Holding a book in his left hand, his right hand waving and pointing in harmony with his passionate voice, Jimmy Santiago Baca read his compelling poems Wednesday night, including brave and frightened thoughts jotted down in the hours before he was released from a maximum security prison.
Mr. Baca, 60, spoke to 175 people in the McMaster Center of the Main Library as part of the Authors! Authors! series, sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Leaving prison in 1979 in his mid-20s, he knew he’d be a pariah, condemned again and again as an ex-con in street clothes. He hated leaving the men he’d bonded with “in a warrior way,” and realized he would face infinite choices in the surreal outside world but was ill-equipped to do so, and acknowledged that the dark angel of revenge lived in him.
“Thirty-five years ago, I came from that place where there was no hope. And last night I visited the prison (Toledo Correctional Institution) and I saw that hopelessness in men’s faces,” he said. When speaking around the country, Mr. Baca asks his hosts to arrange a visit to a local prison where he talks to prisoners, people who, like he, might ask, “Why us? Why this devastation?”
Mr. Baca served about six years in prison for his involvement in the drug trade. Selling drugs was lucrative, but when he tried to quit he says he was set up, busted, and after escaping a gun battle with the FBI, he turned himself in.
Imagining his face as a hike into the forest, seeing its resemblance in pink and red cliffs of New Mexican mesas. From childhood, he understood he had a second face “lurking under my physical face,” a spiritual visage that made all things possible.
He read from his new book, Face, about the duality of being both male and female. He explained his appreciation of conflict, particularly when it results in creativity. His ancestry is a historically conflicted mix of Indian, Mexican, and European. Europeans, he said, “took our land, raped our women, but gave us poetry.” He was the literary part of a project in which a friend photographed young Mexican men living along the U.S.-Mexico border, who are paid handsomely to dress up as women and prostitute themselves. They’re able to send money back home, but often become addicted to cocaine and are sometimes beaten and murdered when their johns discover they are males.
Mr. Baca, who lives in Santa Fe with his wife and two youngest children, also spoke of his appreciation of libraries, saying that he spoke at the opening of a library in Salinas, Calif., where three boarded-up libraries had been taken over by crack dealers. At the ribbon cutting, 12,500 people showed up, mostly poor Latinos, blacks and whites, and driving old cars.
“Now I get it!” he said. “The library is the center of the community. Not a place that throws bums out. Now I get it!”
Next in the Authors! Authors! series will be Jeff Greenfield; journalist, political analyst, and author of the new If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History. He’ll speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 in the Main Library.
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6075.