"Carrying the Magic of His Peoples Heart": An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca
by Gabriel MelÚndez
Originally Published in Las Americas Journal
GM: I am sitting talking to the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca in the wake of the critical response that he's gotten to his latest work: Martin and Meditations On the South Valley. . . I'd like to ask you some questions Jimmy. . . talk about your work and your perception of how your work is being received and other things that you might be able to tell us. There's one question I want to ask you and that is. . . you've talked about your physical birth, in your poetry and in your comments, and also a kind of metaphorical birth. Are those two different things? You have any comments on that? You've talked about, for example, becoming a new, a new person through literature and poetry. . .
JSB: The change before coming to language, the change before becoming a poet and the result after writing and becoming involved with language was so marked, that when I came out of the joint. . . I went to visit my sister and she showed me some pictures of me when I was sixteen. . . and I went to the joint when I was nineteen. So, it was only a difference of three years. . . you know, when I went in. But I came out six years later, six and a half years later. But the change was so marked, that I didn't recognize the person in the photograph. I knew it was me, but my mind had taken such cosmic leaps through language, and consequently those leaps entailed a sort of immolation, a sort of ritual burning of past. . . and language, the vowels, the consonants, the syllables all became a sort of pyre which the past was placed on, and burned in the flames of language.
GM: This transformation in terms of language is something that you dealt with when you were in prison and you were reduced, as you say, everything was taken away from you. You were divested of your humanity in a certain way and language was. . . language was key?
JSB: I was not only divested I was. . . there was something else occurring. I believe very much in destiny. I don't believe in forcing the stars to take certain patterns. I think that something was happening that was pushing me into the darkest, darkest, darkest of abysms I ever went into. I think that the warden when he use to beat me up with the guards once a month --that's been confirmed by the L.A. Times -- I think that. . . his fists and the guards hitting me in back of the head, I think that when I was taken to the prison doctor and given electro-shock therapy against the law and I think that when I was given medicine against the law in order to force me to give up my commitment not to work for the prison system, all of that, I think, was destined to happen, and it happened in such a way that it reduced me, and whoever I thought I was. . . was disintegrated, and I fell into an incredible pit of humiliation where I began to disintegrate. I didn't exist anymore. I began to have nervous breakdowns. I had two or three, I think. I can recall two or three times in the prison where I was reading all day and I was writing all day, working on small stanzas, and I would look up after working on an image and realize that I had been doing the same thing that eastern philosophies preach. My mind had pretty much been frozen for nine hours on one image. . . deeper and deeper and deeper, until I looked up from a page, and I had started at eight in the morning, and I'd looked up from the page at four or five in the afternoon and I hadn't eaten all day and never known that I had passed so much time. I would look up and I would actually see the walls decomposing. I'd see the bars going back to their original form, iron melting. . . I'd look outside and see people, and I'd see the flesh rotting from their skeletons. . . Big time nervous breakdowns. . . But, I don't consider that a nervous breakdown. . . psychiatrists do, doctors do . . . I consider that a type of de-creation. Where you, fall back into the primal pit, you become an embryo. Sensibilities take on the embryonic stages again, and then at that point, you either die --physically sometimes-- emotionally, mentally for sure, but if you have nothing to take hold of, then this reality ceases to exist and you enter into another reality, and I think language became the bridge. I began to tie words together and knot words together, in such a way, where it voided me from this reality.
GM: Do you care to comment on the circumstances that got you into the joint and what lead up to that ?
JSB: Yeah... It's a sort of philosophical point. You have to understand that I grew up in a world that considered brown, dirt. I remember very distinctly being told by several people that God hated you, and other people saying, "your language is dirty don't speak Spanish, your skin is dirty and you can't be white." So when you have that kind of baggage, it begins to rot inside of you and you become gangrenous, you know, and that gangrene spreads into the emotions, into your thinking, and I didn't go to school at all, I was not a school person. I was in the streets most of the time. So consequently, what happened was my relationships with people were based on destruction. It was like a fuse, a time bomb. Every minute I had with people, with women especially, with friends of mine, it was a ticking, it was a burning of a fuse, and it was only a matter of time when the relationship between me and Flaco would explode with a fight with the cops and we'd end up in jail, hence: destruction. A relationship between me and a girl would end up in a bloody fight at a dance, hence: destruction. Everything was always pointed towards destruction. So, I didn't know what to do with myself because my relationship to the world was destructive, because my relationship to myself was very destructive. I was no good. I had no right to exist. So. . .
GM: Do you think, now, that you do outreach to youth and schools and barrio kids and that kind of work. . . Are there real connections there? Do you see the same patterns?
JSB: Absolutely. Absolutely the patterns are still there. They're very much ingrained, they're ingrained. They come to us. . . not from us. They come to us from the racist mentalities. You have to realize that a five year child has absolutely no backdrop of comparative thinking by which to gauge or compare a grown up saying "you are dirt". . . And when the child begins to reach back into the mental catalogue for something to register that --either an argument or acceptance-- there's nothing but a big void of emotions that haven't been formed, and the emotions begin to trigger screams. They begin to trigger fears. They begin to trigger insecurities, and all of those permeate the body and those fears and insecurities from someone telling you, "you're dirt". You want to reach back and say, "I'm not !" But, the child doesn't have that. The child has to accept that, and his way of accepting that is to becoming very frightened of this world and hence you have the defensiveness of the young cholo in the barrio saying, "you're not going to step on me!" We revert to instinct. So for fifteen years I was an instinctive animal. I existed on an instinctive level that was it. So, there was no way I could perform civil relationships with people, everything was instinctive. If my body felt lust, I was like a horse, a stud, who wanted a mare. If my body felt danger, I lashed out violence. So, I was continually fighting the police. I think that by the time I was sixteen I had been in the county jail maybe about twenty times for assault and battery with the police. I mean it was a war in the streets and . . . So, I was tied down with chains when I was sixteen or fifteen. They had to tie me down like a fucking animal, and that was disgusting, that was terrible. When you're a human being and you're a child and the police and they actually used chains to tie you down, and you're only a kid. It really, really affects you. So, what happened was that, I was trying to find a world that existed beyond New Mexico, where people were people, not based on the color of the people. So, that took me eventually to Arizona where . . . where I got involved with . . . bringing a lot of mota over the border. . . and. . . I was kind of roaming and wandering and I went over to a friend's house and I was gonna go back to New Mexico after some years . . . I had spent a year or two and it just happened that my friend, in this house, had a roommate who on this particular day was selling drugs to a narc in the living room. I didn't know the roommate. . . and it turned out that the narc had set us up in this particular house for a big hit, and there must have been fifteen FBI people outside, because as soon as the sale was done . . . they opened fire . . .to kill. . . and a couple of people inside the house opened fire back as responses. When they heard the fire they just freaked and so . . .we were given . . . jailhouse lawyers who told us. . . who came and told us when we were finally caught, cause I escaped, they came and said, "they're going to give you the death penalty because an FBI man was shot," and all that stuff, right, and they just hit us with everything they could. So the guy said, "well, I don't even want to represent you and the more time you waste on this Mormon community the more time that this Mormon community spends its money on you, the harsher the sentence is going to be, so let's not play games. Go in and plead guilty to the charges we're going to say, and let's just get you off to prison," and they did. I was eighteen years old. I went to prison for . . . possession with the intent to distribute drugs even though I didn't have any. I didn't do any sales and I was within three hundred yards of the commission of the crime. So, it was all this one guy's fault who we didn't even know. But we all went to do time anyway. So, all this destruction from childhood on, was a search for identity that wasn't being fulfilled by any institution in society, and in fact, . . . the destructive elements and aspects of it were being nourished by the brutality of policemen, brutality of social organizations, brutality of school systems, brutality of the government, brutality of racism. So, everything was being nourished to destroy. Nothing was being nourished to discover and create, and I finally destroyed myself in this huge cemetery called the prisons of America. When I went to prison I no longer existed. I was a non-entity.
GM: You've spoken about reaching this point, this darkness, this blackness of knowing that everything had been taken from you and you, in your life, reached out and found a language and reconnected to other meanings through language. Does this happen a lot to people?
JSB: I don't think so, because I think that a lot of people put their, put their faith into institutions, and into material affluence, and as I told you I was operating simply on instinct. So instinctively, I had never reached out to anything other than impulse, and so when I began to reach out of a tremendous, tremendous force of compassion that I carried in me and I began to reach into this realm of language, it became suddenly a conveyor of instinct and a sociably acceptable pattern, and I was able to infuse that conveyor belt, that language realm, with compassion. It was this child screaming out about the horridness and the euphoria of living. It was continually, a thriving contradiction of nothing to breathe and waking up. . . and you had a terrible nightmare of seeing what these forces could do to innocent people.
GM: Now . . . You know, now that you seem to have been really successful in not only creating a personal kind of reality that connects with language, but you also expressing this for other people, for the Chicano community as a whole, for all of us in the Chicano community and the wide gamut of who we are, and I'm really impressed with the way, in fact, you conceive of your role as that. . . as a voice for those that can't articulate.
JSB: I think that people who cannot articulate, begin to articulate on another level, the instinctive level. They know that if they don't go to work this morning, they're not going to have enough money to pay the bills or get food. This is all done instinctively. It is just done in the matter of fraction of a second. So, I think that the language that I acquired by being born in language. . . I never existed except through language. Language, language for me, created me. I was simply a miasma, a mass of gaseous non-existence. I was floating in a cosmos like a star that hadn't been formed and when stars are formed they fold in on themselves and explode, and I was that. I was that beginning cloud of cosmic debris. I was all debris, but every single item in that cloud of debris had with it the sharp edges of a fragment of belonging to a whole somewhere. . . And so language began for me as a tool by which I could put the fragments together. Once those fragments were put together, not so much in a Chicano, not so much in a casi indio, detribalized Apache, but as a human being with a right to live on earth, a citizen of the earth. That's how I was formed primarily. Then I went to live in a barrio where I had always lived, where I had always been known . . . and what happened there. . . I found out that the human being that I was, found a total and wholesome and fulfilling relationship to the people of the barrio, and now I had language. I was a language person, and when I listened to people and I looked at their lives and I saw how they suffered and how they loved. My gift, to them, was to use who I was, interpreting that on the page. And their gift to me, was to love me and let me live next to them. So, I became permeated. My language became permeated in tone and color and texture with their lives, and they in turn, gave to me their living, how they lived. They never posed. They never put on airs. So it was a relationship of language and life, language and life, language and life, and that's the most precious kind of relationship you can have on earth. And it was through that language and life process that I began to have revelations, deep archetypal revelations, in dreams, impulses, instincts, joy and pain of being a Chicano. I became. I went to the barrio as a child of the earth and, I matured as a writer into a Chicano. It was a very natural organic process.
GM: So, it would seem that those two categories are not mutually exclusive. You said that you wanted to be a citizen of the earth with all rights and dignity that that implies, and also you found that that particular manifestation was as a Chicano. So, that they seemed to you to embody both things. They're not mutually exclusive?
JSB: Absolutely not. One nourishes the other.
GM: Do you think that's something that we've, that we've lost notion of?
JSB: Of course, of course it's a rampant epidemic, it's rampant. In this country, that we follow a certain type of career and exclude everything else. So, if I talk to an engineer its very, very, very rare that an engineer is going to know Tomas Rivera. I'm going to talk to a Chicano who is the director of the Social Service Organization, very rare that he is going to know Jose Montoya, you know? We're taught that singularity of intention and commitment is best to the exclusion of everything and that's destroying. . . That's making these little monstrosities in people's minds. Where they know nothing other than to tie their shoes and go to their little offices and that's extremely, extremely dangerous. . . to have that kind of insularity . . . that kind of machine-type life in which you go into. . . almost like when you go into one of these tanks where children are. . . these hospitals where children are unable to live except through breathing in a respiratory machine. They're unable to feed themselves. That's what this society is becoming like in it's single minded career type pattern, of work, and that's exactly what I didn't do. I went to the total other extreme of that spectrum and felt that I had to be in the barrio with these people who live mostly by instinct. The pleasure of instinct. . . I was the perfect fulcrum, the perfect springboard, the perfect pivotal person to record those people in art. . . to make them art.
GM: Obviously there's an immediate circle of people that you came in contact with in the barrio who nourished you and it was a real exchange of energy and emotion and those kind of things. Now through your writing do you think that circle is larger? . . Because. . .
GM: You know, in Los Angeles you are very well respected as a Chicano writer, in the Bay Area in other parts of the U.S. and in the wider circle of communities, you seem to be making the same connections through your writing.
JSB: You know that, I have seen in the last four months . . . I think I have probably seen I5,000 people. I must have, because I've done readings at places where I have 800 people, I,000 people, 2,000 people, 500 people. Consistently. . . and so the response that I was able to gauge in these audiences was a tremendous love for literature. That's. . . in the book I last wrote, Martin. There was a tremendous connection between what was written in the that book and their lives as people. It directly affected their lives in such a way where it brought a wider breadth of understanding to the their lives. So audiences, I think, were crossbedded. . . You had Blacks, you had Whites, you had Chicanos, you had Asians, you had every type of person. . . I read at barrio centers, poetry centers in the barrio, as well as very affluent universities, and it was all well received and at universities it was received with a sense of amazement. Because of it's topics, the structure of the poem, the power of the images, and in the barrios across America, it was accepted with a type of hand clapping joy that somebody was finally recognizing who the hell we are. So, it wasn't amazing to the people in the barrio. It was with a sense of pleasure that, yeah, we have voice and people are talking for us now. So, that gave me an idea of the tremendous gulf between universities and the barrio. How they responded to the literature that I wrote. That was, the universities responded with a sense of amazement that there was this world that existed and there was this fresh language . . .
GM: ... And it was a discovery for them about a reality that they had...
JSB: ... Yeah, that they had ignored.
GM: And it hadn't been articulated for them in way they could understand?
JSB: Yeah . . . Well, what usually happens is that scholars go into the barrio, they do studies. They take information. They go back to their to their universities. They do a paper, they give the paper at a symposium, and more often than not, if not always, the people in the barrio are left out. We become a breeding ground for ideas and traditions and folklore and ritual. Those ideas and those practices and those living patterns are taken by scholars. Mostly Anglos, mostly other ethnic people, mostly other kinds of people. They're taken from us, and they're used for a sort of self-serving promotion to careers for people in universities. It would be different if universities systems, I say, university systems, were able to give back to the barrios some of what they're taking out of it. If they could establish small satellite buildings where they could set up writing programs for the kids to write, where they can set up cultural programs for people to come in and practice weaving, but, they don't do that. They say that they're doing all of these ethnic programs in the universities and behind locked doors they really have a lot of arrogance, because they don't like ethnic programs. Ethnic programs in universities mean money. But they don't treat the staff very well they don't treat the practices very well and when they get all these studies that are done, those are the very studies that they ceremoniously wave in front of governmental fundings and they get money for them, and in the same hand they go back and they snicker and sneer at it. So, I don't like that oneway street. . . I don't like when people come to the barrio asking me questions. I tell them, "I'm not answering their questions." So, yes, there's a tremendous gulf, a broken bridge between the barrios and the universities in this country.
GM: You also have talked about a metaphor for the barrio. How do you see the richness of the barrio, and why . . . maybe I'd like to probe a little further, and ask you why is it that other people cannot see that richness that is there?
JSB: Because. . . its normal for people to not want to work hard for what Tomas Atencio calls "el oro del barrio". It's very normal, you know, its very nice when you have a nice comfortable place and you don't have to go out and do some hard work, more often than not you choose the comfort, but, I see the barrio as . . . as an incredible. . . journey into dark tunnels of archetypal significance. I see the streets at night time . . . become passageways into the subconscious mind. How people arrange their houses. How kids are in the street playing with mail boxes, running bare foot through the puddles. How birds stand in the street. How people are in yards talking, eating a goat. . . they're cooking a goat they just killed and they're dipping it in chile and eating the meat and . . . all of these things . . . have this almost. . . romantic, dark, subconscious existence, that expresses itself in dreams when we sleep, you know? And those dreams and those images in the dreams. . . I call those images, they're almost like diamonds that are buried beneath society. Not even on the outskirts of society. They're buried beneath in these caverns where bats live, where dragons live, where. . . beautiful animals exist, where horses fly. That's where the barrio lives, way down in that land, at the bottom of the earth, there. In the entrails of the earth, where things are molten, where tempers fly, people are killed, you know? Where canciones are sung. Where men still have duels over a word. . . in the bottom of the earth. What I try to do, is then, go down into those dark realms of the jungle, of the barrio, and I try to go down. . . passages that haven't been taken or that have been closed somewhat . . . the trails, the treads have been somewhat faded, and I try to discover diamonds. In the sense, where diamonds equal folklore, diamonds equal the way a man works, diamonds equal the way a woman looks, diamonds equals the way a boy fishes in the ditch, diamonds equals the way a young Chicana hangs up laundry in the backyard, and I take these diamonds that are very rough and encrusted. They're encrusted with all the debris that has come down to that world, that's been thrown at that world, that has been shoved down their throat, all the dark and yucky, icky, destructive, terrible. . . things that have been thrown by that major society into this other world. The diamonds are encrusted with that, and what I do as a poet. . . I try to find the natural organic cleavages in the diamond and when I strike them with language I hear songs in my head, la la la la. . . I hear beautiful brilliant prisms of lights scattered through the darkness, and I realize I have found an image that belongs to our hearts, and I put that image on the page, and somebody in Philadelphia reads it . . . who say, is Swedish, and in their head, they realize that when they had tribes, as we still have our tribes --I consider the barrio a tribe, a Chicano tribe-- when somebody from Sweden reads it they hear that ancient drum rap, la la la ... pum pum pum and they say, "what a beautiful image." But it responds totally and is triggered totally in the unconscious dream world and in the senses, and in the nervous system. There's no cognition, or very little slight, slight, cognition that takes place rationally, that you could say well, Robert Bly put an adverb here and a verb here and hence you've come out with this, this, this and a noun and that's why it reacts this way. I think that the work I do is done in the dark.
GM: You've also. spoken about patterns and distinct ways of looking at the world and you've said that much of what you write comes from a cultural patrimony and those patterns are somehow different from what we might call mainstream or what's accepted as literature with a capital "L". Care to comment on those patterns that you see as different? For example, I think there's one poem from Black Mesa Poems, that deals with going up on the mesa and you're seeing these things that are part of the pre-Columbian past, part of the indigenous past that you're making connections with.
JSB: I think that when you as a person live your life in such a way where it connects to the pre-Colombian past . . . where when I walk around the road of Black Mesa where I live, and I see the Black Mesa there, a dormant volcano. I see all the people that came before me and how their lives must have been lived in reverence to this volcano. And so, naturally when I decide to take my son up Black Mesa and we go hiking up, I naturally begin to think of the Chac Mool plate, of Rito who was murdered by the sheriffs up there, and how his blood fell into the stones and how it crossbedded the minerals in the stone and became its own Chac Mool plate where Rito's heart in a very real sense was blasted by the sheriffs bullets, fell into the stones and part of its blood has become the minerals in that stone. So I was walking on a very reverent. . .
GM: ... That's a very different perception than say, a developer's perception, who may only see where the streets of the next suburb will . . . go. . .
JSB: Well, it even goes along deeper than that. The problem is that if developers by themselves were the arch enemies, that would be OK, but when you have an entire society treating a mountain, you know or trying to find its sacredness with no roots . . . trying to find its reverences, its beating heart with no roots . . .
GM: So, you're talking about people who may be looking at the same culture from an outside perspective and missing . . .
JSB: ... I'm talking about the attitude that says, "leave this mountain alone because we want to come up here and hike and look at birds." That's bullshit. We as a Chicano tribe, look at a mountain as something that is intricately part of our lives and our philosophy and our religion. We don't look at it as a place to go hiking. We look at it as a place where our people grew from. They developed from the rocks. They looked at the way birds flew and developed their children's ideas about life. We don't say, " you're going to send us submissions so you can come hike," and then you set up a forest ranger service. See, that puts us on the defensive. Once we get rid of the developers and once we correct the attitudes, then we've got to deal with these little angelic cherubs saying, "well we're doing this for you. We're preserving your land. . . " We don't need you to preserve our land! You know... how can you preserve our religion? If the religion is going to be practiced how can you preserve that? It stops if you preserve it. It's not a museum. Black Mesa is not a museum. That's a place where Rito died I2 years ago. That's a place where I walked, where I tell my child, "this is where Rito died. That's your hero. Your hero is not the sheriff that shot him or the developers that don't let us come here. . ." We cut the wire on a no trespassing sign and we go up, because its ours.
GM: Well, that brings us to another point, and that is the current critical attention that your book has been getting. What do you think about that? The way the book is being received by mainstream critics?
JSB: I think it's astounded me. I think everyone is surprised. We had no idea it was going to sell out, and be published again within a year. We had no idea that it was going to be acclaimed so favorably by critics in the country. There was absolutely no idea that would happen, and it's happening, and the book continues to sell consistently, week after week, month after month, and I think most of it, at this point has been by word of mouth. So, I think that the book has become successful by word of mouth up to this point, by people who really don't read what the critics say, but who called up a friend and say, "have you read this?" So I think that says, that the literature that's being written is extremely pertinent to their lives. So, that means that, what I was doing is right. It's become validated by the response of those people. The next step that's occurring is that critics around the country have all taken hold of it and are doing studies, critical studies of the book. I was just talking to Alan Saldovaski from San Jose State Poetry Center which is a major poetry center in the country, and he is quite . . . taken by, the energy, the imagery of the book, and the structure of the book. Everyone is. The intellectuals are now taking the book and wondering what's going on, okay? I think a lot of people came to the readings because of the popularity that New Directions has. That's probably the most famous publisher in the world for taking writers that eventually have something to say. Right? And they've taken Ezra Pound. They started with Ezra Pound, in fact, and William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov and Octavio Paz, and on, and on, and on. . . and I think that the fact that they took me. . . and given my background, where I come from, was an interesting . . . coalition and what came out of that was a literature that people are finding very, very, very interesting and refreshing. So, that's why the audiences come, because of the New Directions labels and universities, but the book is selling by the word of mouth which is probably the best of anything that could happen to a book.
GM: You've also said that you think this is one indication along with many other indications that something decisive is changing in American Literature. That there's a decisive change, and that on the horizon is really this whole body of writing by Chicanos principally that brings into focus a whole other reality that has always been here, but has been displaced, ignored, suppressed, whatever, but it hasn't been given its due.
JSB: If you keep a man in a cell in total darkness, and you leave that man there for 3 to 4 or 5 years, and all the while that you leave this man in total darkness. . . you say, that you are depriving him of all sensual stimulation, all sensory stimulation, to exist that person has got to resort to the imagination.... has got to resort to other realms of reality, that will let him exist. . . [gestures as with a camera] I compare American Literature to daytime photography. Which shows a man in front of a store with his wife and two kids smiling as the camera shoots. It gives us the Disneyland version of literature. That's been in this country for 200 years. Then you have a lot of other groups that have found their place in American Literature. You've found Blacks coming up, right? I call that mid-afternoon literature. You know, where you have Blacks walking down Harlem. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Then the dusk comes. The streets were empty and it is night-time photography that the Chicanos in this country are offering now. And it reveals to American Literature and adds to American Literature something that's never been there. It adds the dream state. It adds nightmares. It adds vulnerability. It adds the most sweetest, sweetest intimacy that you might find in a sleeping child's face. It adds all these things that were so lacking in American Literature that we are coming up with now; the sacredness of the Earth.
GM: Do you think that Anglo-American culture, Anglo-American Literature has suppressed that realm so long that now that they're existing on a kind of ashes, a very very very superficial kind of approximation to feeling and emotion, to depth?
JSB: Yeah, Yeah American Literature. . .
GM: Do you think this triggers your work and the work of other Chicanos. . . triggers this need, this human need that's also there?
JSB: I don't think so. I don't think it triggers it. I think that because we have a patient who's anemic, that's American Literature. I don't think that we see that. We look in the little port hole of the operating room, we see an anemic patient, that's American Literature. When that door opens and the world finds out that there's some very healthy people in the hallways, like us who are writing about healthy things. Right. . . I don't think that anything is triggered. I think that we'd always been, we've always been germinating our vision as the people on earth --a very communal vision. I don't think we operate on singularity or insularity. We operate on the communal thing, and I think that we've always germinated in dark moist areas along the rivers, the pueblos, the barrios, all these things have always been in very moist areas and I speak of moist ground . . . When I was a kid growing up I always walked bare footed on the dirt and I doubt very seriously if a lot of Anglos in Boston did. You know, going to school and stuff I didn't have any shoes anyway. So, I think that, what's happening is that, the oppression and the racism and the indifference and the ignorance and arrogance that we've traditionally been treated with, by the dominant society has been for us a sort of gift. It ensured our isolation and ensured that we can continue to hold on to our folklore and our customs and our rituals and our laughter and our way of doing things and we've always held on to that. Its just been the last ten to fifteen years, we've developed a body of people who have learned how to write and interpret that in a socially acceptable way -- meaning scholars, critics, writers -- all that stuff right? And I think that's grown to such a degree that now the world has to deal with it and its not being forced down their throats. I think that they're welcoming it with opened arms as you see most of the funding centers in this country are urging Chicanos and Chicanas to come, "come, come," and as you see there's all kinds of touring of art groups now in the country, and there's a lot of publications of Mexicanos and Chicanas. The world is saying, "We need you. We need you because, we are dying. We have no blood left, because we've been bled dry. You know... and we need you."
GM: You spoke of an anemic condition. . . What would constitute some examples of that in literature?
JSB: In literature. . .
GM: What are the themes? What is that preoccupation that has an endemic and anemic condition?
JSB: O.K. You have a group that would hold up a prototype of say existence in New York as being the existence of America. It's just not so. But, for many years literature came out like that. The Beat poets had something to say, but I think it was more of a naughty child running away from home, right? And a lot of them, a lot of them gripped Eastern philosophies as a buoyance, as a little boat in which to float on, right? A lot of the poets took some of their significant motivations and influences and aspirations and inspiration from England and from Europe. You know, and then, at that time of course, psychological books were coming out. So, you had a lot of poets resorting back to Jung ... Freud.
GM: So, the introspection into the subconscious that they were doing was also analytical?
JSB: Yes. It's quite analytical.
GM: It was a reasoned kind of entrance into that world and what you've mentioned is that your work has none of this filter.
JSB: No, my work I think is a reverence por la palabra . . . that if your father is working in the fields or he's driving a horse up the mountains to go get the cows . . . that what he says is a life and death statement, and if he says, "If it snows you know I'm coming back early," and he means just that. I think that American Literature up to that point wouldn't even attempt to go up to the mountain. I think that our literature deals with the reverence of language, the reverence of the word, and in a very, very real sense, I think this applies to us --the passage in the Bible-- "and in the beginning was the word" and I think that the Chicano people as a whole have that reverence, "and in the beginning was the word" and I think that when we write or talk we bring that with us and I think that Anglo society at large has so so so corrupted language, that they're trying to get back to that reverence for it. . . an attempt to do that was to go through some circulatory route of psychology, surrealism, all of these other options along the way that really delayed their coming home, and I think that we as Chicanos give them an alternative as human beings to come home again. Which is back to the earth and back to the people.
GM: How do you look at the phenomenon of. . . you know, people who would say, "well... things aren't that bad anyway. You have a large Hispanic middle class, doing well along side of their Anglo counterparts. . ." You know, "the barrios are a thing of the past. They were a product of . . ." people would even go as far as to say, ". . . a product of our ignorance in the 50's and 60's and earlier. We've corrected that." What do you think is happening there with those kind of movidas? They're telling us, you know, the American Dream is still there for everyone.
JSB: I think this. I think that when you develop as a Chicano and Chicana, its like any human being in the earth. What happens is that the more steps you take out, the more steps you take away and your own particular lifestyle and culture, has not been legitimized, other than the fact that your friends, say, talk and dress like you. Your mom and dad grew up in such a pattern, totally antithetical to the dominant society, OK? I think that when you grow up as a teenager in high schools that are predominantly run by English decision making people. The more you walk away from that, I think, that the thinner and thinner the ground becomes and when the ground begins to crack and you feel yourself falling through into this place where you must depend upon your courage as a human being to go on, the tendencies is to run back and grab these bus-straps that will take you back to society, because of your intimidation of that dark unknown space where the peoples' hearts beat, boom boom, right? So, I think that people who are successful and who co-exist as Hispanics along side Anglos and Blacks, I think have compromised a lot, and have compromised enough that it has bled their lives. They lead a life of bloodless existence. So, if you show me a diamond on one hand that you've acquired by being a bank president and you live in a very rich area, or at least. . . upper middle class area, and a Chicano down in the barrio will show me a song that he learned. I'm much more incline to lean towards the man with the song than the man with the diamond, because the man with the song lives almost like . . . like a thread and fiber and he's like a vine that crosses a bridge reinforcing the bridge for other children to come cross in the future. He's a vine that continues to grow, winding around the bridge straps, so that when he dies his children will grow and rewind themselves around the bridge that becomes stronger and stronger, so that we can . . . we can carry forth the future. I think the man with the diamond, when he dies he'll offer probably nothing to his kids except land that might be developed to build buildings on it, and you're going to have very empty kids. Kids that are not going to care about the homeless. Kids that are not going to care about the environment, and that equates into a world you don't care about, and that equates into no life at all. So, I think the ultimate question in compromising your culture is that you compromise your existence in the world and yourself. That's terrible when you think about it. So, I'm glad I'm not a vendido.
GM: There's a question that comes to mind, tambien. You've managed and you have been able to transform your own circumstance, you know, in your own personal life, and transform yourself, to be born again metaphorically as another being. Do you think the words in your writing can heal us as well? Can heal the community? You know, we've got all of these wounds, historically that have built up and accumulated. We're still in very adverse situations as a community. Can your words restore us?
JSB: I think language gives us courage. Poetry gives us courage and faith to live with open wounds. Poetry gives us the means to understand pain in a meaningless age. Language gives us insight into the darkness that we all stumble into today. So, I don't know if it heals, but I do know that it provides us with what we lack. Language provides us with something that we desperately need. Not to close the wound, but not to forget it. Language makes us not forget what we went through. I've been shot. I've been stabbed. I got scars all over my body, and my face. My jaw is wired. My teeth have been kicked out by the Narcos. My jaw was beaten. . . was knocked out by the police. My head is full of cracks from the guards. My stomach is all scarred up. I've been shot in the legs and those are just the visible signs. The wounds that I carry inside of me are even deeper and graver. Language is the only thing that I can go to and drink from, and feel invigorated and feel happy about living. It carries the magic of my people's heart. It carries the magic that I'm in love with. If you took language away from me, I would immediately pick up a gun and go to the mountains and become a rebel. There would be no doubt whatsoever, no hesitation. So, I use language as something that connects me to beyond the world I live in, that connects me to a cosmic kind of destiny that helps me towards living a good life. So it heals me in that sense. It heals me in the sense that I'm able to love living and I'm able to look at the living. Language provides me with a journey, I would not have otherwise had. . . a journey into myself and my people.
GM: So Jimmy, I was thinking about what you said, that your work seems to be unique. If when thinking about what other Chicano and Chicana writers have done, particularly the poets of the movement years who were very, very, vocal. It was kind of protest literature. It was the result of all this suppression and it had to be shouted out. You haven't compromised that kind of identification with the Chicano community. How do you see yourself?
JSB: I think that the statement has to be underscored with the fact that I had made all the mistakes that anybody could make in life and I have done all the things that you're not supposed to do, right? Well, one of the things that occurred is that when I began to learn to read and write in prison at the age of twenty, twenty-one. . . basic rudimentary learning to read and write. I wasn't imbued with the education of America up to that point. I was totally alien to it. So, that's an advantage. All that I had was very, very primitive sensibilities, and one of the commitments I remember making, very profoundly, was that I would not go to the world. I would bring the world to me. And I know that may seem somewhat ambitious, but it was made in a very naive visionary context. That since the world didn't accept me -- I probably had no preconception that it ever would-- I would then create my own world, and my own world, is reflected in the books Martin and Immigrants. And it just turns out . . . it just turns out that a lot of people love those books. And it turns out, that a lot of people accept my world and love my world. So, it's a very strange thing. I didn't go to society according to its context and use protest poetry and use poetry that was conducive to that understanding. I decided to stay in my world. Create my poetry out of love, out of a real deep sense of love and bring the world to me. As limited as that may be.
GM: Was it very important for you to craft the poetry well?
JSB: Not at first. What happened was this, the reason Immigrants, published by Louisiana State University, is so popular, is that I remember very distinctly, when I was about twenty years old, when I was writing that poetry, that it had to be unstructured. It had to come from the bowels of passion, because how many people twenty years old are not influenced by professors of some sort or other or some sort of model figure in literature. I was not. I was influenced by men living in prison and life at its most brutal edge, and I knew that if I wrote, it would have to be with that passionate cry, that I had to love and live because next week I might die, 'cuz I was involved in a lot of fights at that time. Backing up camaradas who were not gonna live the next week if we couldn't defend ourselves. So, I thought to myself, when I wrote the book, what I wrote had to come from passion, because even if I decided against that, I wouldn't have had any kind of structure to fall back on anyways, because I didn't know structure to fall back on, because I didn't know structure. I didn't know literature. I didn't know professors. I didn't know writers. I had to depend upon the emotions of a child, and I say the emotions of a child, because even though I was twenty, I think my emotions were six and I had to write a type of literature that reflected my existence then and there, and that was a passionate cry.
GM: Can you remember the first poem that you wrote, that you felt was a real triumph?
JSB: Yeah. . . The first poem I ever wrote, that was a triumph into another realm was called, "Did You Tell Them?"
Did you tell them hell is not a dream and that you've been there? Did you tell them ?
.... And that was some sort of voice in me talking to another voice in me, saying, "you've lived this: Did you tell them? Did you tell them?" It was almost a voice of guilt saying, "your obligation is to write!" And the voice cried out, Did you tell them hell is not a dream and that you've been there? Did you tell them? And I had to answer no. I didn't. That was the most powerful five or six lines that got me going. I wondered where the voice came from. I said, "where did that voice come from?" But anyway. . . so I think the real impetus of my writing began when I looked out the window of my cage one day and said, "the world doesn't want me. I'm not accepted by the world. So whatever I write, I will bring the world to me." And that's a pretty big obligation. I will bring the world to me. And a lot of people that accept the literature that I'm writing today, have to come to me, because I'm not really quite accepted. Anyway, the books are reselling and republished and there's a lot of other stuff that is going on. I think it's a move by people toward me, toward my world as opposed to me joining a world or a certain spectrum or body of literature. . .
GM: Regarding the academic community and how in New Mexico you're essentially your own person and your works carry you, they speak for you, they attract people and that doesn't seem to fit real well in the academic setting.
JSB: Yeah. . . It doesn't fit in any circle except. . . the circle of people who aren't touched by those other worlds, and it wasn't purposeful. It wasn't with that intent. . .purpose, that I tried to do that. It was out of a desperate isolation that I said, "I can't go to the world because obviously I don't have education. I'm in a cage, so I will bring the world to me and the only way of doing that is to write who I am, and who my people are," and, I5 years later, the world seems to have found the bridge, and now they're coming across the bridge saying, "wow, this is a kind of literature that we don't encounter, and it has this sort of energy and relevance and connection and connotations, that we don't encounter in literature in America," and so everybody is asking themselves, "how did he do this? What was the cause? How did he do this image? What's the energy that's laying beneath it?" And I think it comes from that time when I was in the cell and I was being hit with all the cosmic rays from the sun. I think there were. . . certain stars in the cosmos released that light about twenty years prior to my birth, and then I think that when I hit prison the light finally hit me. . . that much longer. . . and I started writing it down, and I started writing images, and using language that was quite significant and relevant to the way I live and how I saw people living around me. People got up and made their coffee and they spoke bilingually, they told stories and they sang corridos and they got in fights and some died and some lived. I had to do it like that, but, as I said, I did it thinking that my language was going to be insulated in one world only, my world. And the world discovered that world of mine and they've accepted it.
GM: Your first chapbook was Jimmy Santiago Baca?
JSB: Rock Bottom Press.
GM: Right, and you did another chapbook?
JSB: Called What's Happening .
GM: What's Happening and then you did Immigrants In Our Own Land.
JSB: ... Our Own Land....
GM: And then you did Martin and Meditations on the South Valley.
JSB: Yeah, I quit writing for 9 years. So, it was a big space between, Immigrants and Martin.
GM: What was the lapse about ?
JSB: It was because I didn't know how to write. I was an addict. I was an alcoholic. I was trying to figure out whether I was going to live in prison forever or whether I could live in this world. I wanted to go back to prison, 'cuz I couldn't live in this world and I was bored and I couldn't deal with the world out here. So, I quit writing and became an addict. And then, when I realized that was just the thing that they wanted me to do, that they wanted me to die, that they wanted me to destroy myself, when I came to that realization through the help of my kids and wife, I stopped cold turkey, just one day I didn't use drugs and drink anymore and that's about it. It stopped.
GM: At that point you picked up writing again and had a very very focused idea of what it was you would write in terms of the Martin vision. And that manuscript was somehow inside of you and needed to be expressed?
JSB: I think it was a world inside of me. That consistently had to be revealed step by step. It was a book that was written, partly . . . from half of things that I knew, and half of things that I didn't know. So, every step of the way was a rediscovery of who I was and who my community was. It was a real journey. And I didn't have to travel far. I just had to open up. . . close my eyes and open up my dream eyes, and I began to see dreams and visions of an existence that was thriving there that I had been trying to cover up for many years.
GM: What was the route that the manuscript took to it's final publication?
JSB: It was very easy. I mean, I wrote the book, you know. I didn't know what I was writing rationally, but, I was working on an instinctive thread. I knew that if I heard a bird cry over there, that I should go check that syllable over there, as opposed to a truck engine over here, and I was drawn away from a lot of poetry because it simply didn't map out the interior landscape of dreams and who we were: the heart, you know? It didn't map that out. It was given more to an age and era and time that I was not part of. I was caught in that tremendous gap between Chicanos who knew they were Chicanos, and refused to go to Nam, or did go to Nam, and who dressed in baggies, and I was caught between them and the ones who had made it and called themselves Hispanics, and there was a vast vast space of people who didn't know who they were and didn't know how to express their lives, and I was one of them and I knew that we had to express that. And so, that's what I wanted to express. I remember fighting in the streets in '68, '69, when we burned the policeman's car. . . and I remember seeing the National Guard coming down the street and a lot of hippies running and I thought that was very strange, that these people should be involved, doing what I'm doing. As a matter of fact, I ran into a lady's house and stuck my head in the bathtub because they had tear gassed us and we had never encountered that, me and some other camaradas, you know? And it was 3 or 4 years later that I realized a war had been going on. It was called the Vietnam War. And I didn't realize that, I had never known that we were in a war. And so, my world was quite different. I didn't know we were in a war. . . I never heard of a Watergate. I never heard of a president called Nixon. Those were totally alien things that came to me when I went to prison and realize it, wow. . . and then you can imagine that's just the tip of the iceberg. You can imagine other revelations, that judges actually do create these large nets that swoop in Chicanos and take them to the prison just because they want to get re-elected, and then it just began to build, and build, and build and my response to these nightmarish, tragic, excruciating revelations was to write. To write my world. That we were not the way these people were portraying us. It was a lie. We were very beautiful, loving people and that's what Martin and the book tries to convey, tremendous compassion and love.
GM: I think you're real successful at that. I was commenting to somebody last night, about the fact that those emotions, that range of emotions, which is concern for neighbor, for vecino. . . there seems to me to be a whole gamut of emotions that goes from joy, to love, to passion . . . a whole gamut of emotions and it seems to be very, very powerful, and I think that many times we're not given credit for having them, because we've been dehumanized in many ways in this culture. . . So we end up being stick figures or caricatures or some kind of deformed perception of what the barrio and what the community is. You seem to be striking real cords there.
JSB: Yeah, I think you're absolutely correct in that. I think that a lot of the literature that was coming out of the Chicano community, was a literature that was almost expected by the dominant culture. They almost set it up. To portray us as renegade apaches, wanting to burn buildings down, right? And I'm not saying the response was bad or negative. I'm saying that it was very much needed. I think that without the poets and writers that came before me, I would have never formed the kind of foundations that I have today. I think that I felt like a brother to Aluristas and his anger and rage. I also felt like a brother to Rudolfo Anaya in his world of visions. I felt like a brother to Montoya because I had seen those pachucos on the street singing. I had seen them dying. I was a brother to all these people and I think that my appearance in the literary world filled another developmental step toward the entire full vision of who we are, and it was that emotional caring, compassionate, loving side of us. And so, I see it as a very normal organic development in the myth, that we are. A myth that we're the people of the sun.
GM: It seems in some way that you would have had some of the best reasons to be angry and to lash out with that kind of poetry, given the things that have happened to you, the things that you have experienced, and yet it seems that you were much more patient in that way, and again sort of like Anaya. Anaya, at the same time was writing his novel. He wasn't out in front of large audiences, declaiming, declamundo, you know? He was busy writing his novel and bringing that world of visions out, giving it a reality. How do you explain that? How did that work for you?
JSB: I think that what happens is that if you have a destiny of sorts, and I feel strongly about that. I didn't determine what I was going to do in a context of America. I determined my life and my literature of what I was going to write in the context of the sun, upon visions and dreams that I had. And I think that's quite apparent. Why no one can explain what's going on. Even though I don't want to romanticize it. I'm sure anyone can explain it. But, in my own world I can't. I can't explain why Martin is popular, I can't explain why I became a writer. There was no intention of that other than the fact that I listened to these dreams I was having, very powerful, powerful dreams. I was listening to visions and seeing visions taking a nap at noon time and flying around in these visions that were incredible and all of that is the impetus, for me becoming who I am today. I still believe in that. Every time I do something I look at my visions for reassurance. They interpret my life. Not something that's in the New Yorker or the L.A. Times. Not something that I encounter along the wayside, but these visions that have come to me in my sleep, and in my waking hours, and these moments where people have suffered and loved, are forever with me, and those are the things that determine what kind of literature I'm going to write. Not something that the Hudson Review prints. Not something that. . . not a protest rally, not anything like that, but a vision a very deep one that I had while I was away. So, I guess the difference in the way I write from other writers, comes because I've had real visions. I've actually fasted and had visions and I actually believe that the sun is my god. I actually believe that. I believe that the earth is my mother. I believe that my wife is my friend and my sister and my companera, and my children are very special and the future should be reserved for them, should be protected and those are the things I go by in a very real deep religious sense.
GM: What are the new directions for you at this point, in terms of new projects and new manuscripts and work that your doing? What do you hope will emerge?
JSB: I'm writing a trilogy, the first novel of which will be completed in six months entitled In The Way Of The Sun. I hope to complete a very simple thing, that is, I want to state, I want to reveal aspects of the peoples' vision, of the people that we are and all the beauty that we have and all the suffering that we've entailed. And I want to do it through the magic of the word. I want the magic of language to work for us. I want to show the entire world that we are their brothers and their sisters. People to be respected and loved, not to be ignored and abused. And I have a book coming out by New Directions, it's called Black Mesa Poems, and I am working on an anthology of thirty years of Chicano and Chicana poetry that's going to have as its main thread language as a healing power and how the healing power manifests itself. It's significance in our lives and poetry.
GM: You care to talk about a vision for Chicanos and most specifically for Nuevo Mejicanos in terms of the prospects of what's on the horizon in Nuevo Mejico and that whole geo-spiritual realm that's really under attack? Que va a pasar?
JSB: You know, everybody attacks, but the song doesn't end till Flaco stops, you know? I see a lot of people playing guitars with two strings only, not five, and so I see a lot of discordant ambivalence around me. I don't know what's going to happen, what the future portends, except that I really enjoy my barrio and I really enjoy what I'm doing right now, and if a lot of people are really. . . trying to label, catalogue, catalyze, a catalyst sort of thing, or if they are trying to put certain things in shoe boxes and put them away for inventory six months from now. I don't know. I have a feeling that that's not going to work. I have a feeling that embittered dialogue never achieves much. I have a feeling that like warm anemic criticism, or analysis, never really amounts to much other than just the paper. You know, and it leaves the human being quite empty. And when a human being is empty you know you got to look elsewhere. So, I don't know if I really understand the question, except that there are some young writers in New Mexico, that I think are much better, have much better talents, than anything I've seen. And I think that my job is to just simply tune my gift to its highest capacity. To enlighten myself. Only myself. The journey has always been myself, and to isolate myself and pursue the journey into this darkness I'm in. Trying to risk it all for insight, to validate the gift that I've been given, I have to go into the darkness to see if it ignites, to see if it lights again, and I think the more I go into the darkness of not knowing where I'm going or what I'm after, I continually legitimized my existence by flashing brilliantly a new realm that I can enter into the pages of my life.
GM: I want to kind of summarize this and you mentioned this song, this song that's communal, that's our song and won't end in time and, specifically, in New Mexico, where there is such a presence of the Chicano community, that it will have to be dislodged from that land and from those roots and those roots are very deep. . .
JSB: I think that the gift that I'm talking about, can never be extinguished. I think that when I'm done doing what I have to do, that the gift will be given to another person and that person will carry it, and that person will give it to another person. I don't ever think it will be taken from us or destroyed. I think that the gift will continue to be pretty much ours, in the same way that the Aztecas didn't allow darkness to prevail. They always had a runner with a torch carrying it to the temple, and I believe that today despite all the Hispanics fleeing to these little secure socially upward mobile positions, I think that sooner or later they're going to realize the runner has reached the temple and that the temple is reflected in all of us, in all our hearts. Each of us carries the temple and I think that at some point in time, through some writer, through some painter, through some dancer, through some visual artist, that the temple will be lit and that we will all come and I'm there and you're there and everybody's coming. It's just that some people are taking a lot longer route. They're fleeing the runner with the flame, and I happen to be the runner with the flame now. There are other people with the flame and we're all converging on the city, on the tribe, the Chicano barrio tribe, and the more flames that we have: the gifts each of us carry. We obligate ourselves to carry that gift. When you look up at the hills, instead of seeing total darkness, your going to begin to see beautiful geysers of light and you're going to know that that's our people, you know? And its not romanticized. This is a very real thing I'm talking about. It cannot be extinguish, they're won't be people taking from us anymore. There's going to be Chicanos giving to this world. We have prepared ourselves in such a way where we're ready to give to this world and not isolate ourselves.
GM: You've mentioned before that the world is really really in need of the gift as well.
GM: This endemic anemic condition that has bled itself dry.
JSB: You can look at it like this, all the sacrificial victims who gave their blood to the sun, the sun is now giving us back the blood to give to the anemic culture in the form of light. We are now taking light back to the people. In the sense that there was a lot of sacrificial victims -- blood taking was enormously popular -- and now the sun took all that and transferred it into light. It's entering into our bodies, into our visions, and its been giving back to the people.
GM: I want to thank Jimmy Santiago Baca. We're here today at Mills College where we've done this interview for almost two hours. We hope to hear more and enjoy more of the work, because I think it really does heal. It restores us. At least that's one of the sensations that I go away with, when reading the work, or hearing you read, is a sense of restoration of something that has been misplaced, something found that was lost. I celebrate that with you.
JSB: It's light. Thank you. Light and Darkness.
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