“I was a witness not a victim … My job was to witness and record the ‘it’ of their lives, to celebrate those who don’t have a place in this world to stand and call home … My role as a witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.” —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand
Nearly eleven years since the publication of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s award-winning memoir A Place to Stand (Grove/Atlanta 2001), this remarkably raw and inspiring story of one man’s salvation through poetry is being given new life as a feature film/documentary and is scheduled to make its debut in the spring of 2013.
I don’t know when the process of criminalization began for any one of the kids I hung out with or woke up with in a prison cell. For me, it was when my mother first dropped my brother and sister and me off in Estancia …
Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent to an alcoholic father and a mother who desired to blend into a white world, both of whom proved incapable of caring for Jimmy and his siblings. Jimmy was raised for a time by his grandmother and was later sent to an orphanage. After running away at age 13, Baca found himself on the streets, illiterate and dealing drugs to survive. As a young man he was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison in Arizona. While incarcerated, Jimmy discovered the power of language, namely poetry, and began writing for his life.
I would set my dictionary next to me, prop my paper on my knees, sharpen my pencil with my teeth…I would try to write the thoughts going through my mind, but they didn’t come out right. They lacked reality. A stream of ideas flowed through me, but they lost their strength as soon as I put them down. I erased so often and so hard I made holes in the paper … After a day of looking up words, I’d be exhausted, as if I had run ten miles. I can’t describe how words electrified me. I could smell and taste and see their images vividly. I found myself waking up at 4 A.M. to reread a word or copy a definition.
A Place to Stand chronicles Baca’s incredible journey from a tormented, abused, and lonely child, to a criminal and hardened inmate, and finally to a world-renowned poet and humanitarian. Jimmy has devoted his post-prison life to spreading the power of language to inmates and other at-risk individuals, including children, across the country by conducting poetry workshops in schools and prisons, giving powerful lectures and readings, and promoting literacy through the distribution of books and other educational materials. In 2005 he created Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit organization that works to give people of all walks of life the opportunity to acquire an education and to improve their lives.
Jimmy’s life story is as visceral and inspirational as they come, and his love affair with language breathes life into the people, places, and events he describes, making them true and essential. Writer Jim Harrison had this to say about A Place to Stand: “The finest memoir I’ve read in I don’t know how long. It reminded me of the rawness of George Orwell combined with the human exuberance of Neruda’s memoirs…This book will have a permanent place in American letters.”
[Following a prison riot, the guards] had us lined up naked against the wall on the ground floor, as they stood with rifles aimed behind us. On the tiers above us, goons went cell to cell, hurling down TVs, stereos, and anything else they found. National Guard officers ordered us not to move, but Ray Ray turned and they shot him. His blood spattered over my arm and the side of my face, but I couldn’t move to wipe it off. I couldn’t help him. I wanted to scream that this was madness. I wanted to scream that this shouldn’t be happening. With my arms above my head against the wall, I put my head down and saw the officer kick what Ray Ray was going for. ‘Check the frame for drugs,’ he said to another guard. Through the corner of my eye, I saw that it was a shattered family portrait of Ray Ray with his wife and kids. Later, I dealt with Ray Ray’s murder the only way I could. I wrote a poem for him and sent it to his family.
Under Jimmy’s guidance, the artful direction of award-winning filmmaker Daniel Califf-Glick, and the impassioned production efforts of Jimmy’s son, Gabriel Baca, the film promises to be gorgeous as well as gritty. And the extensive interviews with everyone from Jimmy’s sister, Martina, to former cellmates, correctional officers, drug dealers, friends, students, and numerous others, will offer new light and dimension to Baca’s astounding journey and transformation. Click here to view the trailer.
To date, Baca’s is the only memoir I have been compelled to read no fewer than three times. It is gripping, disturbing, heart-breaking, and beautiful. I anxiously await the release of what is destined be, at the very least, a deeply moving and important film. I expect to be socked repeatedly in the jaw and to relish every blow.
Funds are still being raised in order to cover the film’s post-production costs. It is estimated that the film will be released six months after funding has been secured. If you’d like to speed up this process and donate please visit the official website.