Jimmy Santiago Baca: “A Place to Stand”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For Karen Bowen

If you want a gritty, raw, punch-in-the-face but ultimately optimistic and life-affirming story, look no further than Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand, and the documentary film based on that memoir.

I had the great fortune of attending a screening of A Place to Stand at the Boulder International Film Festival. My dear friend Karen Bowen, the coordinator of the BoulderReads literacy program, invited me to join her and dozens of other literacy professionals, volunteers, and activists from around Colorado. What a powerful setting to see this amazing film!

Though I had heard Baca’s name and though I knew he was a prominent Native American and Chicano poet, I did not know his work firsthand nor did I know his story.

Baca’s story is as unbelievable as it is inspiring. Abandoned by his parents at a young age and left by his grandmother to fend for himself in orphanages and detention centers, Baca turned to a life of violence and crime. At age 21, he found himself sentenced to mandatory no-parole for five to ten years, the harshest sentence allowed by law for his particular crime. Because his childhood had been so sketchy, he’d had little schooling, and when he went to prison, he was functionally illiterate with almost no reading ability.

Baca’s memoir and the documentary movie (which he narrates through filmed interviews) tell the story of a young man consumed by hate, anger, and rage, a man capable of and guilty of unspeakable and horrific acts of violence against his fellow inmates. The film pulls no punches, and parts are hard to watch, as Baca and other interviewees describe his degradation and brutality.

Ultimately, Baca was put into isolation for years, widely considered to be an inhumane way to treat prisoners. But in solitary, Baca begins little by little to find a way out of his degradation: he starts to share words with a fellow prisoner. Painstakingly, Baca teaches himself to read, then eventually to write. He quite literally learns reading and writing from scratch.

Spurred on by the heady rush of learning, Baca begins to pour out his soul on paper – and slowly he begins to write poetry. How unlikely this birth of a poet in the walls of the infamous Arizona State Prison!

If you want to know how Baca’s quest for literacy, poetry, and freedom turned out, you’ll have to read his memoir, A Place to Stand, or watch the documentary film, produced by his son Gabriel Baca. (The film is available for streaming at Amazon and many other online video services.)

I found A Place to Stand to be riveting, compelling, outstanding filmmaking based on the true story of a real American hero. In his journey to become literate, Baca reminds me of Frederick Douglass, who also taught himself to read and write and who also achieved his freedom as a result. Where Douglass used his literacy to fight for the abolitionist movement, Baca has become a tireless fighter for prison literacy programs. His essay “Making the Rounds” is a powerful account of this work.

To learn more about Baca and his journey, you might enjoy listening to the NPR piece on Baca: “Jimmy Santiago Baca, From Prison to Poetry.” To get a taste of Baca’s memoir, you can read an excerpt at The Sun magazine – a publication that has championed Baca’s work for many years.

Seeing A Place to Stand was a powerful experience indeed, and how much more amazing it was to have Jimmy Santiago Baca and his son Gabriel at the theater that day! They spoke to us at the conclusion of the film, and I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with them in the book-signing line afterward. It’s a day I will not soon forget.

Deep thanks to Karen and all the other folks who support literacy programs around the United States – and thanks to Jimmy Santiago Baca for his inspiring example.


Watch:Watch the eight-minute extended trailer for the documentary film A Place to Stand. The trailer includes clips of Jimmy Santiago Baca reading from his work.


Image Credit: Jimmy Santiago Baca, photographed by Gloria Graham during the video taping of Add-Verse, 2004, used with permission, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gloria_Graham_Jimmy_Santiago_Baca.jpg.