By the Time I Get To Arizona (2)

Even though U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton has blocked most of the provisions in SB 1070, the law is still in effect. For activists, this means there is little time to celebrate this victory since folks like Sheriff Joe Arpaio are all set to put as much of the law into effect. With Sheriff Joe’s record, that means he’ll probably go past the letter and spirit of the law and continue his efforts to make Arizona a police state where brown folks are the siege targets.

I can’t think of a more prophetic poem than Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans.” I remember reading this poem back in 2001 and loving the directness of the poem. In fact, the directness of the poem is so jarring that the end of the poem completely took me off guard and for years it was a great poetic mystery for me. Where was the metaphor? Where was the open ended ambiguous mystery of poetry? What, no gift wrapping and shiny bow at the end to summarize the poem for me?

I’m not sure when I finally got it but when this poem finally clicked for me, it was like a hammer upside my head and cemented a key concept of poetry for me—the purpose of poetic language isn’t to dance around a touchy subject with smart line breaks and clever simile. No, the purpose of poetic language is to lure people into uncomfortable situations and show them the truth in the world around them.

In this case, it’s the after effects of short sighted policies like SB 1070 and other legislation that seeks to demonize any segment of US society. The end of his poem eschews flowery language and transforms directly into the voice of Sheriff Joe with all his vitriol and hypocrisy in full display for the reader to judge.

And like SB1070, the readers judge in all kinds of ways. I’ve heard as much praise for this poem as I’ve heard disdain. I’ve heard this poem called racist, that it paints all gringos in a negative light, and outrage that the poet uses the word gringo. And, in the name of poetic dialogue, these are all good things. It’s better to know what is in the heart of people around you and nothing brings that heart out faster than a good poem.

So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans

O Yes? Do they come on horses
with rifles, and say,
Ese gringo, gimmee your job?

And do you, gringo, take off your ring,
drop your wallet into a blanket
spread over the ground, and walk away?

I hear Mexicans are taking your jobs away.
Do they sneak into town at night,
and as you’re walking home with a whore,
do they mug you, a knife at your throat,
saying, I want your job?

Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from a nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
“They’re taking our jobs away.”

Well, I’ve gone about trying to find them,
asking just where the hell are these fighters.

The rifles I hear sound in the night
are white farmers shooting blacks and browns
whose ribs I see jutting out
and starving children,
I see the poor marching for a little work,
I see small white farmers selling out
to clean-suited farmers living in New York,
who’ve never been on a farm,
don’t know the look of a hoof or the smell
of a woman’s body bending all day long in fields.

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.

The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
“We aren’t giving the children a chance to live.”

Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.

© Jimmy Santiago Baca
Reprinted with permission of the author.

Anticipating: Selected Poems/Poemas Selectos by Jimmy Santiago Baca

This book just shot to the top of my Must Have list. Probably the best thing I could say about Baca’s work is that Barb and I once traveled an hour-and-a-half to hear him read at Word Temple in Santa Rosa and (due to a family emergency) Jimmy had to cancel his appearance at the last minute.  At that point, I had never heard him read live so I was completely bummed out.  Luckily, host Katherine Hastings and another Word Temple regular decided they would proxy for Baca and delivered a great reading of his work.  A year later, I would finally get to hear Jimmy read in person and it was just as intense, lyrical and moving; a real testament to his ability to convey his presence through his text and his text amplifying his real-life persona.  It’s going to be great to have one collection that can sum up a part of that experience.

Champion of the International Poetry Slam, winner of the Before Columbus American Book Award, the International Hispanic Heritage Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the prestigious International Award, Jimmy Santiago Baca has been writing as a mestizo (part Native American, part Mexican) and an outsider ever since he learned to read and write — in English — during a six-year Federal prison sentence when he was in his twenties. Drawing on his rich ethnic heritage and his life growing up in poverty in the Southwestern United States, Baca has a created a body of work which speaks to the disenfranchised by drawing on his experiences as a prisoner, a father, a poet, and by reflecting on the lush, and sometimes stark, landscape of the Rio Grande valley.

In response to increased demand for Latino poetry in Spanish, and to thousands of Baca fans who are bilingual, this unique collection contains Spanish translations of Baca’s poetry selected from the volumes Martín and Mediations on the South Valley (1987), Black Mesa Poems (1989), Immigrants in Our Own Land (1990), Healing Earthquakes (2001), C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans (2002), Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande (2004), and Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande (2007).

Pre-order your copy here.

Jimmy Santiago Baca at the Cesar Chavez Public Library (Salinas, CA)

There is nothing greater than when a community comes out in force to hear their poet. Mad props to the staff of the Cesar Chavez Library for getting the word out and making sure that all of Salinas knew that Jimmy Santiago Baca was coming to read.

A crowd of 100+ from every demographic you can think of came out ready and eager for Mr Baca. I was very fortunate to be included as one of the readers for the night and was asked to go up first. Reading from Palimpsest, I shared “The Story of How Pigeon Came to Live in City” and “Palipsest: Ghazal.” Both poems went over pretty well considering my voice was very nervous.

Local poet and journalist Marc Cabrera came through next with two very earnest poems. The first felt like a riff off of Miguel Piñero’s “A Lower East Side Poem” as Cabrera was asking that his ashes be spread over the East Side of Salinas. Cabrera’s attention to detail and sincere love of his East Side home came through loud and clear in his poem and gave me an even greater appreciation of Salinas.

Garland Thompson, Jr; Marc Cabrera; Oscar Bermeo and Jimmy Santiago BacaGarland Thompson closed out the opening poets with some signature pieces done with a bombastic theater style. Garland was one of the event organizers and had been working tirelessly throughout the weekend to make sure that Jimmy could speak at local youth centers and get to catch some of the sights in the Monterey Peninsula. Much props to him for all his hard work.

Jimmy came out to close the night in the role of poet and story teller. Barb and I were talking this morning about how some poets do such an eloquent job at being able to share the details of their lives and the urgency behind their craft. Elders like Al Robles, Wanda Coleman, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, and José Montoya come quickly to mind. This list isn’t all about elder status, I’m thinking about the great talk Junot Diaz gave recently and how only a little of it was him actually reading from the book and so much was the experience of writing the book. Folks like Roger Bonair-Agard, Suheir Hammad, Javier Huerta, Paul D. Miller, and Chad Sweeney are some other writers who can make writing feel alive without resorting to didatic rehashing.

Back to Jimmy, his stories of survival and cultural pride cut straight to the heart of the Salinas residents. He praised them for their hard work but also pushed them to take another step and be able to claim their identities in both familiar and hostile environments. More than anything, Jimmy speaks the straight-up, el vivo y hecho, the real deal, to communities that have been repeatedly lied to. In return for his honesty, the communities gives him respect and attention so that his poems can have an open space to be absorbed.

The selection Jimmy read from his new collection, Rita and Julia, was epic in its scope but remained centered with a clear speaker living and considering the choices the world gives. A very Whitman-esque turn in Baca’s work that extends the long poem form he has embraced since Martín & Meditations on the South Valley and C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans.

For me, it was an incredible treat to hear him read “I Am Offering This Poem.” It’s been a favorite of mine for years and to see him pull out Immigrants in Our Own Land brought out all kinds of fanboy in me. On the critical tip, Jimmy read the poems from his newest collection and first collection with an ease of voice and writing styles (the poet in control of his craft and confident in his text) while sill maintaining a sense of urgency (the poet offering the poem as a point of discussion, an opportunity for dialogue, that the audience may not take so he must relay in his voice and word choice how critical the message is). If you didn’t see him switch books, you might even imagine that he was reading from the same book which, after seeing some writers endlessly read from their old work or clumsily tripping over their own new text (I’ve been guilty of both crimes), is a level of poetic mastery more poets should be trying to reach.

Jimmy Santiago Baca: Partial BibliographyIn the end, it’s all about the transformative power of poetry and how it can affect every life; poetry can get you love, prestige, and acclaim. But poetry can’t do anything if you try to jam it down people’s throats or present it in a laissez faire fashion.

The difference maker? Trust, in your work and in your reader, and faith, in the work and in yourself.

The proof? The life story and rich literary history of Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Jimmy Santiago Baca reads at the Cesar Chavez Public Library

[ETA: Barb’s thoughts on hanging with Jimmy and the Salinas reading.]