Jimmy Santiago Baca’s voice has soared across borders and reached the highest circles of critical acclaim. But about half of his life has been spent in the grip of the state, wending through a broken public school system and later, a prison sentence. So the author and poet wasn’t surprised when “banned in Tucson” was recently added to his list of literary distinctions; he and other authors were targeted in Arizona’s crackdown on ethnic studies programs that promote socially conscious texts. As part of our Saving Ethnic Studies series, he recently spoke with CultureStrike’s Michelle Chen about creativity and activism, and the real meaning of ethnic studies–the empowerment of youth to reclaim their histories and their communities. Here’s an edited version of the dialogue.
Michelle Chen: How does it feel to be part of the “banned books” list in Tucson? When you look at the titles that were banned, can you speculate on any specific reasons that these works were targeted?
Jimmy Santiago Baca: I did prison time in Aiona–almost six years, so I’ve been censored there for a long time in more ways than one. [My work] was targeted because of a fear-based politico. They fear the written word–its ability to empower the reader and writer.
MC: Do you think that if you had participated in an ethnic studies-type program in your youth, your life would have turned out very differently?
JB: Literature changed by life by giving me a reflection of the possibilities for me in this world. I did participate in ethnic studies as a kid–just that the classroom was jail and the teachers were vatos locos.
MC: How so?
JB: Basically, I learned about the legacy of the Mestizos, the Chicano people in particular, by listening to the old school vatos locos from the barrio. A lot of them would put tattoos on their bodies, from the Mayans, from the Aztecs, from the Mixtecas. And I would ask them, ‘What does that mean?’ And they would say, ‘Oh, this is the sun calendar from the Aztecas, and this is what it means.’ And a lot of them had been given history carried word to word, mouth to mouth, about the Tijerina raid, about the land grants, about the injustice of this society, about the inequities of prison [and] judicial system, taking so many Chicanos to prison at such a prime age. And they were first-hand observations. These people had experienced it in their families.
So I was getting ethnic studies on where we came from, the roots of our people, what was happening in contemporary times and what they expected in the future. So I was getting the best schooling I could possibly get, not from textbooks, but from lived experience….
MC: Do you think students have the same access to those cultural learning opportunities today in their communities, or has that fallen away?
JB: The schools are a disaster. You cannot go in with a glass of water and hope to cure leprosy. It just won’t work. Schools are a disaster. They need to dismantle the whole thing ‘cause it’s based on corrupt fundamentals like how much money can I make off of textbooks, and how many students can we run through those turnstyles so we can make the money on the other end. The whole idea is wrong. Everyone’s afraid of talking about it. And even us, as writers–we have a tendency to simplify things… [by] going to what symbolizes, in a metaphorical fashion, what we’re trying to say with words…
I think the system is corrupt in and out. So learning and teaching has to be done by the community. It has to be led by the parents. And they have to make a presence at every turn in the road. They have to be there….
I do a lot of prison work. If you stand there long enough, and you listen to these young adults, they know what they’re saying. So we to get out of their ways. There’s too much of, ‘How important I am because I’ve got 23 books and won a National Book Award and blah, blah, blah’… I get out of the way. I let these young prisoners, who are experiencing the oppression first hand, speak to me and tell me what they need. And then I go from there.
MC: Does more need to be done on the side of public schooling to prevent people from having to go to prison to get a good education?
JB: It doesn’t take a real genius to figure out that if a kid goes to school starving, and if he leaves a house where parents are doing drugs or they’re fighting and screaming and stuff… [that kid will] try to find somebody that’s going to give them some affection. And what we’ve branded those groups as is ‘gangs.’ Since the police and the government officials have to justify huge amounts of money, massive amounts of money, for guns and new cars and new jails, and everything, they have to put the fear into the public, and say, ‘Yeah, these gangs, they’re gonna burn our houses down… We have to do something.’ So these kids are really the target for the most ferocious assault by the police ever. And it’s getting worse and worse and worse and worse.
And that’s why drugs have such great popularity in this country. Because we know instinctively what’s right and what’s wrong. And in order for us to survive on a day-to-day basis without going mad, we have to dull our sensibilities to the injustice, we have to. We know the schools are just nothing but moneymaking machines for the rich. We know that. We know we’re sacrificing our children. We know that. So why don’t we step in and stop the machine? Because we’ve become powerless. Education has not stepped in to fortify our morality. we have become powerless and that’s exactly what the system wants. It can only work if we’re cowards.
MC: Is the movement to defend ethnic studies now going on in Tucson enough to challenge the system?
JB: Unfortunately what happens in any situation like Tucson, where it hits the newspapers and it hits the TV’s , is we look for spokespeople to speak. And those particular spokespeople… always have an agenda. So whatever agenda they want to push, they push. Now in a case like mine… on a day-to-day basis [I’m faced] with censorship every single day. I mean, I can go to a university and speak and there’ll be people who walk out because I’m an ex-convict…. So the Tucson thing is nothing. You know, I look at it, I kind of shrug and say, ‘Well, what else is new, you know? It’s just the same old thing. I’ve experienced it every single day of my life.
MC: Will the public attention to this issue now have a lasting impact, or do you fear it will eventually just fade out?
JB: After it’s all said and done in about four, five weeks, we’ll forget about it. [But] it’s really the people. It’s how many people will they motivate to go out into community and really change their lifestyles and start contributing to the community? The question is, ‘Will this change your lifestyle?’… I would assume that everyone’s going to go back to what they were doing, except for the kids. It’s going to change their lives, it has already changed it….
I was institutionalized for 25 years, from the age I was five to the age of thirty; the state in one form or another had me in “secure settings” [or] behind bars for 25 years. And I’ve been free for 26 years, which is fabulous. I’ve been free more than I have been confined, you know?
So, coming from that type of perspective: I have sat in secure settings way too many times, and read the headlines about censorship, and read the headlines about police killings and read the headlines about how school’s not working. You know what? Twenty-five years, I’ve wondered ‘Where’s the community involvement? Where is it? And the brief flashes of headlines and stuff like that, whoever speaks first goes right back, retreating into anonymity… And the officials come out and take it out on us for protesting, you know? Things just never change. It has to change through the community. It has to.