Jimmy Santiago Baca took an uncommon path to poetry. Abandoned by his parents, he fell into crime young, and taught himself to read and write when while serving time in his twenties.
Words changed his life. Over the last 28 years, Baca’s published a dozen books of poetry, a memoir and a book of short stories. He writes about people that much of society would forget including immigrants, workers, and addicts. The landscape of New Mexico, where he is from, figures heavily in his work.
Baca’s newest book, A Glass of Water, is his first novel. It tells the story of two Mexican immigrants, Nopal and Casimiro, who seek a better life working the chile fields of New Mexico.
But Nopal is brutally murdered, leaving behind two sons, Vito and Lorenzo, who are haunted by her death. Vito becomes a boxer with a populist streak who fights for immigrant rights from his pulpit – the ring. His brother stays on the farm and falls in love with a college student who comes to the farm to research migrant workers and stays.
Baca, a father of five, conducts writing workshops in prisons and rough neighborhoods. He’s also working on a musical, another novel and has three documentaries in post-production. He’s won accolades including The American Book Award, The Pushcart Prize and the International Prize.
Mission Loc@l spoke with Baca.
Mission Loc@l: To start, I wanted to talk a little about your new book, a novel called A Glass of Water. Can you tell us about the story?
Jimmy Santiago Baca: It’s about the whole immigration issue and about the families and what happens to the families once they get here.
Interestingly enough, today, on the national news they were showing a guy who was going to be put in jail for not obeying a judge’s orders. He was leaving bottles of water for the migrants because a lot of them through the years have died from dehydration. And the reason I wrote [A Glass of Water] was because of all of the corpses being dragged out of the desert.
ML: So this person you’re talking about got in trouble for leaving water for people who are crossing the desert?
JSB: Just water. Just leaving water bottles in the bushes. You know, some of the vigilante groups are going around and puncturing all the water bottles on a daily basis.
Most of what I put [in the book] is true. They have these private prisons for Mexicans coming across, and they hold them in dog cages. It’s really, really horrible.
ML: I enjoyed the book.
JSB: Thank you. You know, interestingly enough, a handful of critics really were vociferous about it being too political. They said it didn’t belong in literature, which is very strange.
ML: I did want to ask you what the process was like in deciding to address this issue through a novel. Did you set out to do that or was this a story that just emerged for you?
JSB: Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Take the boxer. He’s pretty political in the ring. That’s the only forum he has. So he uses that forum to vent his political views. And a lot of people – well, not a lot of people; it’s been selling like crazy, and some people love it – but some of the critics have said that he was too strident in his political views that he expressed in the ring.
But they don’t understand the culture, that once someone like that has the forum – Muhammed Ali had a forum like that. And he spoke against the war, and he spoke against the treatment of Africans in South Africa, and he spoke against poverty. And they criticized him, too. This boxer does the same thing.
It think it just comes too close to home. I think it just broke the mold for a lot of people, this character, because most of the most famous boxers I can think of, Latinos especially, are all about just getting the money and going home. They don’t really want to say anything political about anything. It’s almost like they don’t have any brains left, except to count money. You would think that given that kind of forum they would use it.
To have 75,000 immigrants listening to you – it’s like [Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao], he has this massive foundation and he uses it to give out money to the poor. He’s probably the world’s greatest boxer and he views it as a political thing and he gives out money to the poor. He’s just amazing.
ML: One of the parts of the novel that really struck me was the part about the two hungry migrants who end up in trouble for going on some landowners’ property and eating a swan’s egg, and then end up killing the swan because it attacks. And one of the characters, Carmen, says that the problem’s not really about the swan or the egg, but about how the workers shattered the landowners’ illusion of their perfect life. Can you talk a little more about that?
JSB: Well, it’s the whole archetype of having your fiefdom or your kingdom. You know, the American dream has been corrupted to be let’s get as many luxury cars as we can, and as many Rolex watches. It’s been corrupted to have that idyllic little place where crime doesn’t come and life is beautiful and you have the best health insurance and all the money in the world.
That’s not democracy, and that’s not the American dream, and when you attack the archetype of those people who are consuming that then they become beasts who have been let loose from their chains.
When you crack the archetype of a people, it provokes thunder and lightning. It’s pretty much like the women’s movement, when it came to voting. For the longest time, the archetype was that the woman didn’t vote, that she shouldn’t vote. And then suddenly you had all these women, Mother Jones and everyone else, in the streets, marching for voting rights.
It began to assail the castle of all these good ol’ white boys who were believed they were being assaulted. You know, their archetype was that they had all the power, they make the choices. And when you being to assault that archetype, that’s when they bring out the dogs and the water hoses and the billy clubs and everything else.
ML: I couldn’t help but wonder if the immigrants rights marches in the book were modeled after the immigrants rights marches of the spring of 2006?
JSB: Well, it’s part of my experience. In my lifetime I’ve seen or been part of dozens of marches. And I was participating in the marches across the Juarez border where they’ve killed 6,000 people.
You know, 6,000 innocent women have been murdered. And it doesn’t even show up in the headlines. Oprah would never put it on her show.
It’s just bizarre. It’s bizarre. You take one young African American and you murder him and it will be in every single paper in the world. You take one young woman from Utah and it makes world news. But if you take 6,000 young Mexican women who have been raped and murdered, and it doesn’t show up anywhere. It’s just weird.
I just think the Mexican has become the archetypal scapegoat for everything. If you don’t get along with your husband, blame a Mexican. If your bank book doesn’t match up, blame a Mexican. If you have no milk in the fridge, blame a Mexican. Price of bread goes up, blame the Mexican.
You know, I guess that’s just how it is sometimes. Most immigrants have had their hard times immigrating into American society. But I doubt its ever been this way. I don’t think that they’ve ever attacked the Irish or the Italians for not having milk in the icebox.
ML: Do you feel like your work has gotten more political over the years?
JSB: I don’t know if it’s been political. I’ve always just showed a part of that vast stream of humanity that has to count their money before they buy fish at the market place. And if that’s political, then I guess it is. Every show that I’ve been invited to go on, I’ve always turned everybody down. I just won’t allow myself to be a packaged, manufactured, and publicity-driven writer. I live and I write about the things that are around me.
They ask me to go on shows, and I say no. If I go on their show we might talk about things that are real. And its not entertaining to talk about things we’ve tried to ignore.
It’s like having a country that’s in denial. Like when you have a person in your household who’s addicted to meth or coke or heroin and you keep ignoring it, it begins to affect the family.
And that’s what’s happening in this country with the immigration issue. We just keep going around it and around it because we don’t want to face the truth that we need somebody to clean our toilets because we don’t want to do it.
ML: In your memoir you talk about your brother, your mother and your father who die without what you call “the linguistic skill to express themselves.” And you work with youth and people in prisons. Can you talk about why it’s so important to have words as a tool?
JSB: Every human being must express him or herself in some way. And if you don’t have language to do it through violence or you do it through domination, or you do it through self mutilation. You will communicate with the world, even if it means going to your grave at 16 years old.
Language is a beautiful gift. And the people who don’t have it early in life are the most eloquent when they get it later in life because it’s most precious to them and most treasured by them.
ML: Can you talk more specifically about the writing workshops?
JSB: Well, I try to visit segments of the population that aren’t often visited by people who love language as much as I do. And when I come into those populations – criminals, drug addicts, violent gang members – I tell them about beauty of language and every single one of them seem to be touched by that.
ML: Can we talk for a minute about forgiveness?
JSB: I’d love that.
ML: I was struck by the role it plays in A Glass of Water and in your own story. How does one forgive in the way that you have?
JSB: You just draw yourself inward. When you’re not forgiving people, you’re not making room for them to walk on the same path as you. And when you forgive somebody, you take this 300 pound person that you’ve become egotistically, and you become a light featherweight. And you let the person take the full path. And that’s forgiveness. You acknowledge the person, you let the person take the path you’re taking, you become the servant of the person.
There’s a multitude of ways you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others, you can forgive the world. But mostly its just about accommodation. Make room in your life for the other person’s tears. Make room in your life for the other person to love you. Make room in your life for the other person to criticize you. Just make room. That’s forgiveness.
ML: That sounds good. But isn’t it hard to put that into practice?
JSB: Disappointment is disappointment is disappointment. The only salve you can give to disappointment is time.
The thing about us is we want solutions right now. I want to be pacified right now. But today is long and tomorrow’s even longer, man, so let’s just give it a little time…People are so wound up about this and that. Opinions have a way of vanishing over time.
ML: You’re a dad, and I know you had a hard childhood. How does that play out in the kind of parent you are.
JSB: Well, writing helps a lot, because my kids love books. A lot of men have really bad guidance growing up about how to be fathers. Fathers pass an awful lot of shit onto their sons. A lot of shit. And to their daughters. And books are a beautiful, because they’re in my life everyday. And my kids – we read books. And my kids get to see five different views of one situation almost every night before bed. And we read them stories about drug addicts, alcoholics, police, bankers, engineers, lawyers. And they know what’s going on. And we read an awful lot of books about fathers, and they know what’s a good father and what’s a not-so-good father.
ML: How is writing a novel different from writing poetry?
JSB: I think writing a poem puts you in the center of the universe. And you engage the universe. And I think writing a novel, you’re simply a bystander in the stands watching it and you have to record it. You can’t run out in the field as a novelist. You sit in the stands and watch the entire panoramic story play itself out. And with a poem you can actually leap into the field and become a player in the grand theater of life.
This is an edited transcript. Baca reads at Modern Times Books on Thursday at 7 p.m. He appears at a fundraiser for the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five at the Mission Cultural Center on Friday at 7 p.m.