Father was a poor, dark-skinned Mexican; an Indio with a drinking problem, he would disappear for days only to reappear an ogre: a sad and angry version of himself. Mother was a light-skinned Latina, who dreamed of a life beyond the shack she shared with father and their four children. His alcoholism prevented him from working and so she took over, but he was constantly jealous and paranoid of her whereabouts. One night, during a drunken rage, he put a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her in front of their children. One of them was their five-year-old son, Jimmy Santiago Baca, who looked on in quiet, helpless despair.
The documentary, A Place to Stand, depicts the childhood and early life of the award-winning Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca whose work rose to prominence in the 1970’s while incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. The documentary is based on Baca’s memoir of the same name and weaved together by filmmakers Daniel Glick and Gabriel Baca (Jimmy Santiago Baca’s son) with an apostle’s dedication and a craftsman’s precision over the course of four years. “The film came about when Daniel emailed Jimmy to thank him for writing A Place to Stand,” says co-producer and cinematographer Gabriel Baca. “He also offered a helping hand should the book ever be made into a movie. Since my dad and I had been filming writing workshops, we had the equipment we needed to get started, so Daniel packed up in his little blue Cavalier and moved out here to start production.” Though Baca’s life now spans over sixty years and includes accolades such as the American Book Award and the Pushcart Prize, as well as co-writing and co-producing the feature film and cult favorite Blood In, Blood Out (1994), A Place to Stand focuses on Baca’s childhood, incarceration, and eventual release; a difficult time enriched by his curiosity for words and eventual dedication to poetry.
Abandoned by both of his parents, Baca was placed in St Anthony’s Orphanage at the age of twelve. It was there that he first got a clear introduction to draconian social institutions: webs meant to ensnare those who are unmanageable and divergent, and thus reinforce a semblance of order — a market-friendly and expedient idea of what it means to be civilized. Prone to violence and surviving as a drug dealer, Baca entered Arizona State Prison at twenty-one. He was unable to read and write but saw in books a path beyond the cage; words triggered memories of times when he would walk through fields with his grandfather. Baca picked up a dictionary and made himself a student of letters. “I was determined not to become something I knew in my heart I was not: a ward of the state,” he writes in his memoir.
Baca now lives in Albuquerque with his family, where he continues to wake up at four-thirty in the morning to write, a habit he developed in his jail cell. Besides pursuing his passion for poetry he’s also developing several screenplays, among them Blood In, Blood Out 2.
In advance of his documentary premiere, we got a chance to talk with Baca. He was quick to reminisce about days he spent living it up in New York City, about his adventures in Hollywood and about his favorite tequila, which he can no longer enjoy as zealously as he once used to.
What is Albuquerque like?
Jimmy Santiago Baca: Albuquerque is the most beautiful place in the world. I love Albuquerque. You can call up your dentist and go in anytime; call your doctor and he’ll see you down at the buffet. It’s just so informal. You’re five minutes away from skiing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking. The people are fabulous and the women are out of this world. You’ve got people making films everywhere. You’ve got poetry readings every single night. It’s just very cool. The trick is to not let the secret out. Don’t tell people that Albuquerque is that cool. Albuquerque sucks. It’s full of shit. It’s a fucking shit pit. Do not come to this city! Go to Santa Fe. Albuquerque is the kind of place where if your dog bites somebody, they won’t sue you.
Oh, yeah? Cause my dog is a biting dog.
Baca: You need to come to Albuquerque. You won’t get sued.
“I don’t do anything for money. I don’t do it for Hollywood. I do it, if I want to do it.”
Despite being young and embarking on what would be their first feature documentary, Baca allowed the filmmakers, Daniel Glick and Gabriel Baca, the rights to his story based mostly around a handshake. He also let them use his name in order to raise funds via Kickstarter and they ran two successful campaigns. Narratively, the filmmakers skillfully bring a story to life that mostly takes place in the past tense. Though they were denied access to the Arizona prison system due to the film’s criticism of the state’s penal practices, they filmed evocative images in a jail in Deer Lodge, Montana that vividly enhance Baca’s accounts. They also used drawings and animation to fully bring home the story. “Eric Martinez is an artist who spent some time in prison so his artwork came from his memories just mixed in with Jimmy’s story,” says Gabriel Baca.
Why Daniel and Gabriel? If you had all these other offers from people who are more seasoned, then…?
Baca: Because I don’t do anything for money. I don’t do it for Hollywood. I don’t do it for New York. I do it if I want to do it. The whole thing is this. There are so many brilliant young kids out there that are hungry to make a film. What’s the point in going to these old dogs in Hollywood that have lost all hunger, that have no inspiration? They keep going over the same thing. You get to a point where you’ve got guys flying on their motorcycles with machine guns stuck in their cocks. Like, who the fuck wants that? I mean, who the fuck wants this bullshit? So give it to some kids with vision and inspiration and let them run with it. And they did and look what happened? It’s beautiful work. If more people did that, we would have such incredible movies, you know? Instead of always falling back onto the same old cronies, who run the dark castle on the hill with their hunchbacks.
I agree. It’s a media completely saturated by somebody else’s idea of what we could be watching. So what was your reaction when you saw the whole thing? Seeing yourself on film and seeing the story unfold, what was going through your head?
Baca: I was like, wow. Seeing all these people from the past made me think I was standing over my grave and hearing them do their eulogies. I was like, damn. It’s weird seeing yourself on film like that, where all these people that you used to know during traumatic times in your life suddenly appear and talk about you. That’s crazy. But then the actual storytelling, the actual development of the film itself as I sat and watched it, brought me to tears.
“I think you’re born a writer. When you’re born to do something, circumstances don’t matter.”
Baca was an inconsistent student throughout his childhood. He struggled with authority figures due to his inclination to question everything and ran away from the orphanage. When he arrived in prison, he did not know how to read or write but was inspired to learn when he began receiving letters from a good Samaritan. Though he lobbied the warden to allow him to go take classes, his requests were repeatedly denied despite good behavior. Thus he taught himself with the awareness of an adult who finds in words not just their utilitarianism but also their magic. His letters, with their playfulness and earnest attempt to describe the depths of that which he was experiencing behind bars, ultimately became poems.
Are you born a writer or are you made a writer? Did you become one by virtue of the circumstances that you were faced with?
Baca: I think you’re born a writer. When you’re born to do something, circumstances don’t matter. They enhance your passion to do what you were born to do and that’s a beautiful thing. You know, there’s a system built up around colleges and universities. Don’t tell the kids they are going to be writers and poets! Just tell them look, you like writing? Come on in, we’ll talk about writing; we’ll write poetry and stuff. But you’re not going to be no fucking writer. Get the fuck out of here! And if you’re not really born a writer and you’re trying to be a writer and have a career as a writer, you’re going to be one totally fucked up human being. If you’re born to be a writer, no matter what adversity comes your way you’re gonna write. So there’s this whole system… systems are always being built to prey upon people’s dreams, and every human being has a dream of someday telling their story. Because it’s a primal thing, it’s a tribal thing. In the old tribal way, you would form a circle in your tribe and when it came time to tell your story, you would stand and all the tribe would listen to your story. That DNA impulse still resides in us. So we have kids today who, when that impulse kicks in, they go to these programs and universities and the university just takes their fucking money. They take advantage of them. No matter what happens if you have to write, you’re going to write. You write because there is this obscene, if not absolutely vulgar, impulse to tell somebody that you count in this world. And when you actually put that shit down it’s such a humble endeavor that you just wonder why you do it, why you sacrifice everything else for this. But it’s really beautiful. There’s something in that humility that’s strikes every breath you take with awe.
So do you have a special snack when you’re writing?
Baca: Yeah. Cut yourself some fruit. Apples, oranges, peaches, pears are nice. Tequila. Try to eat healthy before you go drink tequila.
What kind of tequila do you drink?
Baca: I actually don’t drink that much — hardly anymore — but if I were to drink some tequila, I would have to go with Chinaco, and Silver Coin. I tried that and I was like, damn that stuff’s good. But Chinaco is my old mainstay.
In his memoir, Baca recalls that he always had a natural curiosity to learn about his parents’ history but they refused to talk about it. One of his motivations in writing A Place to Stand was so that his sons would never even have to ask, a tall order for a man who struggles to talk about the more difficult times in his life. Ultimately partnering with Daniel Glick and his son Gabriel to make the film, was to give his children the gift of the journey of his life.
“I’m not one for guilt. I shit guilt out a long time ago.”
Baca: The best gift you can give a child is to tell them about your life. The perfect parent, I don’t give a shit whether they’re junkies or not or fucking assholes or whatever, if every parent handed their children a diary that they kept of themselves, there would be an awful lot of awesome children running around. There would be a lot of healthy kids. Because you hand your kid a diary and your kid understands why you did what you did, and that’s what my kids have gotten from me.
Your sister says something in the film that struck me. She says, “Our family, we’re not writers. And a poet? We’re not poets!” And that’s something that fucks with me every day because I think that. I think about my mom working a factory job and my dad driving a cab and fuck, what am I doing? I’m not supposed to be here! I’m not supposed to be living this luxurious life in front of a computer, in front of a piece of paper. There’s a guilt, there’s a pain in enjoying the process of writing. I don’t know if you ever felt that way.
Baca: No, I’m not one for guilt. I shit guilt out a long time ago. There should be gratitude and there should be obligation. You should write with a sense of integrity to tell the world that your mom and your dad mean something and had a purpose, and you should write from that perspective of integrity. Your words should carry within them the heartbeats of your parents and then you should be grateful for sitting there with your computer and your paper, and make the best of it. But fuck guilt.
A Place to Stand is playing in San Antonio, Texas on February 27, 2015. Visit the CineFestival website for details.