The heart of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s new book is the epic narrative poem “When I Walk Through That Door, I Am – An Immigrant Mother’s Quest.” It packs an emotional and political wallop.
The poem is written through the yearning voice of a woman named Sophia, a heroic immigrant from El Salvador. Her husband, Tonal, had been the victim of a gang murder. She musters the strength to head north to the United States with her 4-year-old son, Joaquin. U.S. border authorities separate them.
Placed inside a southern New Mexico detention center, Sophia is raped. Yet she holds her head up and perseveres. She thinks of her late husband. She hopes her son is alive and they can be reunited: “I feel like I am walking up a mountain/meditating on you my sweet Joaquin,/where are you? are you safe? do you have nightmares?/do you cry at night, are you eating, are you sick?”
Repeatedly, Sophia wills herself to ascend a metaphorical mountain. She struggles to overcome fear and the unknown, suppresses memories of death and still has the will to go on. She shows the courage of Athena.
Baca, a widely honored Albuquerque poet, said he had been initially thinking about different individual battles. “I was bemoaning the addictions of kids. I was sick of it. With ‘walking up the mountain,’ I thought of the cross those kids bear. And it turned into Sophia’s cross,” he said.
Baca said in an author’s note that he created the character of Sophia soon after helping a real-life undocumented Burmese refugee named Sae-Po. Catholic Charity Services announced it was seeking sponsors for refugees; Sae-Po was one. Baca gave him a job at his ranch outside Santa Fe until Sae-Po and his family were arrested.
“Everything we know about (refugees) is wrong, and yet they come at just the right moment in time, to define for us what Democracy is,” Baca argues in the author’s note. “They come giving, not taking. They create community. They believe in justice. They seek peace. How much more simple can that get for our muddle-brained minions who create insane immigration policies? Refugees enrich, not deplete.”
Baca’s other new book is “Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom,” written with Kym Sheehan and Denise VanBriggle. Baca said that book is for high school students who can’t manage the conventional framework of school. “It’s geared to help students and teachers in alternative learning environments – those sequestered in juvenile facilities, for young, unwed mothers or for kids who don’t fit in the public school system,” he added.
Baca has won the American Book Award for Poetry, the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature and the Pushcart Prize.
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Jimmy Santiago Baca reads from, discusses and signs “When I Walk Through That Door, I Am” and “Feeding the Roots of Self-Expression and Freedom” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave., and at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St., Santa Fe.
The film “A Place to Stand” will be screened at 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, at the Octavia Fellin Public Library, 115 W. Hill St., Gallup. At 3 p.m., Baca will give a free 90-minute Writers Workshop on “How to Write Great Stories and Poems!” in Room 200, Student Services Tech Center, University of New Mexico-Gallup campus. A live stream of the workshop will be in the public library.
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Baca will give a talk in the library on “Moving Ahead in Your Life.” The screening, workshop and address are part of Gallup’s Biennial Authors Festival – “Story, Telling & Conversation.”
The sixth annual Jimmy Santiago Baca Writing Retreat will be held in Albuquerque on June 19-20. Register at jimmysantiagobaca.com.