Jimmy Santiago Baca checks his watch before leaning back on a plush couch in the lobby of a hotel in Taos, New Mexico, and launching into a story.
A celebrated poet, novelist and memoirist, Baca has plenty of stories to choose from and only 30 minutes to talk before rushing off to teach a writing class. The 63-year-old author could tell the story of the first time he set foot in a jail, at age 5; or how his parents abandoned him at age 10; or how he was convicted on drug charges at age 21; or how he taught himself to read and write while he was in prison; or how he now spends most of his time working with the same at-risk populations he once belonged to.
Instead, Baca, who is Chicano and Apache, tells a story about stories.
“Everyone’s story is important,” he said. “The thing about Native cultures, about the Chicano culture, is that we have stories. We have suffering and low graduation rates and bad health and drug addiction and illiteracy, but we also have stories. When you’re isolated, when you’re on the margins of society, you have stories.”
Born in Santa Fe in 1952, Baca first saw the inside of a jail when his father was arrested for drunk driving and his mother took him to visit. Five years later, his parents divorced and left Baca and his two siblings with their grandparents. At age 13, he ran away from the orphanage where he grandmother had taken him, and in his early 20s he was serving five years in prison.
Baca’s story unfolds in his 2001 memoir, “A Place to Stand,” which is now a documentary playing in select theaters. Also called “A Place to Stand,” the film aims to “capture the power of Jimmy’s transformation and open the door for other people to make similar changes,” said Daniel Glick, who co-produced the documentary with Baca’s son, Gabriel Baca.
Jimmy Santiago Baca's memoir, "A Place to Stand."
“More than anything, we made the film because we know it can impact people,” Glick said. “There are people out there who are on the edge, people who are struggling. We want to speak to these people.”
Baca’s early life played out against the backdrop of bigotry and discrimination. He grew up in New Mexico knowing he was a “poor kid with too much anger and the wrong skin color.” His childhood was tarnished by violence, segregation and low expectations, and by the time he was a teen—uneducated and illiterate—he’d already learned that he didn’t have a place in society.
“Security guards and managers followed me in store aisles,” he wrote in his memoir. “Anglo housewives walking toward me clutched their purses as I passed. I felt socially censured whenever I was in public, prohibited from entering certain neighborhoods or restaurants, mistrusted by government officials, treated as a flunky by schoolteachers, profiled by counselors as a troublemaker, taunted by police and disdained by judges because I had a Spanish accent and my skin was brown.”
When Baca was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to prison in Florence, Arizona, he felt like he belonged there, in a place “outside of society,” he said. He spent three of those prison years in isolation, where he taught himself to read and began writing poetry.
“Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to wring from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was based not on fear or bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and belief that I belonged.”
Baca emerged from prison with a story—and with the ability to write it. His work has themes of social justice for the marginalized and disenfranchised. He also writes about addiction, the concept of community and the American Southwest.
Baca has published seven books of poetry and numerous essays, short stories and screenplays. He also created Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit foundation that helps disenfranchised people become educated and improve their lives. Baca conducts writing workshops in prisons, libraries, universities and Indian reservations, and he hosts workshops and retreats for at-risk youth, prisoners and ex-convicts.
Baca’s journey to prison, though traumatic, is certainly not uncommon. The United States has the highest prison population in the world, according to the latest inmate data released from the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics.
More than 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails in 2013. That’s about 1 in every 110 adults, or just shy of 1 percent of the total U.S. population. Nearly 7 million adults were under correctional supervision in 2013, meaning incarcerated in prison or jails, or on probation or parole. That’s about 2.8 percent of the total population.
“The United States is the jailing-est country in the world and there’s no indication that it will change anytime soon,” Glick said. Calling the prison environment “self-destructive and cancerous,” Glick said a documentary about Baca can help current and former inmates “transcend the system” while also calling for prison reform.
“A Place to Stand” is showing through Gathr, a theater-on-demand program that relies on individuals to generate interest in films and host screenings in their communities. Go online to find participating communities or to host a showing of Baca’s documentary.