A brutally honest memoir by a person born to deprivation and abandonment. Born in the southern state of New Mexico to parents of Mexican and Apache Indian descent, Baca’s early life is the very antithesis of the American dream. This book enables you to see the indifferent face of America, the very existence of which many in the developing world are unaware. Poverty in America? Don’t tell me! Here is a man lucky enough to be born in America and yet living a most horrendous and nightmarish existence from early childhood to adulthood. “I’d begun to feel early on that the state and society at large considered me a stain on their illusion of a perfect America. In the American dream there weren’t supposed to be children going hungry or sleeping under bridges.”
Baca and his two siblings were abandoned in childhood by both parents – their father drifting through life in an alcoholic haze and their mother eloping to California with a lover in her quest for a more settled lifestyle. Brought up by their grandparents for a while, the children keep yearning for their parents’ return. When their grandfather passes way, the boys are sent to an orphanage. Baca runs away again and again – and ends up in a detention center at the age of thirteen. From there, he moves on to street life marked by vagrancy, aimlessness, petty crimes, intermittent jail terms, violence and substance abuse, for a while reuniting with his brother and then losing him again. “And somewhere along the line, I started fighting just for the sake of fighting, because I was good at it and it felt good to beat other people up.”
Baca is sentenced for drug peddling and ends up in jail. During his five-year incarceration at a maximum security prison, he learns to read and write. He attained real literacy only when he was in his early twenties – and it turned out to be his path to salvation. While he speaks of the sub-human conditions that prevail in prison, something that the vast majority of us cannot even imagine, his language espouses a dark beauty and is more poetry than prose. “The rage that came out of him was the kind of rage that transcends friendship. It’s the kind of rage that can be created only in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest. It grows and grows, hidden deep in souls that have died from too many beatings, too many jail cells, and bottomless despair, contained like a ticking bomb.”
Of life in jail, he has this to say, “Three meals a day and a warm cot with a roof over my head was a vacation. It was often better in jail than on the streets; I didn’t have to worry for a while about surviving.” And “Handcuffs had become as normal to me as a wristwatch is to a free man.”
Baca draws plausible portraits of everything that is wrong with a system that recognizes human beings only when there is a perceived need to punish and restrain them. “You could see the narrowing of life’s possibilities in the cold, challenging eyes of the homeboys in the detention center; you could see the numbing of their hearts in their swaggering postures. All of them had been wounded, hurt, abused, ignored; already aggression was in their talk, in the way they let off steam over their disappointments, in the way the expressed themselves. It was all they allowed themselves to express, for each of them knew they could be hurt again if they tried anything different.”
The emotional content of the book is stupendous. It doesn’t come as surprise that Baca soon became an acclaimed writer. He had endured so much and he had so much to say. And most significant of all, he had overcome. Through the world of letters, the human spirit had broken out of the vicious circle of drugs, crime and depravity and settled down to the peaceful pursuit of true happiness. This memoir has the potential to awaken hope in the hearts of people who are going through similar travails and plumbing the depths of despair, not only in America but elsewhere. In the author’s own words, “I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together.”
Overall Assessment: Definitely worth reading.
A Place to Stand
AUTHOR: JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA
PUBLISHER: GROVE PRESS, NEW YORK
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2001
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.