Sunday, September 28, 2014


Indigenous peoples of Latin America -- and its former outposts now part of the United States of American (Goddamn) -- are understandably leery of the term "Santiago!" since it was what the Spanish Conquistadors shouted out as they commenced one of their periodic massacre/slaughters of the Indians. Santiago is St. James, the patron saint of Spain and the saint under whose blessing it was believed the conquest took place, took root, and succeeded.

So. Hundreds of years go by, a raza in the Americas is created of an amalgam of Indio and Spanish ancestors, and the name Santiago is distributed like honey candy throughout the Spanish speaking population. The name may or may not inspire dread any more, depending not so much on the collective past but on the individual present.

"Jimmy" Santiago Baca, born of Santa Fe, reared in Estancia, Albuquerque and the Arizona State Prison at Florence, is one of those Santiagos you can't be quite sure of. He must have been a holy terror in his mad, wild youth, but then something happened in jail forty years ago that changed him forever. He stole a book, he said, from the desk of an Anglo woman intake worker at the Albuquerque jail who was laughing at a poor drunken Indian getting beat up by guards. He said he wanted to hurt her, and the only thing he could do at that moment was take her book with the intention of burning it once he got back to his cell.

He was functionally illiterate, but he could read enough that he could puzzle out some of the words on the pages he was burning, and those words opened another world to him, as if by some magic, and they worked their way in, until he was able to work his own words out.

"Jimmy" Santiago Baca became a poet, a nationally renown poet while he was still in prison in Arizona. He was released eventually in part because he was nationally renown and a poet of great substance, a Chicano poet at a time when that was the new and coming thing. José Montoya, also from New Mexico, up in the hills above Estancia, had pioneered the Chicano literature movement a few years before, and Santiago was able to ride the wave. It's been a good run.

So. Daniel Glick, the movie's director from New York, told me last night that some years ago he visited a prisoner at Auburn State Prison in Upstate New York, and that he was quite horrified and moved by the experience, vowing one day to make a film about American prisons, and the fellow he went to visit, a guy named Tommy, told him that if he wanted to do that he should read "A Place to Stand," by Jimmy Santiago Baca, before he did anything else.

Daniel read it and said he was "blown away." Instead of a movie about prisons per se, he made a movie based on "A Place to Stand" -- and Jimmy Santiago Baca. The movie, titled "A Place to Stand", premiered in Santa Fe on Friday. We went to see it on Saturday afternoon, since the premiere was sold out by the time we found out about it, and they didn't even have room for standing in the back by the time I called up for tickets.

The film was remarkable. The picture is excellent, really one of the finest personal documentaries I've seen, and Jimmy (or Santiago) and Daniel are moving spokesmen for it. (Jimmy's son, Gabriel, the producer of the picture, was supposed to be there, but he didn't make it -- he was "working," doing what they didn't say, but he was too busy to sit and chat with the audience on Saturday).

Jimmy and Daniel spoke after the picture was shown on Saturday to a mostly elderly, mostly Anglo matinee crowd (yeah, well...), answering questions and making passionate statements about... language. For it was through language and its use that Jimmy found his way out of hell and he has committed his life to sharing with others, particularly those who are behind bars in this most incarcerated of nations, what he did and what they can do if they learn to use language -- as opposed, say, to violence -- to express their deepest being, their souls, their presence, and they learn to love themselves.

Jimmy Santiago Baca is a powerful poet, there is no mistaking that. As he and Daniel Glick went on at some length about language and its power, I was quite taken with the fact that Jimmy Santiago Baca writes almost entirely in English -- with some admixture of prison Spanglish for authenticity's sake -- though as far as I could tell, his first language was Spanish.

Well, no. His first language -- he said -- was silence.

So far as I know, he doesn't use Spanish in his work except as a kind of decoration, a finish or a fillip, though he knows the language and speaks it well enough. I could be wrong about that, but for a Chicano poet, the near-absence of the Spanish language in his work -- or at least in most of it -- is striking. But then given the nature of some of the stories he tells,  it is understandable and forgivable.

Language is indisputably key, but... what language?

During the "Shedding Skin" symposium at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art last weekend, one of the speakers brought up the problem of translation in the context of indigenous art, not the lack of work and brilliance and what have you, but the lack of translators and translations, which had the effect of limiting communications and interchange across national and cultural lines, especially for indigenous peoples who speak such a multiplicity of mutually unintelligible languages and who work in styles and with techniques not known beyond their immediate societies. True enough.

Unless you are in the right place at the right time -- with the right kind of translation -- you may well remain ignorant of something you might otherwise be moved by, something that could in fact be life-changing.

I think, too, of Virgil Ortiz and his Translator character in his themed work -- including video -- dealing with the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico. Translator, says Virgil, is the commander of the Rebels in a 2180 version of the Pueblo Revolt. But why is he called "Translator?" I don't know, maybe I'm not meant to know.

Jimmy primarily uses English. Many others are dedicated to communicating in English when another language -- if translated properly -- might be more effective. But that's often the problem. Where are the translators, and how do you translate effectively? Originating the work in English is the simpler course, isn't it? Or originating it in Spanish -- or maybe Portuguese -- if you're in Latin America...

Except this is the definition of "colonialism". In order to communicate to the widest number -- or at all -- it is necessary for the colonized (not the colonizer) to abandon their native tongue or a different colonial-imposed tongue and use the language of the latest conqueror and colonizer in order to be heard and understood by the widest number or at all.

I'm struck, almost dumbfounded, by the implications. And I'm very conflicted about it.

I find Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetry remarkable and effective in ways that I'm coming now to appreciate fully. I've been aware of him, of Chicano literature, of the movement he's part of and many of the participants for many years. You don't live the kind of life I have and where I have and not be aware. But being aware can also mean "taking for granted." Like an acquaintance. You know them to say hello or share a few moments with, but not intimately, and your knowledge isn't the grounding of your own existence.

I can come to appreciate his work more fully because most of it is in English. If he were writing in Spanish, it would be more difficult for me. Much more difficult, but I know too, that were he writing in Spanish, I'd be able to muddle through it or most of it, and come to a different appreciation. This is how languages work for me. When I read or hear in Spanish or French, the two foreign languages I can get by in best (though not well enough in either), I hear or read a different deeper meaning than I would in translation. That's just the way language works -- at least for me.

So... in the end, much as I appreciate Jimmy Santiago Baca's work, and much as I am learning to appreciate it more, I might see it quite differently if he were writing in Spanish rather than English.

I will probably have more to say about this issue of language once we return from this afternoon's performance of "When the Stars Trembled in Rio Puerco" -- which is written and performed in both English and Spanish, New Mexico Spanish, though, which is not the same as most Spanish spoken in North America, but which is distinctive and sometimes difficult for me to comprehend because of its unique idioms and anachronisms, many of which I haven't learned yet.

Santiago!  Indeed.

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