New Mexican poet Jimmy Santiago Baca lived in orphanages, on the streets and eventually in prison after being abandoned by his parents at the age of 2. During his six and a half years incarcerated, Baca learned how to read, write and eventually compose poetry.
Decades later, Baca has written multiple books, has had a documentary film made about him and teaches writing workshops to children and adults at many schools, universities, reservations, prisons and correctional facilities.
On Saturday, Nov. 2, the Durham Literacy Center will host an evening of poetry reading, speaking and discussion with Baca at the Levin Jewish Community Center.
The Durham Literacy Center is a community-based organization that focuses on giving free instruction and educational opportunities to adults and out-of-school youth.
Amy Bogie, the director of development at the Durham Literacy Center, said Baca is connected to the organization’s mission because his story drives how and why literacy is important.
Baca did not have a traditional schooling experience, Bogie said. When he ended up in prison for several years, he was given the opportunity to further his education by learning to read, write and compose poetry. Baca published several poems in Mother Jones magazine while he was incarcerated.
“Jimmy's work evokes so many strong characters,” Bogie said. “Whether he's speaking from his own experience or from the experience of other people, he does a fantastic job of putting you in the mindset of whatever that person is feeling in the situation that they're in.”
After being released from prison, Baca went to live in Bush Fork, N.C. with a poet he had been corresponding with. The sister of the poet worked with the husband of retiree Ann Evans, connecting the two with Baca.
Evans and her husband met and befriended Baca about 40 years ago. Baca and Evans, who has been coordinating his North Carolina trip, met in person this week in Durham for the first time since they became friends in 1978.
Baca’s talk will emphasize the importance of literacy and address issues like racism and injustice in the prison system, Evans said.
"He's dedicated so much of his life trying to help other people, trying to work with children at risk and get them to stop the self-destructive behaviors,” Evans said. “But I think a whole lot of that means society has to change, society has to say that we create this, we create situations where people can't do well."
Baca said he’s done about all forms of writing, joking that he’s even scribbled on bathroom walls. He hopes event attendees will learn there is more in common amongst people than there is different.
“I guess we all got to eat and sleep, and we're all human beings no matter where we come from,” Baca said. “What my hopes and dreams are, are probably the hopes and dreams of many people in Durham.”
Bogie said Baca will be discussing the topics of immigrant rights and the migrant experience from his last book.
Although the people of Durham might not have an immediate view of what is happening with immigrant populations at the Southern border, Baca’s discussion is important to show how communities can offer support, Bogie said.
Baca said at the event he and attendees will share happiness and love in a beautiful way.
“You share your most private obsessions, like your love for your family, your love for the environment, your love for your community,” Baca said. “I'll read those things, and I think everybody's gonna stand up and start jumping around.”
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