A week ago, after a brief class discussion about what occurred in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir and the documentary that followed, my classmates and I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with Jimmy Santiago Baca in person. I had a different idea of what Jimmy would look like in person, based on what I saw in the documentary. Though in the film he still had a calm and informal air about him, in person he was a much more relaxed and laid back joker. After class I called my mother and joked with her about how similar he was to my Uncle Jim Baca (no relation — that I’m aware of).
It was an interesting interaction for me personally, to see such an amazing artist and activist in person, and yet to see him through a lens of familiarity. He reminded me of my uncles, my grandfather, and my father in the way he speaks, the way he sits, and the way he interacted with us eager students. We would ask questions about his experience both as a prisoner and a teacher of inmates, and while he would in some ways answer our questions, the road to his answers were often full of fun tangents and personal stories that often had very little to do with our questions. Even so, we all hung onto his words and stories and there were a few times when I got so sucked into the tangents that I forgot and/or lost interest in the original question.
One of my favorite stories Jimmy shared was when some of the women in one of the prisons he was working in built bird houses that in a way became their own homes. He said how the women had named their birds and saw their birds as their families. He recalled coming in to visit and work with the women and they would recount how their families were doing or how mijo did this or Junior did that and he was amazed by how hopeful and excited the women were by their houses and their families.
The story was so beautiful, but like many incarceration or stories from the downtrodden, there is always something lurking to destroy whatever hope some may have. Jimmy told us how he arrived to the prison one day and learned that the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) had come in and cut down the houses. The women rioted against the prison and the guards and ended up doubling their sentences.
I couldn’t imagine the kind of pain those women felt. To have built these houses by themselves, created these families and naming their children, but then some corporation came in and stole their families and houses from them.
What made this story hurt more, was just before Jimmy arrived, we discussed artist Jackie Sumell and inmate Herman Wallace’s collaborative project where Sumell reconstructed a model of Wallace’s 6×9 foot isolation cell. Another project Sumell and Wallace were working on was designing Wallace’s dream house. As the project evolved, the house developed from not just being Wallace’s dream house, but also being a place of education and rehabilitation for recently released prisoners.
Wallace died 3 days after being released from prison and will never get to see his house be built.
Seeing Jimmy Santiago Baca and hearing him speak in person was such a moving event and I am so fortunate to get to learn from him. He left us with the option of getting in touch with his foundation, Cedar Tree Inc., to work incarcerated persons and youth and I look forward to hearing back from him.