The Unbelievable Goodness of Jimmy Santiago Baca


I have a confession to make. My initial reaction to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s prison memoir, A Place to Stand, was incredulity. I feel guilty about saying so, in part because it’s a good book, but at least 20 percent must be bullshit. Which is a lot better than what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman and memoir writing: “Every word she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Memoirs often lend themselves to such accusations, and Baca’s book is no exception. It reads too much like literature or too much like a movie to be all true. It’s easy to visualize a wide-angle shot as you read the section where the FBI stages a midnight drug bust and surrounds Baca’s trailer. The sky and grounds light up like midday, with spotlights from the air and the ground. Jeeps, helicopters, and agents’ cars whirl around the trailer. There’s a shootout and bullets fly everywhere. Baca’s friend and an FBI agent are hit. But Baca makes a run for it while the bullets are flying over his head, and escapes through the back door, a la Billy the Kid. He ends up in the middle of the New Mexican desert where he realizes that he’s alone and moneyless and decides to turn himself in. When he does, the cops beat him and try to push him out of a moving car. Somehow he manages to avoid that instant death and instead ends up in a maximum-security penitentiary in Arizona on a five-year drug rap.

Once inside the penitentiary, Baca becomes a sort of Nietzschean über-macho, going beyond good and evil for the sake of survival. When an African-American inmate makes homosexual advances toward him and tries to make Baca his punk, Baca responds by bashing the inmate’s eye out of its socket with a lead pipe. In another section of the book, Baca has to take on members of the notoriously dangerous international gang, the Mexican Mafia, all by himself. He pushes away a couple of their “soldiers” with a mop and disembowels a hitman with a kitchen knife. As always, Baca emerges victorious. Then there’s the scene where Baca is pushed by other inmates to put on his gloves and go one-on-one with the prison boxing champion. Despite his reluctance and lack of training, he knocks the boxing champ out. Fade out to music.

I find the plot rather incredible, in both senses of the term. But maybe I’m wrong. Just because a memoir reads like a novel or an action flick, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true. Right? It could have happened.

Plus, it’s completely within my interests to suspend my disbelief. We’re talking about Jimmy Santiago Baca here, a kind of underground cult-hero in the world of Chicano letters. When he was busted at the age of 21, he was functionally illiterate. He taught himself to read and write inside the pinta and five years later he came out a hell of poet, a genuinely heroic achievement. His poetry books have received various awards including the American Book Award and the National Hispanic Heritage Award.

I met Jimmy at a poetry reading in El Paso not long ago. He’s a charming guy in his late 40s, a veterano we say down here in El Chuco. Without his mustache he looks a little like Tommy Lee Jones and a little like the protagonist of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, the guy who transformed himself from a juvenile delinquent into one of the main leaders of the Algerian resistance against French colonialism. Baca knows how to work a crowd both during and after a reading–cracking jokes, handing out compliments to everyone, offering a gig to a young filmmaker to shoot a documentary about himself, hustling a friend of mine for twenty bucks, and still finding time to jot down the phone number of an attractive admirer. I was impressed. I also had a hard time buying all of Jimmy’s story. I wonder where my skepticism is coming from. Does it come from my non-suburban upbringing? That joke about the difference between a suburban fairy tale and a barrio fairy tale comes to mind. A suburban fairy tales starts off: “Once upon a time… et cetera, et cetera.” A barrio fairy tale starts off: “You mocoso little punks ain’t gonna believe this shit.”

Or does my skepticism come from the other part in me, not the barrio part but the upwardly mobile part? Jimmy spent five years in the Florence Penitentiary (Arizona), while I, on the other hand, spent an equal amount of time in Florence, Italy. Sure, there’s some self-aggrandizement in Baca’s memoir, but there are also serious allegations of corruption and human rights abuses on the part of prison officials. Perhaps doubt is my middle-class defense mechanism. It’s easier to dismiss Baca’s harsh account of prison life than to deal with it.

Which is exactly how Jimmy read my question when I asked him whether his book was true or not. Well, actually he first gave me a kind of poetic answer. He said something about how he approached his book like the Trinity, from four different sides. I guess I wasn’t completely successful in repressing a smile while I was trying to figure what the four sides of the Holy Trinity were, and he got pissed off at me. He called me a “journalist,” “arrogant,” and accused me of “dialectical indifference” to human rights. I wasn’t sure exactly what dialectical indifference meant, but I felt bad anyway. I felt like I was calling him a con artist to his face. Which I was in a way, but I wasn’t trying to offend him. Hell, down here we’ll take any kind of artist we can get. I felt like an interrogator, a cop, one of those parole board members Baca wrote about in his memoir who refused to listen to his poems.

I’ve Seen Too Many

prison catwalks with guardscradling rifles, monitoring me,to trust anyone, too manybarb-wired wallsto believe what people say,looked in too many mirrors,at too many photosof friends and familywho died early and violently,to believe what you say….

–from Set This Book on Fire

I was going to tell Baca that I found some little holes and discrepancies here and there in his book. For instance what he told Bill Moyers about himself during an interview for the Language of Life series a few years ago didn’t quite match what he wrote in his memoir. But I decided against pushing the issue too much. Oh, hell, I thought. I didn’t want to be like that hard-assed anthropologist, David Stoll, who found factual inconsistencies in Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir. There were those who wanted the Guatemalan Indian activist to return her Nobel Peace Prize after his book came out. I thought that was ridiculous. What difference did it make if Menchu’s brother was not burned to death in public by the military but rather shot by them and later buried in a secret grave? The heart of the matter was still true.

You can say the same thing about A Place to Stand. I don’t think it’s a “journalistically accurate” account of Baca’s life, but so what? His memoir reaches for a deeper truth. It’s a search for personal and collective myths, a first-hand account that goes to the heart of an American reality that’s often ignored. With language that’s direct and jarring, he writes of a traumatic childhood: visiting his drunken father in prison, being abandoned by a mother whose relationship to an Anglo man made her ashamed of her Hispanic children, and confronting violence and abuse at a juvenile detention home. In fact, unlike the cinematic bravado of some of the plot inside the prison walls, the emotional vulnerability of much of his prose–especially that dealing with his childhood–made me uncomfortable. Its honesty made it difficult to read.

At the end of our verbal sparring, Jimmy finally said something that I have no problem believing. “In my memoir I was trying to capture the psychological truth seen through the eyes of a man with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old,” he told me. I nodded one of those semi-enlightened nods.

Sabes que, Jimmy. One way or another I think your book is la pura neta, bro, I told him. You’re telling it like it is. Maybe it’s unbelievable, but some parts are also unbelievably good. He looked at me and we both laughed. “Alright, alright,” he said. “Now ask me some real questions and I’ll give you some real answers.”

David Romo lives in El Paso and edits the Bridge Review, a bilingual publication about the arts on both sides of the border.