Jimmy Santiago Baca has been one of those poets whose work I've regularly encountered in literary magazines over the years.
I remember sampling his books as well, finding his poems on Latino life and culture passionate and engaging but a bit too sentimental.
Until discovering a documentary on Baca's life on cable TV the other night, I didn't realize that Baca began his literary career while serving five years at the brutal Arizona State Prison. I always thought he was a poet who had come up through the conventional route of writing program MFA and university teaching post.
As "A Place to Stand" relates, Baca had a much different education. Based on Baca's memoir of the same name, the film looks back on his childhood as the rebellious son of an abusive father and mother who abandoned the family.
From that unsettled background, Baca turned to a criminal career, leading to his incarceration. Along with recollections by Baca, family members and fellow inmates, the Crowdsource-funded film uses actors to dramatize events of his life.
Sent along with his brother and sister to a Catholic orphanage in New Mexico, Baca escapes after suffering harsh corporal punishment. Following several holdups and drug deals and the shooting of an undercover officer, Baca is sent in his early 20s to the brutal prison, where the standard is severe punishment rather than rehabilitation. To survive, he plunges into violence, committing the horrible murder of another inmate who threatened him. He's punished by solitary confinement in a small, airless cell known as "the hole."
Later, resistance to prison rules and administrators' refusal to let him attend school bring him to the same wing as death row inmates. That turns out to be his salvation, as the illiterate Baca begins to teach himself to read, through the assistance of a neighboring prisoner who possesses a dictionary and helps Baca learn new words. A prison system volunteer from outside offers to exchange letters, and Baca corresponds with him.
As his love of writing grows, Baca begins to write poems and send them off to literary magazines other inmates tell him about. Eventually, his poems are published. Despite opposition from a warden hostile to his writing, Baca at last wins his freedom.
Overcoming a few narrative discrepancies, the film presents an inspiring portrait of a man who emerges from anger and bitterness through the love of language and empathy for others. The most remarkable part of the movie is how his fellow inmates put aside their mistrust and hostility to help Baca. Several of them become writers as well.
The film's message of shared humanity is all the more relevant in today's polarized political climate. Baca was a "bad hombre" who turned into a a good man.