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From Prison to Bestseller Bookshelves

Award-winning poet and novelist Jimmy Baca draws on experiences from his troubled youth and time in prison to fuel his impassioned writing.

The odds seemed to be stacked against Jimmy Santiago Baca. Abandoned by his parents at age 2, he was in and out of orphanages and government institutions from his childhood, a path which culminated in Baca serving a 6-year prison sentence in his early 20s for smuggling drugs. This is all behind him now; “ex-convict, ex-this, ex-that,” the 70-year-old writer called himself with a dismissive wave of a hand. Attendees at the January 28 English Reading Series presentation were about to be treated to an author whose story was a little unexpected and deeply inspiring.


Wearing a crisp white shirt, with a touch of white stubble on his jaw and an easygoing smile, Baca exuded an effortless charm. No one would never guess his tumultuous past just by looking at him. But from the moment he opened his mouth, Baca’s identity was never in doubt; his soft-edged, melodic voice carried both poetic style and a cutting, uncompromising message.

Deeply concerned with social justice and prison reform, Baca's writing bears the mark of one who has experienced injustice firsthand and will not rest until he sees change in the world. The poems he shared dealt with topics from environmental issues to Georgia O’Keefe paintings to COVID, but they always circled back to eradicating injustices and combating human selfishness and evil.

For example, one poem, “Tire Shop,” recounted his ruminations while getting his car serviced by some Chicano mechanics. Of Chicano-Apache descent himself, Baca understands the plight of those marginalized by society:

These tire shop men made choices
never to leave their brothers
in them I saw shame with no place to go
but in a man's face, hands, work and silence.
(Jimmy Baca, “Tire Shop”)

Between sharing poems and passages from his novels, Baca spoke to the crowd about the social issues that underlie his writing, especially the criminal justice system. “Everything in this society—religion, economics, culture, art—everything is conceived with prison in the background,” he said. “You’ve got to fill the quotas in those jail cells, and they don’t fill them with people with money or privilege, they fill them with brown people.” Baca was one of those jailed brown people. He admitted that in his youth, he seemed destined for a life of lawbreaking and jail cells: “I could be robbing banks,” he said.

But Baca isn’t robbing banks. He’s writing literature which is sold in bookstores all over the world and sits alongside Hemingway’s books at Stanford University.

His transition from convict to writer wasn’t easy. Before he could make it as a writer, he had to survive prison, a place designed to break the human spirit. Yet Baca’s spirit triumphed, and now it flows out of him as literature. His writing helped him rediscover his identity. “That was my thing in life. Getting me back,” he remarked, then wryly added, “33 books later, I think I’m almost there.”

Discover more of Jimmy Baca’s transformative literature at his website, and join us at the next English Reading Series for more illuminating insights from authors.