A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poetby Jimmy Santiago Baca, Jimmy S. Baca
Jimmy Santiago Baca, winner of the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award, has been called an heir to Pablo Neruda and one the best poets in America today. At the age of twenty-one, however, he was illiterate and facing five to ten years in a maximum-security prison for selling drugs. Five years later he emerged from prison with the ability to read and a passion… See more details below
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Jimmy Santiago Baca, winner of the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award, has been called an heir to Pablo Neruda and one the best poets in America today. At the age of twenty-one, however, he was illiterate and facing five to ten years in a maximum-security prison for selling drugs. Five years later he emerged from prison with the ability to read and a passion for writing poetry. A Place to Stand is his memoir of childhood on small farms in New Mexico, his adolescence spent in orphanages and detention centers, his years as a drug dealer in San Diego and Arizona, and his extraordinary personal transformation under harrowing conditions behind bars.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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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 meabout 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 rapture 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 shackor La Casita, as we called itwhere 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, fires 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 sand-blowing 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 roadhe was employed by the DMV to deliver license plates to rural villageshe 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'sMartina, 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.
That was why I was nervous the afternoon Richard took us to meet his rich parents. We were going into their world. Mom sat up front all made up, wearing a pretty pink dress and red high heels. Mieyo, Martina, and I huddled in the back. When we were almost there, Richard turned to Mom and explained that, since his parents were old-fashioned, it would be best if she said she was Anglo and that she was just babysitting us for a girlfriend. From where I sat I could see Mother bite her bottom lip as she stared straight ahead. I expected her to say something back to him, but instead she said to us, "You better be on your best behavior." And we were, for the whole boring afternoon; all we did was sit on big soft chairs in the living room as still as we had been in the car, afraid to touch the fancy food on small plates on the table unless it was offered, afraid to speak unless asked to speak, afraid to do anything but sit there and pick our fingernails. When we finally said our good-byes and pulled the car door closed, she turned to Richard and asked, "How'd I do?"
"A-plus," he replied, pleased with her. I remember looking at Mother again and noticing that a bit of lipstick that had smudged her bright teeth when she bit her lip was still there. I felt an odd satisfaction.
The next day, driving out of Santa Fe, Mother forced a smile and told us we were going to Estancia. Her voice was tight. She lit cigarette after cigarette, the lighter in her hand trembling. I could feel a mounting tension in Richard. He would press the gas pedal, making the engine hum higher, and then he would release it, and a few minutes later he would press down on the pedal again. I watched his eyes in the rearview mirror. They were hiding something. I felt Richard was going to do something bad to us, and all I could do was sit and wait for it to happen. I wanted to hit him and take control of the situation somehow, but how does a seven-year-old do that? I fidgeted instead, feeling my pulse throbbing in my fingertips, the seat springs against my butt. I looked up and caught Richard's eyes darting in and out of the mirror, looking at me. I picked my cuticles until they were bleeding. I was thinking of grabbing the steering wheel and begging Mother to stop the car and take us back to Santa Fe; or to leave Richard and just let the four of us live together. I looked out the window at endless miles of cactus and sage. In the window was my sister's reflection, her hand running a hair ribbon through her nervous palm, and Mieyo fingering a roll of caps.
"It's your fault," Martina hissed.
I turned and saw her and Mieyo looking at me. Mieyo's face was white, his neck artery engorged, dark eyes full of fear. "Told you," he said, pinching me. I sucked my breath back to hold my tears in but they came anyway. Maybe they were blaming me because I cried too much. "Crybaby," Mieyo said, and then the engine slowed and Richard backhanded him across the face.
"Stop that or I'll throw you out!" he yelled, and the car swayed forward again, picking up speed. "Do something with them, they're your kids," he told Mom.
"I hate you!" I screamed at Richard. Mieyo grabbed the door handle and flung it open. Richard braked, and we lunged forward as the car skidded in the roadside gravel.
Mom turned and slammed the door shut. "What is the matter with you! Don't ever do that again!" I'd peed in my pants, my blood drumming in my head and my heart beating wildly. I kept my head down to hide my tears.
Richard kept mumbling, "I'll be so happy ... so happy." Why was he going to be so happy? Maybe we were going to picnic at the park pond. Maybe we were going to eat some good beans and hot buttered tortillas at Grandma's. Maybe he was dropping Mom and us off. Maybe he was going away.
After a while, we drove down Main Street. Trucks brimming with potatoes were parked by the track warehouses. There were men working in a big hole, standing around in that easy manner of small-town workers, talking and laughing. We turned off down a dirt road and pulled into Grandma's yard. She came outside and stood in the yard, her long gray hair braided, her apron splotched with flour. Mother brought us to her and kissed us briskly on the cheeks and said she'd be back. As I watched her leave, hearing the tires whir away on pavement, I felt weightless, sucked into a lifeless, paralyzing emptiness. I couldn't breathe and my legs were shaking. An intensely bright, luminous ball of fire was streaming into my eyes and blinding me. I tried to pull free of Grandma's hand, and I heard her say, "Mañana sera mejor con el favor de Dios." Tomorrow will be a better day with God's help. But as she led us into the house, I knew tomorrow would never be better. Something in my life had changed forever.
Excerpted from A PLACE TO STAND by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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