baca facilitates writing workshops in schools and prisons.
Baca also was the co-screenwriter for the cult movie Blood In Blood Out.
The FLOC breakfast was squeezed into Baca’s schedule between his library lecture and presentation at The Believe Center. FLOC’s president welcomed Baca at the breakfast: “We’re going to continue the struggle until we lift up all the people who need help, including Latinos and African-Americans who are down and out,” said Baldemar Velásquez. “We need to come together as a total community—not just Latinos, not just African-Americans—but everybody to help those who need a hand up, so they can make a contribution.”
Baca complimented the efforts of FLOC to work on behalf of migrant farmworkers and their families. He explained that his grandparents and uncles worked the fields while he was growing up in New Mexico.
“It was not a pretty scene. It was deep oppression. It was vicious oppression. It was getting drunk and fighting every night because they only got paid two dollars a day and there was no redress, no appeal,” Baca explained. “You couldn’t tell the white guys ‘Hey, give me back my money’ because they would beat the hell out of you. So my uncles would get drunk every night and get up in the morning and return to the fields. It was a horrible life.”
Baca praised Velásquez for his work, admitting he couldn’t believe how he was “able to organize people to stand up and protest” against the likes of Campbell’s Soup “in just one lifetime,” except by devoting that entire lifetime to “walking the walk and talking the talk.” He explained it as advocacy his family never had when growing up.
He told the crowd that his grandfather died of bone poisoning, a cancer caused by the pesticides used in the farm fields. His grandmother went blind because of the pesticide spraying.
“Nobody said anything about her. They just died anonymously,” Baca said. “But it affected me as a child who lost his parents and his grandparents. My father was murdered and my mother was murdered. My brothers were murdered. My uncles were killed.”
María Rodríguez-Winter delivered a bilingual blessing over the breakfast meeting. Roberto Torres, executive director of the Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the crowd of Latino leaders. Former Toledo Blade reporter Eddie Allen, now a free-lance writer in his hometown of Detroit, introduced Baca.
“What I appreciate about Jimmy is that he connected, through his spirit, with those experiences,” Allen said. “Jimmy points out that we all make mistakes. People in prison simply got caught in those mistakes. We’re no different from them. What Jimmy has been able to do is reconnect with his spirit, with himself. His writing reflects that he is able to connect with the spirits of other people, those with similar backgrounds. Jimmy can walk with the peasants and the kings because he recognizes the significance of his spirit. What he is able to feel from that makes him a great writer.”
Baca’s Toledo visit was part of a 12-day swing around the world, which also includes stops in New York City, Minnesota, and Rome before returning to his hometown of Santa Fe, where he resides with his wife and youngest two of five children. Part of the trip is in support of his latest book, Face, which deals with the duality of being both male and female.
By Jimmy Santiago Baca
I prefer red chile over my eggs
and potatoes for breakfast.
Red chile ristras decorate my door,
dry on my roof, and hang from eaves.
They lend open-air vegetable stands
historical grandeur, and gently swing
with an air of festive welcome.
I can hear them talking in the wind,
haggard, yellowing, crisp, rasping
tongues of old men, licking the breeze.
But grandmother loves green chile.
When I visit her,
she holds the green chile pepper
in her wrinkled hands.
Ah, voluptuous, masculine,
an air of authority and youth simmers
from its swan-neck stem, tapering to a flowery collar,
fermenting resinous spice.
A well-dressed gentleman at the door
my grandmother takes sensuously in her hand,
rubbing its firm glossed sides,
caressing the oily rubbery serpent,
with mouth -watering fulfillment,
fondling its curves with gentle fingers.
Its bearing magnificent and taut
as flanks of a tiger in mid-leap,
she thrusts her blade into
and cuts it open, with lust
on her hot mouth, sweating over the stove,
bandanna round her forehead,
mysterious passion on her face
as she serves me green chile con carne
between soft warm leaves of corn tortillas,
with beans and rice–her sacrifice
to here little prince.
I slurp form my plate
with last bit of tortilla, my mouth burns
and I hiss and drink a tall glass of cold water.
All over New Mexico, sunburned men and women
drive rickety trucks stuffed with gunny sacks
of green chile, from Belen, Beguita, Wllard, Estancia,
San Antonio y Socorro, from fields
to roadside stands, you see them roasting green chile
in screen-sided homemade barrels, and for a dollar a bag,
we relive this old, beautiful ritual again and again.
Immigrants in Our Own Land
By Jimmy Santiago Baca
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.