Page 4


BOOKS The Unbelievable Goodness of Jimmy Santiago Baca BY DAVID ROMO A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca Grove Press 272 pages, $26. 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 fiveyear drug rap. Once inside the penitentiary, Baca becomes a sort of Nietzschean iibermacho, going beyond good and evil for the sake of survival. When an AfricanAmerican 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 readingcracking 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 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 I 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/3/01