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Poet & Former Inmate Jimmy Santiago Baca on the Power of Language

Esai Baca
Jimmy Santiago Baca

By most accounts, Jimmy Santiago Baca shouldn’t be alive, let alone an award winning poet.

Baca, who was born in New Mexico, is of Indio-Mexican descent. By the time he was five, he was in an orphanage, and he was a runaway at thirteen. He then went to Arizona State Prison for his part in a drug deal gone bad. And that could have easily been the end of the story. But while he was serving time, Baca discovered language, specifically poetry, and it saved his life.

How a functionally illiterate man became a poet and a committed teacher is the subject of the documentary, A Place to Stand, which will screen tonight at the Oriental Theatre.

Baca is in Milwaukee for that, but also for other activities near and dear to his heart: using poetry with at risk youth as a way to help them find their voices – and perhaps even more importantly, to get them to realize they have something important to say.

"It’s not just the grammar, you know. I want to teach you how to go to the visiting room and I want to teach you how to… how to kneel down in front of your son and I want you to verbalize for your son what your dream is for you and him. That’s literacy…," Baca said in a Lake Effect interview.

He’s been working with kids most of the week through the Express Yourself Milwaukee organization.

At 1 pm today, he’ll give a talk and reading at MATC's Cooley Auditorium. There is also a free writing workshop for high school aged youth on Friday morning at Running Rebels.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.