Jimmy Santiago Baca has been a premier Chicano poet and essayist. While revealing the soul-searing anguish of a life forced into desperation and incarceration, his work is also a testament to the healing power of language. The complex heritage of Chicano culture is evident in Baca's poetry. In his memoir, he acknowledges William Carlos williams's common language and Walt Whitman's long adventurous lines. Furthermore, Baca's channeling of intense passion is informed by a Spanish language tradition: "For me," he writes, "there were no schools, no writing workshops. But there were the voices of [Pablo] Neruda and [Federico Garcia] Lorca, [Jaime] Sabines and [Octavio] Paz . . . who in solitude begged on their knees all their lives for one word, one image, to redeem their misery and celebrate their joy" (Working in the Dark 59-60).
Baca was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The landscape of the Southwest provides a source of regeneration for the poet and the Chicano people he celebrates, as in Black Mesa Poems (1986). Baca's own life was marked by early loss. Later the dehumanizing forces of prison life, as well as the sharp edge of a dominant culture's repression of a people, threatened the young man's existence and capacity for being human. It was by recourse to poetry that Baca survived, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Poems fashioned in the searing crucible of his personal experiences have received high critical acclaim. He has received a num ber of honors, including the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award (1988) and the Pushcart Prize (1988).
Baca's poetry is filled with tension between thematic opposites. In his first major collection, Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979), prison threatens, but doesn't succeed in canceling, the life of the spirit. Place again becomes an important protagonist in Martin & Meditations on the South Valley (1987), wherein the barrio and the culture found there are celebrated as the foundation for a new life. Metaphors of the South Valley and the Chicano experience are warmly contrasted with the world of the comfortably fortunate, expressed through images of the Heights: "Worth is determined in the Valley / by age and durability" ("Meditations on the South Valley" ).
Baca writes in Martin, "My mind circles warm ashes of memories, / the dark edged images of my history." His work draws on the twin streams of memory and imagination, allowing the transformative power of language to envision a future, rescuing Baca from the ravages of prison experience and Chicanos everywhere from destructive negation.
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