Jimmy Santiago Baca is a man of many words, and he has the experiences and stories to put them to good use. On October 15, 2013, Skyline College was fortunate to host this extraordinary and gifted poet and author as it continued its Fall 2013 “A Call to Consciousness Lecture Series.” Baca is a New Mexico based writer with Chicano and Apache roots. He is essentially a storyteller who uses poetry to capture the imaginations and hearts of everyone within earshot of his words. This was case during his meeting with Professor Nathan Jones’ English Literature class and later in his address of the Skyline College community at the Skyline College Theater. Baca’s ability to speak his mind candidly and lace his comments and barbs with a good dose of humor endeared him to students, faculty and staff alike. At the root of Baca’s poetic genius are his real life experiences with imprisonment, drug abuse, and family abandonment. In fact, he emphatically conveys how writing poetry in prison saved his life. Baca was incarcerated in one of the most brutal prison systems in Arizona in the early 1970s where he faced death and torment on a daily basis. During that time he wrote feverishly and sent his poems to magazines and journals. The quality of his work was immediately recognized and editors and publishers not only asked him to submit more work, but helped him to publish his poetry after his release from prison.
Baca is the author of twenty-six books of poetry, short stories, memoir and articles which have been translated into many languages throughout the world. He is a social justice advocate and is especially interested in prison reform. To read and listen to Baca’s work is to meditate on the complexity of the human condition and understand its capacity to show compassion and its power to destroy. His great love for reading and books makes him an ambassador of literacy, and often during his reading he encouraged and urged everyone to always have books around them to read, learn and enjoy.
Mr. Baca has received many honors and awards for his writing, including, most notably, the American Book Award for Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, the International Hispanic Heritage Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the International Prize. He has held a Regents Chair at UC Berkeley, The Wallace Stevens Endowed Chair at Yale University, and The Endowed Hulbert Chair at Colorado College. Devoted not only to his craft but to teaching others who are overcoming hardship, Baca established Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit foundation in New Mexico that conducts literary workshops in prisons and detention centers, and at community centers and schools for at-risk youth. The organization’s mission is to provide underserved communities with the tools necessary to overcome obstacles to learning.
Special thanks to Professors Nathan Jones, Alan Ceccarelli, the Media Center, The Associated Students of Skyline College, and the Center for Student Life and Leadership Development.
Article by John Saenz, Photos by Raul Guerra.