Jimmy Santiago Baca







          Thirty years ago, Drake's painting puffed dust on my tongue, a bull gores a child's dream and in Mexico City in a cathedral ceiling mural, a horse plows in the dusk. The blade churns up boulders so huge the harness straps cut deep into its shoulders making old scars bleed. It rains and the old horse hunches low and strains forward another inch.

          Earthly snake strings of seasons snap. 

          And in the silence a pit-bull snorts and a rooster’s aggressive eye sweeps across the dangerous land, preferring authority to company.

          A maddening solitude chokes a little boy in the scene, maybe five years old, standing off to the side, studying it all; his wide, brown eyes exploring our fear and hate; our tragic experiences that result in failed adventures-- but he has faith he can change that, can turn back time and our deceptions, explain us and our innocence, offer us his love of life, embracing his passion to care, piecing together the lurking angles of jagged lives along the Texas/Ciudad de Juarez border, as visceral fear arises in his blood and shatters his heart with why why why, as the green chili enchilada juice at Texas barbecues that stained his boy-fingers now flows across canvass, engrains his sculpture, explodes in his photography, taming the pit-bull, disdaining the rooster's violence, filling museum arenas with theme rooms of compassion and empathy, demanding engagement with the dark in us.


           Drake, the Left-Handed Hummingbird,

           burns pigeon-boxes so they may return to long-needle pine trees. He's a Texas catfish without fins, eaten away by the acid waters of lies, by repugnant truths we keep avoiding, foaming from every pore of his young body.

           His journey begins while war erupts in Vietnam , peace activists stake claim to streets and parks in Berkeley , Madison, Loisada, Burque, Chicago,

           he enrolls at the Art Scool College of Design, LA.,

           as corpses fill our living-rooms on the evening news, police guns roar in the night, blood rages from two hundred million American wounds,

           and FBI murder Pine Ridge Lakotas

           goons mace, club and jail protestors

           first-time marijuana smokers are handed five-year flat sentences

           and Drake torches his imagination to steel, white is black and black white, the Left-Handed Hummingbird, flies into the widening division of classes, rich vs poor, zipping through the resistance movement, shattering ambiguity, dousing crises after crises with reckless wings ripping apart sentimental harp-strings with grease and oil horsehair brushes,

           Left-Handed Hummingbird is afire, his welded iron wings and beaks and claws cries the ancient cry and defense of human innocence and beauty, clashing contrast and opposition, shredding and molding iron weapons to understand their making,

           'til he exhibits the face-off cockfight:



           Gallos let loose from a race-car engine shaft; cocks ignite, burst in savage frenzy, attack-spin on the rotor shaft-feathers, talons, beaks, wings, legs, necks crack & slash sizzle in pedal to the floor rotation with dizzying violence-- our violence, social violence, racial violence, gender violence, patriotic violence, at wreck-speed balls & heart, from which there is no walking away, no second place, no trophy, only contestant corpses in the ring, disposed of in trash barrels, where man’s virility smolders and woman's life-carrying breath, simmers to cinders and embering ash.

           And he journeys into Valley Of The World, his welding flames voracious bar-brawling aggression, defies groomed protocol, sands and grinds away lamb-bleating obedience, to the end, in honor of life, as the acetylene and oxygen flame reflect against his goggles and welder's mask, flashing, Carry on.



           He's a pot-hole patcher on the road of love, and the holes go to the center of the earth where by fire he learns the craft of an artist, hibernating in his twig-sack heart nested in magma-mother womb-- the hole goes all the way to other side of the earth where hummingbird memories burn bright against the dark;

           learns to transform them into

           the V-8 motor, loved by Elvis and James Dean -- he shredded veiled mannerisms, tangled his lungs in flames and color and photos that tied them into a knot until he couldn't breathe and had to breathe sucking sage-shoots. 

           Submerged in war-jungle waters in his early twenties, seeing life from bloody shores, below water where objects waver as butchered parts of animals and children float by, blurred stacks of despairing hippies, corrupt presidents and broken marriages piled on banks; his charcoal sketches imagined their agony, his welding torch and grinding blade mimicked their screeches, paint brushes splattering their red dreams of hope against the windshield of canvas.

           He learned how his hummingbird heart could hold a red wood tree in one claw, stationary in air.

           He learned how to use his mind to bring back the cars and trucks droning by in muffled bellows on lonely stretches of west Texas roads. Their blurred growl shapes his soul and he sensed how the world was driven by V-8 hunger and V-8 vengeance, and he knew the world did not turn on an axis but on the rod projecting out from a V-8 engine as it spun-pecked and scratched with razor talons at his face and arms and legs and eyes and tongue and nose until the veneer of flesh that contained his soul peeled away and he drifted in his colors without pretensions -- there was only the cheap Mexican laborers working the stockyards, boxing at night in cantinas; rib-stark steers, weedy jack-rabbits with the longest ears, scalded prairie cacti, cowboys in chewed-up trailers planning on going to Alaska between smoking Pall Malls and sipping wine worse tasting than goat-urine.

            The hummingbird flew forth into the sorrow of life.

            Old secrets for hiding in no longer useful, neighbors telling, -- Hear ole Buford died climbing down that gulley, doing right he was - that hill - and - Nellie dropped dead in the barn trying to get them hen eggs up -- and his parents fighting hinted at some part of life maimed and fighting off everything that tried to help,

            Unsettling him, upsurging his sardine-stew blood, boiling his hummingbird blood, he descends, descends,            


                                 to the origins of violence, to the other side of the earth, dismantling terror with colors, photos, steel

                                 installation figures

                                 and charcoal sketches

                                 undoing our ways to kill and destroy in greater numbers

                                 until each day

was another of the million garage-hearts in America littered with greasy engine parts

operating on a rapacious appetite to compete and devour.

             A time of revelations - 

             burning clever disguises away with his welding torch, breaking through with his angled iron, slithering through the crevice into snake-skin insight,

             his hummingbird heart spread its wings, lost in lilac trellis of passion to express what he smelled and heard and imagined and touched,

             the nectar of the sorrow of life,

             flames fluttered out machine-gun exhibits, border dogs,

             sinister devises, cleverly disguised as peace instruments, invented by scientist and engineers addicted to morbid delight of destruction,

             the hummingbird re-arranged and installed-- assault rifles, punching bags, wrecked cars—in the Boxcar, eulogizing the tragic deaths of eighteen Mexicans suffocated behind the locked door.



             His sculptures, charcoals and photos enshrine these violent times, altars that remember the honor of dolls, rubber gloves, shoes, pottery shards—remnants of the forgotten who walk the earth in search of peace,            

             drawings of a machinegun bench, photo/lithograph of a shack and beside it a python skin strip, poverty strangling hope and faith to a throat-rattling gasp; a 50's bungalow with open car-port and strip of python skin - its design an aerial blueprint as City Planners raze Barrios, Projects, Reservations,

             shed skin of broken walls and splintered doors

             frame charred-heap questions of neglect in everyday articles, simmering ash hisses slithering answers from those who have not been cared for or loved or known,

             as in Raft Of The Medusa, Drake's Dogs, gnaw the succulent meat off Liberty's bones-- good ole boys carousing on feed store porches, toothpicks in mouths, eyes gleaming mirth as they unleash barbaric, murderous police dogs, mauling Black civil rights activist, building steps and college textbooks soaked in blood, ravenous jaws devouring Promise Land equality and freedom, (today, they attack Mexicans crossing the border dreaming of a better life).

            The left-handed Hummingbird marks its territory with dogs leaping out of walls as observers pass between the walkway, dog’s bared fangs on each side of you, frozen midair in a lunge,

            makes it cup-nest of drug-gang murders, disintegrated human dignity, motors sheathed in snakeskin hanging from chains that look like disfigured desert creatures, corrupt alien beings that scarf on the fecal matter of human hearts.


            The hummingbird migrates south, to the border, its feeding territory the trough of human weakness, nesting in night kisses of prostitutes recycled a million times, courting military faces made of tin, cardboard, ash, claws and fangs, creeping along rocks and cacti, breeding with death at every roadside cross,

             in The Trophy Room , exploring flowerings of welded raw steel furnished with a fireplace mantel, chairs, tables, weapons and animal trophies, stripping down pretensions to reveal the face beneath the face, baring the soul beneath the assumed soul, peeling away the smiling paradise of a whore ready to lift her skirt for a fifty to show the grim-jawed skull of death, armoring its nest with knives, guns, riveted steel bolts and nuts and border bridgework razor wire connecting countries, surveillance cameras and sensory devices,

             to the foothills, mating in Blue Love Seat

             migrating in colors that Mexicans love to embellish their homes with—cobalt blue, red, green, yellow-- aspects of deities; its rubs its wings, beak, chest and face in black ash and the gods of darkness whisper its name to the snake, scorpion and vulture

             roosting in the anguished figures of charcoal drawings that connect past to present and crack like speckled eggs in the bloodstream and bone marrow with pertinence, leaving us unable to put the feeling into words and explain it,

             haunting us

             his wing-work spits out darkness, machismo bends into puteria, all is in opposite use and function, images and metaphors explode our meaninglessness in a crescendo of dualities,

             crumbling our place in the world, his fluttering flight counter posing symbols and images, diving in blinding love in our decaying landfill liberties, into the blistering wound of gangs and gangland slaughters in Ciudad de Juarez and El Paso , where

             The Revolution (from Orozco, improvised in a contemporary way),

             pyramid next to his charcoal on paper,

             pursuing blood sacrifices, how drug lords are the new high priests of culture, and rip the heart out of victims and sacrifice them to their gods, the ladder of pyramid steps ascending to heaven, as rule of law breaks down

             as Quetzalcoatl, Lord of Light and creativity, returns—changes shapes, sloughs off his skin and morphs in an aspect of all of us.



             Huitzilopochtli is aware of the military build-up at the border -- tanks, armed National Guard, jeeps equipped with machine guns, remote control spy planes, military camps, immigrants detained in chicken cages, families in newly erected prisons, and casualties—teenage girls in plastic corpse bags, dead from dehydration. Children as young as ten jailed, criminalized, beaten, robbed, shot, dying.

             Huitzilopochtli remembers La Noche Triste -- now it's Hernan's Cortez dressed in military uniform, American conquest tribunals, witch-hunting vigilantes in Winnebagos, caressing weapons aimed at the hearts of Toltecs, Mexicas, and Aztecs,

             now Mexican immigrants,

             who infant eyes shrivel like nopal cactus filled with fruits eagles no longer eat; old womens' hands no longer are eagles devouring snakes -- yet they come, driven to fulfill the prophecy to journey north to their ancient home Aztlan, obeying Nahui-Ollin, myth of the fifth creation.

             Huitzilopochtli sees them cross, murdered and imprisoned, these descendents of Tezcatlipoa and Quetzalocatl -- seen their feet cut off, blisters so big and puss-filled from walking in the desert for days, not offered a drink of water, children of the color blue, reading omens as they follow the sun's path, offering their white eagle feather souls and turquoise hearts to the sun, drop dead from the heat, thirst, hunger.

             Huitzilopochtli enters into the midsummer breath of Drake, beneath his fingernails, the roots of his arm hair, his nomadic finger bones, diving the waters of his heart, commanding he look to the sun in the southern sky, forms an alliance with Drake's heart, guides him

             to construct the Machine Gun Table (charcoal on paper)-- a table with all sorts of firearms, an oblong square behind it on the wall, and inside the square there a large smear of black. Go through that square mirror and enter darkness where the traveler never knows if he will live or die, road festering with murderers and the significance of these pieces drill deep into the culture of the region,

             inspiring him in Cinco De Mayo (after Goya's Cinco de Mayo , charcoal on paper) portrays soldiers shooting bystanders and below this piece is a locomotive, a truthful depiction to those who are aware of the nightmare that keeps happening along the border in a thousand cruel varieties, one of which was the victims dying in the Sierra Blanca Boxcar ,

             directs him in the installation of La Frontera ,

             two archways flank a central painting of a headless torso and train tracks, with two dark swans set before the painting -- archways hackled with sharp weapons, assault rifles, picks, and heading through them, danger and death await your passage. The swans are the dream these journeyers carry in their hearts, white swans that have turned black, mythical place where dreams will be realized, where the grail will be found, where life will run with honey and bread and plenty of work.

             But the swans are black and Tlaloc, god of rain, is angry and sends a storm to the American shore.


             You realize your life amounts to no more than a scooped up pile of prairie sand in your palm you scatter over the air. There will be others coming behind you as there were before you.

             What do you do with that sense of humility and mortality?

             Be honest -- your life is not your child's, and as much as you love your life-companion, even she does not know your heart -- she knows your solitude grows on you as moss on an ancient boulder in the forest beside a cave.

            After reading a history book, looking out the window at the patio you built, you realize that America's Manifest Destiny doctrine gave a clean conscious to murder -- made Americans believe they were chosen by God to conquer all.

            That bothers you. You know too much. Life stopped being a game when you had children to put through college. There are men and women like you all over the earth and there's a feeling in you you have to express.

            You walk into your studio—enter not as a descendent of frontier-folk or pioneers, not as someone intent on dominating, not as someone making his way west to claim he discovered all that lies from coast to coast.

            Things have changed, you must express it, mix mind with heart.

            Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis , Billy Gibson, Daddy Mack, Fred McDowell, and Jessie Mae Hemphill blast from the radio in your studio as you express it in Trophy Room,

            crossing geographic boundaries, from deer to leopard head and falcon and interestingly enough there is a chair in the theme room, meant to symbolize we kill yet hardly perform ceremony,

            emasculated by technology, search out and kill the quarry -- no longer a hunt, but a resort-spa gentleman's indulgence. No effort, no prayer, no connection, subdue and showcase our false valor with walls that disguise our smallness and make us believe we are men of worth and salt,

            kill mindlessly, not cultural ritual or survival but to hang trophies on the wall and boast. The kill is thought up and imagined in the head of the man sitting in the chair, the director, commander, captain, the boss-king Herod demanding the head of John the Baptist, as bounty hunters scour the border hunting down Mexican families.

            Music blasting, in your own world as you create sculpture rooms, video displays, charcoal drawings, rooms and environments made up of tools and weapons—you experiment with relationships in that room, how one image effects another object and how that effects the viewer, looking through the lens of your own fears, looking back on your life, transforming thoughts into matter, meaning, and purpose because in the end, what else is there but the gift to pass on?


             The hummingbird-poet flew to the perimeters of its feeding-grounds and found birds dying and trapped in cages, buried in cold ash and jail-soot, perched on burnt logs and charred kindling, calling them Cut-Tongued Sparrows --  those who could not sing, who had had their tongues cut in the temple of crime,

             and the hummingbird-poet's own two-tongue cleft sang for them,

             photographing them communicating through jails bars with sign language of the oppressed designed to hide messages from civilians and guards and authority figures, using videos and massive charcoal works to accommodate the survival-conversations between jailed men and women-- shot, knifed, clubbed,

             the blood of their amputated hearts filled his lens,

             re-ignited their hands in flight in charcoal drawings-- gestures passionately processing desires through scarred fingers and hands, like turquoise pendants and bracelets fluttering from a county jail window down to the street corner for a lover to wear,

             installed at a gallery, photographs on the walls, banks of videos high on the walls, and text articulating their emotions stained with heroin-nectar, burned with cigarettes, smoked with crack and stabbed with syringes.

             Cut-Tongued Sparrows exhibits a full range of emotions-- sadness, tragedy, anger, love, compassion, whirling to viewer's eye and heart,

             fingers dance, hands arch like an accordion player’s finger create words from flesh, bone and blood, shaping phrases I love you, Did you bring any drugs, Where have you been, words formed to express what they are not permitted to speak, transcending walls and razor wire and guards to connect the oppressed, using silence to sing the last of their human remains.


             And Huitzilopochtli spirals ablaze into the volcanic-pit of Que Linda La Brisa , his obsidian beak stabbing the smoke-filled blistered blossoms of transvestites employed in a cantina, Las Brisas, offering the viewer wrenching portrayals of sex-workers scuttling in the depths of disintegration.

            They are men who dress up as women in a bar, and when they don their feline-purring finery they become beautiful sexual objects to kiss and fuck, sometimes slap and beat or kill---

            enter La Brisa for companionship, someone to caress, to stroke weary hearts, though hands are callused and rough, eyes deceptive, their touch is gentle and arousing,

            in Que Linda La Brisa

            lies become silver truths that dangle in a sacrificial jaguar-claw necklace around one's neck, where life is condemned to self-revulsion, destitute and yearning for what cannot be, existing covertly, showcased in glorious splendor when the sun has gone and patrons are lured by the taste of forbidden honey in darkness.


            A hummingbird wraps its tongue around the inside of its skull, resting tip between the eyes.

            Huitzilopochtli unfolds it full plumage here, in the underworld of memories, in the thimble-size blossoms, and its brilliantly colored finger-length body rises and lengthens to extend over the ages of its development, it snaps the moorings now, tidal waving wings whirring and vibrating to the ancient cities of its childhood,

            re-hibernating in the flowers of its birth in his City Of Tells

            a massive charcoal drawing that does not abide by clammy constraints

            blazing forth with a compulsion to understand, and the boy he is appears at the left corner of the canvas, wearing a Guatemalan shirt with suspenders, printed with quetzal birds, face full of hope and love.

            Born of Lubbock stockyard dust, wings whipped by prairie winds that blew through sagging window screens in kitchens where folks drank coffee and wondered how they got where they were, wings hummed and vibrated a song for these hard-scrabble folks, learning to suspend his boy-self at the shriveled flower of their souls, grounding himself in his parents words and glances, where truth came with a snakebite.

            In 1948, Guatemalan Spanish shaking his tongue like a creosote bush in a sand storm, awakening the child of Caucasian parents into a fever for Mexican rose-burns and blood lilacs, humming bloom to bloom to suckle from the hearts of Mexican painters, away from the leafless white-trees of a monolingual society, to a deeper and riveting study of pre-Colombian objects, faces, things, people, dualities in customs, habits, and breaking them down and diluting and ciphering them, brewing and mixing into metaphors and images that disturb, marking his feathers with glaring contrasts, the slash marks of shame and ruination of conquest.

            At six translating for his parents and then jumping in a 54 automobile to return to the States, his beetle-sized heart edged with Mexican border accent, flavored Spanish, to surface later in a gathering of love and heart-break, hot chili sauce in the wound in City Of Tells,

           drawing out his journey, the humming of wings come like cathedral bells, inviting all to the festive midnight ball where the veil of his fear drops, detailing those he loved and loves, who influenced him, shaped his vision and urged him to dream the lies that became truths, these are the ones invited to the ball in the City Of Tells .

           The young Huitzilopochtli boy hummed himself home, murmuring his voice charcoal, his vocal chords uttering in charcoal the world in dark and white, his father and mother dancing, the white space on canvas between them their impending divorce, but their dance dispels this for an infinite moment of love between them.

           The hummingbird glides as his father looks on his homework, travels with him, helps with projects, guides his wings to become strong, while his mother maps his heart's journey with that first visit to a museum where he sees the great Mexican masters,

            and a little boy is amazed that They made this, and the hummingbird's heart explodes that he can make things in paint and charcoal and drawings, he might even undo some things, wielding a sketch pencil and charcoal he challenges the monster that broke his parents up, and there is singing in the blade of the knife he made to fight the monster that split his parents up, defeating it with painting, drawing and scribbling.

           Calling forth the powers of Huitzilopochtli, he makes something with his hands and chants its power forth, prompts his sensibilities into wonder, a sad enchantment through art, that new environments and connections can be made in the imagination but not in reality, not with those you love-- only in art.

           And so they arrive for the banquet, family, friends, ancient sources of inspiration, Malinche, Velazquez, his beloved Colleen, and he experiments, practices the magic of art without expectation, without compass, groping at steel, wood, paper, humming up prairie dust storms, a walk in a Mexico City park, looking out the window as he returned from Guatemala 1954, the sadness of his parents divorce in 1959, filling the cataclysmic destruction of life he couldn’t control with pythons and hogs and sex and death until all these turned to flutes and blossoms celebrating his tears

           turning his melancholy toward hum-musings as wings wail with loss in his charcoals, gripping at ledges memories, holding on to cliff edges of one he loved who were sucked in by the void of a pot-holed life, and he flies into it, resisting his own pain on a quiet afternoon to weep with joyous color, charcoals, iron, photos, gathering hi nesting twigs

           from the dust and hot long hours of yesterday,

           flies into small humble rooms, lonely people coming and going, livestock culture, prairie cowboys, hard-living strangers, his charcoal gives coyote yelps, his brush offers him the endless blue sky and snakes, cacti and desert flowers, the sweetness of sage after rain, drought spells of depression, all of it blooming in spectacular praise in City Of Tells .


           Drawing the forgotten ones, weaving himself into their lives again, his promised land, where he could understand on canvas what their mouths never uttered, grounding his narrative in the story of City Of Tells ,

           Where tragedy and joy are ruthlessly simple and quick, without explanation or recourse to reason, one moment you're a kid shooting balls at the hoop, and mom and dad come out and inform you they're splitting up, even as the world falls apart, shatters and leaves you spinning headlong into the volcano's mouth, unable to stop the burning that engulfs one's whole being, you must dance, dance at the center of the fire of your drawing, make it an eternal moment with faces, textures, curves, shadows and gestures that can hear and see what you imagined long ago, Dance Huitzilopochtli, dance,

           dance the cure for what your eyes have seen, for what you have touched, dance on the air with a ferocious compulsion to draw, to expression, losing yourself in the windstorm of doom memories are, root deeper into the earth like an ancient yucca, tools at hand to halt the deterioration of dreams,

           and in the City of Tells take us to 1961 when mother took you at 14 to see Diego Rivera , Orosco and Siquero's work, and gave an order to universe again, take us at 19 to to hippies and flower children streaming into streets, Janis and Hendrix denouncing the status quo, Dylan popping his nasal-twang tunes, let the hummingbird sail into the counter-culture movement, expand your wings on oldies but goodies, unfold the blues, old matter, ancient histories, Mexican history

          shaping and forging and sweating over theme rooms and sculptures and charcoal drawings, blend the voices and scenes of whores houses and jails and borders, giving them voice to speak in charcoal and photos and iron sculptures, preparing the nest for what is to become the magnificent City Of Tells .



435569-1157445-thumbnail.jpgBorn in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was raised first by his grandmother and later sent to an orphanage. A runaway at age 13, it was after Baca was sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison that he began to turn his life around: he learned to read and write and unearthed a voracious passion for poetry.  During a fateful conflict with another inmate, Jimmy was shaken by the voices of Neruda and Lorca, and made a choice that would alter his destiny.    Instead of becoming a hardened criminal, he emerged from prison a writer. Baca sent three of his poems to Denise Levertov, the poetry editor of Mother Jones.  The poems were published and became part of  Immigrants in Our Own Land,  published in 1979, the year he was released from prison. He earned his GED later that same year. He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, the International Hispanic Heritage Award and for his memoir A Place to Stand the prestigious International Award. In 2006 he won the Cornelius P. Turner Award. The national award recognizes one GED graduate a year who has made outstanding contributions to society in education, justice, health, public service and social welfare.
   Baca has devoted his post-prison life to writing and teaching others who are overcoming hardship. His themes include American Southwest barrios, addiction, injustice, education, community, love and beyond. He has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries, and universities throughout the country. 
   In 2005 he created Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit foundation that works to give people of all walks of life the opportunity to become educated and improve their lives.  Cedar Tree provides free instruction, books, writing material and scholarships. Cedar Tree has an ongoing writing workshop in the Albuquerque Women’s Prison and at the South Valley Community Center. Cedar Tree also has an Internship program that provides live-in writing scholarships at Wind River Ranch, and in the south valley of Albuquerque. The program allows students, writers and poets the opportunity to write, attend poetry readings, conduct writing workshops, and work on documentary film production.  
   Baca is currently finishing a novel, a play and three poetry manuscripts to be published in 2007. He is also producing a two hour documentary about the power of literature and how it can change lives.