Internationally renowned author, educator and community activist Jimmy Santiago Baca is a man who’s lived at two extremes of humanity. Now in his late 60s, Baca has an unyielding optimism for a brighter future. He’ll share that perspective with Humboldt as a featured speaker for Black Liberation Month and the English department’s Visiting Writer Series.
Abandoned by both parents at age 2 and living on the streets by 13, at 20 he had landed in prison, like so many of society’s most vulnerable. Baca’s redemption arc however, is poetry unto itself. While burning a book in his cell, he recognized some words on the pages, sparking an immense desire to overcome his illiteracy.
Arizona State Prison repeatedly denied Baca access to their educational programs. Undeterred, he buried himself in every book he could find, acquired mentors that supported him, and found his calling behind a typewriter. With words as a catalyst, Baca underwent a profound healing journey that the world benefits from through his activism and published works.
Baca’s enthusiasm is overpowering and makes conversation with your heroes cozy, contrasting with the violent realities he endured and perpetuated throughout his youth.
“I’m celebrating being Raza every morning I get out of bed,” he said in a phone interview with El Leñador.
Baca’s tireless efforts to improve his community range from hosting educational workshops, driving his self-owned book mobile, and picking up used syringes.
“He doesn’t just talk the talk, you know what I mean? . . . He is heavily involved with the juvenile centers in New Mexico and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people,” says Tony Wallin, founding member of HSU’s Formerly Incarcerated Student’s Club (FISC), which played a major role in bringing him here.
Baca absolutely loves educational environments
“I would have gone to school for the next 40 years if I’m able to afford it,” Baca said.
Despite this, he turned down a permanent teaching position at Yale because at the time it was offered to him, there was nearly “80% illiteracy in my barrio. I’ve gotta go back and start a writing workshop there.” Teaching the children of distant elites probably sounded less fulfilling than teaching some of the most vulnerable folks in his own community.
Even with his passion for education, attending the University of New Mexico was painful for Baca.
When I got there, it was alien, and I felt intimidated . . . people don’t have my mannerisms. They don’t have my language, they don’t have my culture.Jimmy Santiago Baca
Students of color may especially connect to this sentiment, and while Baca understands, he challenges us to see each other’s humanity.
HSU Professor Christina Accomando related a story of how while in prison, Baca was propositioned by a white skinhead to write him a Mother’s Day poem. When Baca recited it to him, the man responded, “How does a Mexican know what’s in a white man’s heart?”
Baca presents two readings in Arcata on Wednesday, February 5: one at 2 p.m. at North Town Books (957 H St.) and another from 5-7 p.m. at HSU’s Kate Buchanan Room.
View the documentary, “A Place to Stand“, about Jimmy Santiago Baca at KCET.org