A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet

A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet

by Jimmy Santiago Baca

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The Pushcart Prize–winning poet’s memoir of his criminal youth and years in prison: a “brave and heartbreaking” tale of triumph over brutal adversity (The Nation).
Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “astonishing narrative” of his life before, during, and immediately after the years he spent in the maximum-security prison garnered tremendous critical acclaim. An important chronicle that “affirms the triumph of the human spirit,” it went on to win the prestigious 2001 International Prize (Arizona Daily Star).
Long considered one of the best poets in America today, Baca was illiterate at the age of twenty-one when he was sentenced to five years in Florence State Prison for selling drugs in Arizona. This raw, unflinching memoir is the remarkable tale of how he emerged after his years in the penitentiary—much of it spent in isolation—with the ability to read and a passion for writing poetry.
“Proof there is always hope in even the most desperate lives.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A hell of a book, quite literally. You won’t soon forget it.” —The San Diego U-T
“This book will have a permanent place in American letters.” —Jim Harrison, New York Times–bestselling author of A Good Day to Die

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555848903
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 95,668
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has written several books of poetry and a number of screenplays. His awards include the National Endowment of Poetry Award, Vogelstein Foundation Award, National Hispanic Heritage Award, Berkeley Regents Award, Pushcart Prize, Southwest Book Award, and American Book Award.

Read an Excerpt


When I was a boy, my father always wore a pained expression and kept his head down, as if he couldn't shake what was bothering him. He snapped irritably at the slightest infraction of his rules and argued continuously with Mother. He drank every day and she sank deeper into sadness and anger. To escape their fighting, and the gossiping of villagers in my Grandma Baca's kitchen, I often bellied into the crawl space under our shack to be alone in my own world. I felt safe in this peaceful refuge. The air was moist and smelled like apples withering in a gunnysack in the cellar at my Uncle Max's ranch in Willard. A stray dog might be waiting when I entered. Happy to see me, he would roll on the cool earth, panting, his tail wagging, and lick my face. After playing with him, I'd lie on the dirt and close my eyes and float out of my skin into stories my grandfather, Pedro Baca, told me — about those of our people who rode horses across the night prairie on raiding parties, wearing cloth over their heads, as they burned outsiders' barns, cut fences, and poisoned wells, trying to expel the gringo intruders and recover the land stolen from our people. This happened on prairie ranches all over New Mexico, from the late 1800s to the 1940s, when my grandfather was a young man herding sheep on the range.

I don't remember much before the age of five; my memories are of Grandma and Grandpa Baca in the kitchen, whispering sleepily as the coffee pot percolates on the woodstove; at night, their voices become guarded, talking about Father's drinking, concerned by Mother's absence, and worried that there's never enough money. People come and go; behind their conversations, a Motorola radio under the cupboards by the sink drones Mexican corridos or mass rosaries. Then tensions rupture in a night of rebukes. Uncle Santiago cuffs his younger brother, Uncle Refugio, for coming home drunk again, and Grandpa scolds Father for his drunkenness. I remember wondering if those fights had something to do with what I saw one hot summer afternoon.

I was six years old, in my crawl space under the shack — or La Casita, as we called it — where it was cool and quiet. I was drifting in a reverie when I was jolted back to the present by a door creaking open above me. I scooted to a dark corner and peeked up through a crack in the floorboards. A strange man entered La Casita and sat on the bed. Mother came in behind him, and he embraced her. His shiny wingtip shoes scraped grit into my eyes. They watered painfully, but I forced myself to watch as he raised her skirt and ran his hands along her thighs.

She protested, wrenching to one side and then to the other, pushing him away. But the bedsprings creaked as he pinned her and said, "I love you."

They made love with their clothes on.

She cried, struggling.

His voice trembled.

I wanted to race into the shack and seize him but fear disabled me. I scratched at the ground with my fingers and shook my head to blur what was happening. Dizzy and terrified, all I could do was brace my knees to my chest and hug myself in fear as their bodies bucked back and forth and the iron legs of the bed scratched on the wood floor. She shrieked and he groaned, and then all of a sudden they stopped, gasping for air and sighing.

After he departed, she waited awhile and then left too. I lay in the dark, shaking uncontrollably. The ground trembled. In the distance, a train was braking into the railyard, either to load up sacks of beans or deposit milled lumber or field equipment. An hour or so later, feeling vibrations as it pulled out, I wished it could have taken all our family problems away with it. I didn't know what this affair meant at the time, except I knew it was wrong, and I carried the secret of it like a fresh wound in my heart.

Days passed in anguish. I never told Father and I never let on to my mother that I knew. I feared Father would find out what Mother had done and was glad he hadn't been home for a week.

Mother and I were napping one afternoon when I heard his car pull up outside, tires crunching gravel. She ran out to the car. "Where've you been?"

"You m'jailer?" he countered sarcastically. He'd been drinking again.

"Just stay away!" She had tried many times to avoid fights by ignoring his carousing, but when I looked out at her I saw no trace of the vulnerable bride. Her face reddening, she screamed, "You're a drunk!"

He scoffed. "You love to use the past against me, don't you? It's your weapon; you stab and turn and dig it in!" His bloodshot eyes glared with resentment. "I never wanted to marry you!"

"You raped me," she said, and seemed stifled by her words.

"Liar," he growled. "From the very first day you chased after me. Waiting at school, at the dance, at my house! You trapped me, you wanted it! You can't make love or cook! The whole town's laughing behind my back!"

She turned and came into the house, speaking to herself. "You were so drunk you don't even remember." Tears streamed down her cheeks.

* * *

My mother grew up in Willard, New Mexico, with four sisters and three brothers on a forty-acre ranch with no water. Her father, Leopoldo, a Spanish Comanchero, was a renowned cabinetmaker whom I never met, because he died of alcoholism before I was born. His wife, whom I called Grandma Weaver, raised my mother and her seven siblings. They were poor cowboys and cowgirls. When they weren't competing in regional rodeos, they worked long hours outside in the unbearably cold winters and hot sandblowing summers, milking cows, feeding pigs and horses, filing ax blades, and chopping wood.

Being the youngest and prettiest, my mother, Cecilia, was shielded from much of the harsh work; she stayed indoors with her mother and cooked, canned fruits and vegetables, darned old clothes, and did housework. Her older sisters planned on marrying railroad workers, diesel mechanics, or cowboys, but Cecilia had set her sights above such a mean life. Although her family was Spanish and poor, she was fair-skinned, green-eyed, and black-haired. Her family expected her to marry a well-off gringo with a big ranch, but her heart was set on Damacio Baca, a Mexican from a neighboring village, Estancia, whose parents were landless peasants. When she first saw him in his new car passing her school bus on her way to school, she knew they were going to get married. At fifteen, he wore store-bought clothes and was already working part time in the local grocery and feed store as stocker and cashier.

Her opportunity to meet him came when he made the high school basketball team and she joined the cheerleading squad. He was the team star and she the head cheerleader. It was the perfect match. Cecilia didn't mind his stopping at Francisco's pool hall to hustle hicks or play poker with older guys in the back room. After school, he usually gave her a ride home, and they would often park in an isolated field, hidden by windrow trees, to drink Seagram's and make out. They went steady for several months; she got pregnant, and they dropped out of school to get married.

Despite the early marriage, most people in Estancia were happy for them and pitched in to make their wedding a memorable one. Grandma and Grandpa Weaver, though indignant and against the marriage, gave them La Casita, which they trucked from Willard to Estancia and set up on blocks in the lot beside his parents' house.

The first few months my parents lived in La Casita next to Grandma Baca's house, but after my sister, Martina, was born, in 1950, Father took a job in Santa Fe, about an hour's drive north. They rented a house in Santa Fe, where they lived during the week, and then on weekends they'd stay in La Casita at Estancia. People liked my father and urged him to work his way into politics and one day run for office. A year later my brother, Mieyo, was born, and when Father was not on the road — he was employed by the DMV to deliver license plates to rural villages — he was with politicos in Santa Fe, drinking at the Toro cantina.

One year after that, in 1952, I was born, and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue. He was having trouble getting the jobs that the politicians promised him. Also, unlike his village, where everyone respected him, in the urban cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in a tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of. We had no furniture or dishes; we ate at Grandma's — Martina, Mieyo, and me tugging at Mother's skirt, fighting and crying. Mother tried to care for us, but she didn't know how. She and Damacio were only sixteen when they got married, and with him gone most of the time she had her hands full. Grandma Weaver kept after Mother to divorce him, claiming Father was nothing but a drunk and a womanizer. Her brothers swore they'd shoot him if they ever caught him and blamed her for dishonoring the family by marrying a "damn Mexican."

I remember him being two men. When sober, he looked boyish in pressed trousers, dress jacket, and white shirt, his appearance giving no trace of alcoholism. When he was drunk, he became vulgar and abusive, reducing himself to a pitiful phantom of the man he was when sober. When he was supposed to show up on Friday night, Mother made herself all pretty, and we'd go to the park pond and she'd push me on the swing. She'd chase us across the grass, wrestling us down with hugs, laughing and enchanting us with her girlish enthusiasm. We'd picnic on the grass, her green eyes sparkling with happiness as she told us how we were going to buy a nice house, toys and clothes. But later, waiting for Father, when he didn't arrive, her disappointment would deepen into surly pouting and when I did something wrong, she'd yell, saying she wished I was never born. I thought her sadness was my fault and I'd curl up on the floor in a corner and cry. Later, though, in bed, I'd weave her fingers around mine, kissing and tasting them as she caressed my face, apologized, whispered that everything was going to be fine.

We went back and forth between Santa Fe and Estancia more often once Martina and Mieyo started school in Estancia. I didn't want to go, and they didn't insist, so I played at home. In Santa Fe, although times were hard and we didn't have any money, neighbors sometimes came with canned staples and flour for tortillas. To show her gratitude for their kindness, Mother made me sit as they preached. "What is written in the Bible will come to pass!" they cried, as they stood above me in the middle of the room. "Infidels and sinners! The Lord will dash every idol and take upon himself proud ones and crush them!" I didn't say anything, but I thought they were strange and I was glad their visits were rare.

Not all Christians were the same. Sometimes, when a man named Richard took Mother out, she left me with a kind lady, Señora Valdez. Richard had sneaky ways and I didn't trust him. He was always whispering to my mother. When I asked what he had said, Mother told me I wasn't supposed to ask questions, and I didn't want to cause problems so I was quiet. Anyway, being with Señora Valdez allayed my anxiety about Richard. I often walked with her to the butcher shop for scraps to give stray dogs. At a small stream at the park by the plaza, we'd stand and toss bones to the starving creatures. She'd croon in an archaic voice, "Bendice El Señor; El Señor perdona tus pecados, y cura tus enfermedades." Her voice was warm and reassuring. I believed God listened to her prayers and made the dust storms stop, so I asked her to pray for my parents.

Whether we were in Estancia or Santa Fe, Dad would still come in late at night, smelling of whiskey and perfume. When I was six or seven, I was usually in bed right after sundown, but I stayed awake, waiting for him to come home. I would brace myself for a fight, as anything could happen when he was drunk. Many times I hid under my covers, my body tense, as he threatened my mother, hurling a spindle-back chair at her and roaring.

Mom would scream at him to get out. I often wept with fear, hoping he would not hurt her. Some nights he rushed drunkenly into my room and yanked me out of bed. I always looked desperately at my sister and brother as he carried me out, but they couldn't help me. Mom usually hid, afraid for her own safety. He would toss me into the car and drive away. I never knew where we were going. We usually drove for hours on country roads. I looked at the stars, I listened to the Mexican music on the radio, I glanced at him swigging from his whiskey bottle, and I tried to pretend that none of this was happening. I snuggled deep into the suit coat that covered me. The hum of the engine, the drone of the heater, and the wind blowing past his open window made me drowsy, and eventually I would fall asleep, helpless and sad.

On good days he tried to be conciliatory, promising to stay home more and not drink or womanize. On such days he always had surprises to show that life was going to get better. Once, to make us proud of him, he showed us a creased photograph of the governor of New Mexico shaking his hand on the capitol steps. He was excited, saying the governor was going to hire him soon. Often, after sharing good news with us, he'd say he had to run errands and would be right back. And just when I thought he might be sincere, he would return hours later, drooling drunk and crying with remorse. I pretended to ignore his repulsive drunkenness but was deeply disappointed. He always returned, and after slobbering all over me, saying what a good boy I was, how I was his favorite and someday I would be a great boxer, he would then stagger out for the night and not return until the bars were closing.

I didn't know which was worse, eagerly expecting him, but never knowing when he might barge drunkenly through the door late at night to fight with Mom, or fearing he would never come home again at all.

* * *

Because father almost never came around, and when he did he was drunk, Mother had taken a job as a cashier at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. We almost never saw her. I was too young to have understood, when we were living in Santa Fe, what it meant when this guy Richard kept coming over. I knew, though, the night we went to visit his parents, that something was up. I'd always distrusted this thin pimply-faced man from the "other world" who would drive up to our barrio shack in a shiny car and new suit, bearing chocolates and flowers, dresses, blouses, and other presents for Mom. I pretended to be indifferent to the candy he placed on the table and waited until they'd left before I tore it open and stuffed myself. I was only a child, but I understood in the way children do that Mother enjoyed the new standard of living that Richard was giving her. She'd bleached her hair, wore jewelry he'd given her, and always had money. She'd been changing in other ways too. She quit speaking Spanish and told us not to speak it around Richard.

Riding around in the car Richard had given her, she'd point to white-skinned, blue-eyed children and say I should be like them. When she dressed us, she mentioned that we should look like normal American kids. I had no idea how to do this. She would get mad at me for getting dirty playing in the dusty yard; when Richard was around, we had to stay clean and behave and sit quietly in a chair and say nothing. Richard would get mad when I asked for beans, chile, and tortilla, saying, "It's time you started eating American food." I knew Mom was trying to impress him with her "white ways," but it made her look silly.

It wasn't so with my father; he spoke Spanish and used English only when he had to. He listened to Mexican music, and all his friends were Mexicans. I never saw him with an Anglo. He never said anything bad about them, but he made a point to stay away from them. I remember riding around with him and saying, "No, don't want to go in there, too many gringos." I sensed that if he was around them, he'd be placing himself in harm's way. Ever since I could remember, my Baca grandparents mistrusted whites. When they came to Grandma's with official papers, we hid in the back rooms. Grandma said to be polite but warned me not to talk to them more than necessary. Uncle Santiago said they cheated Uncle Refugio out of his pay. When Grandpa was under the tree by the fence with his friends, I'd hear them talk about whites who used lawyers to pass laws to steal land or intimidated poor folks with their money.


Excerpted from "A Place To Stand"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Nolanmiller More than 1 year ago
People who don't think that written word or anything in text can change and transform they're life are proven false after I read this incredible book about a troubled youth and a long 5 year term in New Mexico's Maximum Security prison. When Jimmy Santiago Baca enters New Mexico's Florence State Prison in 1973, he was convicted on a heavy drug charge; Jimmy is a ripe 21 year old boy and has an impressively long history of trouble with the law for being such a young age. There's no reason or no hope left in his life, his father was a drunk and his mother abandoned him to live with as a white person with a white family and a white house. With no more options you would think jail will do turn him into a hardened criminal, with standing up for himself with guards and menacing convicts quickly gains him a reputation as a "BA" troublemaker. But there is hope in Jimmy's life with him illiterate and down on his luck he unsuccessfully tries to get permission to take classes in prison, only fueling his desire. When a volunteer from a catholic group sends him an emotional letter, writing and learning how to express feelings and words on paper started to unleash something in Baca, who starts writing letters and poems with the help of a mini dictionary. Evaluating literature shows him reasons for understanding his tender family background and expressing his way of thinking. Poetry very literally saves him from being a murderer, as Jimmy stands over another convict with a deadly weapon, ready to take the mans soul, and listened to "the voices of Neruda and Lorca... praising life as sacred and challenging me: How can you kill and still be a poet?"(Baca 231) Baca has a year to go on his sentence and he begins to think about a positive new life, instead of thinking about his next day in isolation he thinks about his next day in the real world. Without diminishing the brutality of life in jail, Baca shows compassion for the men there who helped him and insists his commitment to writing poetry for people who are misunderstood, telling the truth about the life that prisoners have to endure.
surfer9 More than 1 year ago
Its a book that you never want to put down, telling you how Jimmy's life through his hard struggles and life changing events he wanted to turn his life around for the better. Its a very detailed book of Jimmy's life making it seem like you were there with him through every event in his life. Its a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really great uplifting albeit sad story. I watched the documentary and had to know more. I want to read his poems. It was a great read
kjacobson1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lent to me by Jane Reed. This is an amazing book about Baca's transformation from drug dealer to poet.
Laurenbdavis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A testament to how writing and literature can transform lives. Baca's grim memoir of a tragic childhood, some bad (although perhaps understandable) choices during his troubled youth, and his five-year stretch in a horrendous prison is both grueling and riveting. While it is true his prose isn't up to the standard of his poetry, the power behind his redemption through writing and literature more than makes up for it. This is not for the faint-hearted, for the violence is graphic and brutal, and Baca doesn't look away from the awful facts of prison life. This is not a book of easy morality, and I was left ambiguous both about some of Baca's decisions, and some of his attitudes. However, what is clear is that it's a miracle anyone could have survived much of what Baca experienced, let alone go on to be an award-winning poet and an inspiration for others to transform their lives as well. The book may be flawed, as the man may be (aren't we all?), but its value lies in the witness it bears to a man's ability to overcome rejection, abuse, addiction, violence, cruelty, heartbreak, despair and himself, to be worthwhile and useful in the world.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A memoir of a Chicano boy of an alcoholic father, abandoned by his mother to his grandparents. Then at 5 or 6 his grandfather died. He spent the next 20 years in institutions, except for brief forays of trying to make it on his own. It was a life of abandonment, violence, and drugs capped by five years in maximum security prison. The story is actually about how he kept hold of himself through it all and his salvation in poetry. For the past 30 years he has been a successful poet and author. The story is well told and engaging.
pipster on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lent to me by Jane Reed. This is an amazing book about Baca's transformation from drug dealer to poet.
Tiffany Ramos More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this book and it touched my heart. Book was written in very vivid details and made you feel like you were actually there with him. He captures what its like being in a maximum security prison and the hardships of being labeled a thug while growing up. I loved his memoir and it brought me to tears! He talks about the importance of forgiveness and how writing saved his life while being incarcerated. It sheds some light into the mass incarceration problem in the U.S. and how inmates are trapped in a cycle of recidivism(due to lack of peer support, rejection from society, lack of resources,etc). Loved this book and I look forward to reading more of his work!
Sita-Marie More than 1 year ago
I felt that Jimmy Santiago Baca did not understand the point of writing a memoir, to reflect. I was waiting for that ah-ha! moment and it never came, he still blames everyone for his life's life's troubles and it is infuriating that he can't take ownership of his own actions. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read. Gritty at times. A must on everyone's list.
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Very interesting
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NessaRose28 More than 1 year ago
The author had a great story to tell, and i loved all the articulate details, it made me feel as if i had actually been there. Everyone should read it.
-Twilighter- More than 1 year ago
I thought it was a good book i had to read it for one of my college classes and at first i didn't like but when i actually started reading it i got really into and found that it was actually a really good book. I would recommend this book anytime.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wow! At times I felt I was actually there. The author really, truely knows how to articulate. Well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
My fiance is and has been incarcerated for several years. Some of the time he has spent behind bars was at the actual prison in the book. I found the book very interesting and gave me more of a feel for the life behind bars.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this was a good book, but the guy made himself up to be a victim. he deserved a lot that happened to him and gave a one sided opinion. I know the guy went through alot, but come on he did so many horrible things. For example: stole a car, stabbed a prisoner with a shank, sold and smoked crack and weed, and did tons of other stuff. But throughout the entire novel, he basically said everyone else was at fault, and he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. If you like a cool biography, read this book. but if you hate hearing people complain, and victimize themselves, leave this one on the shelf.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. Jimmy went through so much and writes about every detail. After I finished the book, it felt like I knew Jimmy as a close friend. You will not be disappoint if you get this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't read that much. But this is one of the best book I have read.I have gone back and read parts agian and agian.You just can't put it down.I have recommended it to everyone I know including my daughters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wrenching yet riveting memoir of a man's journey to self-expression. It's amazing that a life that knew such violence, drugs and imprisonment could have led the way to poetry. The truth of Jimmy Santiago Baca's life story is not easy to read, but it is thoroughly compelling. The violence and scenes in prison ring with a kind of truth I am sure I wouldn't have been aware of had I not read this account. The stories of his loves and hatreds are heartrending, but his account of learning to read and how that affected the rest of his life discloses the incredible interior struggle of an immense creative energy.