Looking Forward to NCTE 2017: Jimmy Santiago Baca

By Dustin Hixenbaugh

Attending this year’s NCTE Convention are a number of ELA celebrities (Sherman Alexie! Jacqueline Woodson! Jason Reynolds!) that I’d love to run into and snap a selfie with while we’re all standing in line for the water fountain. But the famous person I’m most looking forward to seeing is the author and activist Jimmy Santiago Baca, who will be delivering the Friday keynote address.

Since he is the first speaker of the day, Baca will be beginning his talk at the unholy hour of 8:00 AM. This may be later than teachers typically show up for work, but I bet it is still well before most of us want to roll out of our hotel beds for a conference. In case you’re unfamiliar with Baca or just need an extra kick in the pants to rouse yourself early enough to be able to catch him, I have decided to share a few words about his life and works. In short, I want y’all to be as excited to see him as I am.

Baca is a towering figure in Chicana/o literature and the recipient of prestigious honors including the American Book Award (1988), the Pushcart Prize (1988), the Hispanic Heritage Award (1989), and the International Award (2001). However, what makes his long list of accomplishments all the more incredible is that he did not learn to read and write until he was in his 20s. As he explains in Stories from the Edge (Heinemann, 2010), he spent his childhood and teenage years on a lonely “journey to be loved.” He was abandoned by his birth parents at age 2, taken to an orphanage by his grandmother at 8, living on his own (as a homeless runaway) at 13, and sentenced to 5 years in a maximum-security prison for drug-related offenses at 21. It is unsurprising that he would be functionally illiterate at the time of his conviction considering how few years he had spent in school.

Stories from the Edge is a brief, autobiographical collection that Baca wrote with the hope of reaching reluctant YA readers who might not appreciate that getting an education offers them an alternative to following him on the path toward drugs, crime, and imprisonment. In the introduction, he describes how learning to read and write helped him realize that he was a person of value who deserved a better life than the one he had been accepting for himself. In his own words:

I devoured books. I wrote my first letters to people, I kept a journal, wrote poems, and miraculously the power of literacy took hold and dug in and embedded itself in my heart. I became known to myself and loved who I started to know in me. Through the mist and darkness, through the tears and misguided intentions, through the anger and despair that entangled me for so many years, Jimmy was emerging — a strong, beautiful Jimmy, with the growing capacity to think and analyze the world beyond, and to make courageous choices interacting in that world.

I predict that Baca’s speech will elaborate on his life story and reflect on the writing workshops that he leads in prisons, community centers, schools, and other places where he goes to inspire people to reshape the world through language. This would make sense considering that he will be speaking to a crowd of English teachers who will be receptive to this message and would be fine with me so long as the speech includes such lovingly rendered paeans to “the power of literacy” as the one I printed above.

Even so, I not-so-secretly hope that Baca also treats us to a poetry reading. Although he seems to be writing more prose than poetry lately, he became famous for the poems that he began composing while still serving out his time in prison. The Baca compositions I know best, “Immigrants in Our Own Land” and “So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans,” righteously turn the tables on demagogues who characterize “Mexicans” as opportunistic foreigners. Toward the end of the second poem, he writes:

I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.

Below that cool green sea of money,
millions and millions of people fight to live,
search for pearls in the darkest depths
of their dreams, hold their breath for years
trying to cross poverty to just having something.

In these lines, Baca suggests that pointing figures at racial/ethnic minorities is a distraction — a political game intended to draw people’s attention away from the economic inequalities that actually do separate US Americans from one another. Though published a quarter-century ago, Baca’s words continue to resonate. Sadly, it is beginning to look like they always will.

Like I mentioned above, Baca’s address is scheduled to take place Friday, November 17, at 8:00 AM. NCTE has not yet identified the location, but you can bet that I will be there, front and center, with a very large cup of coffee. I hope you’ll join me.

Recommended reading: Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand (Grove, 2001), is his most sought-after book and includes a number of shocking/inspirational/philosophical passages that you could excerpt for classroom use. If you prefer to share briefer, complete works with your students, I recommend Stories from the Edge for prose and Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (New Directions, 1990) for poetry. Happy reading!