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The transformational power of poetry and literature, soaked with imagery of the rural Southwest and spattered with episodes from the maelstrom of urban life, is perhaps what best describes the Jimmy Santiago Baca experience.
Baca, a nationally distinguished Chicano writer and poet with several books, poetry collections and screenplays to his name, will be at Mesa Public Library Thursday to discuss and read a selection of his life’s works, as part of the library’s monthly “Authors Speak Series.”
“Everything is unique about the Chicano experience,” Baca said. “People are not taught that in school.”
Baca, a native New Mexican, writes about themes akin to the barrios, drug addiction, social injustice, community, ancestry, family units and immigration issues that permeate the Chicano culture.
“They (Chicanos) come from the bloodline of Mexico, but have a very different cultural and political experience,” he said. “More importantly, it (Chicano culture) has become infused with the beauty of Mexican culture.”
Baca’s poetry is a vibrant, richly lyrical testament to his early life as a pariah in American society dealing with the rage of social injustice, the regeneration of self and the quest for spiritual empowerment.
To say that he experienced hardship at an early age is an understatement.
His parents divorced when he was very young, and shortly thereafter his mother was murdered by her second husband. After being raised for a short period by his grandmother, Baca was sent to live in an orphanage, became a runaway at age 13, spent years on the street in and out of juvenile detention centers, and was eventually sentenced to five years in an Arizona prison on drug charges.
It was while being incarcerated that Baca developed his love for poetry, simultaneously teaching himself how to read and write, and in time creating a series of poems that he submitted to Mother Jones, a nonprofit political magazine.
Three of his poems would end up published, and become part of Immigrants in Our Land, a collection of his works published the year he was released from prison.
“I just found a book and thought, wow, why didn’t Hispanics have access to all of this? he said. “I began to do some very powerful research and began getting as many books as I could because they had been pretty much kept from me.”
He said while he was in and out of school, teachers constantly told him he would be nothing more “than a laborer in the fields and he shouldn’t even bother looking at a book.”
With the money he made from the publication, Baca bought a round of ice cream for all the inmates in the prison.
“It was just money,” he said. “They gave me 100 bucks for each poem. I was blown away that they immediately wrote back and said ‘we want them all.’”
Since leaving prison in 1979, Baca has written three novels, 12 collections of poems, a screenplay for the 1992 movie “Blood In, Blood Out,” and has appeared on “Good Morning America,” National Discovery Channel, PBS “Language of Life” with Bill Moyers, and “Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood” on CBS.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1984 from the University of New Mexico, and received an honorary Ph.D. in 2003 also from UNM, and has won the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, the International Hispanic Heritage Award, the Southwest Book Award and the Cornelius P. Turner GED Award, among several others.
He has also devoted much of his time to teaching others who are struggling to overcome hardship. He has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries and universities throughout the country.
“I try to teach them not to be denied in their own lives,” he said. “They have all sorts of ways to try to keep you passive, like obedience school for dogs. I tell them: You can be a leader in this society. You can be a great success.”
He also advises troubled youth to never deny their heritage, and keep the culture of their ancestors “close their heart,” keeping it in line with what they believe in.
“Never compromise,” he says.
Baca has just finished writing “Nopal,” a novel about an immigrant family whose journey for the American dream turns into the “American nightmare,” and is producing a two-hour documentary about the power of literature and how it can change lives.
His talk Thursday will consist of a reading of selected works, followed by discussion, a question-and-answer session, and the sharing of some of his personal stories about being a kid growing up in New Mexico.
The event will be held at 7 p.m. in the upstairs rotunda inside Mesa Public Library.