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Baca's A Place To Stand: Finding A Place To Fit In - With A Free Essay Review
What does it mean to have a place where you fit in? What is the key ingredient to being accepted? In Jimmy Santiago Bacas memoir, A Place to Stand, he is set out on a journey to find his way to be accepted into society. In the memoir he yearns to be accepted by his family, friends and the external society. He encounters many relatable challenges that soon enough help lead the way to overcome the obstacles he faces and shares it all through his memoir. Even though jumping from a home to an orphanage and then in and out of jail Baca is determined to find his Place to Stand. While Baca was growing up he dealt with remarkable struggles, masculinity, abandonment, illiteracy and homelessness, which all point him in a more justifiable direction to becoming an educated writer/poet.
One of the struggles that Baca faces throughout his life was masculinity. Baca was put in a lot of situations where being a man was either to make or break him. He would show off just to be noticed and being noticed is what happened. In one situation, Baca writes The only way I seemed to impress them was by my fighting (page #); he was like a hero in Theresa and her friends eyes. If he backed out his friends wouldnt respect it and fighting was the majority is his life through out the memoir. Baca later states, while being in jail, All the fights Id won to prove I was a man didnt matter; nothing mattered expect what I was going to do now. The longer I postponed the inevitable showdown, the more it looked like I was afraid and the stronger it made him. (Page #) When Baca says him he is referring to the black man who comes off as threat to him so something has to be done before the worse comes to him. Being put in this predicament he has to prove hes a man so he can feel accepted from the society in jail.
Along with masculinity, Baca has a hard time dealing with abandonment. As a child he was abandoned by his father and his mother. His father was an alcoholic who abused Bacas mother causing her to leave him and their children. His mother not only left them behind but also chose to leave her culture as well to be with a white American named Richard. Richard forces Bacas mother, Cecilia who later changed her named to Sheila, into a more Americanized woman who chooses to forget about where she came from but also has to abandon her children in the making. Baca writes But as she led us into the house, I knew that tomorrow would never be better. Something in my life had changed forever (page #); his mothers absence altered the way his life would continue on. Without her, besides his grandparents who were limited, there would barely be anyone to care for him and his siblings. He felt alone because he was aware he didnt have any guardians, after his grandpa died, to care for him while he was growing up to know what was right from wrong. All he had was his sister and brother but even having them he still left alone. Baca writes:
I expected her to lend me the money. When she said no, I wanted to beg her to reconsider but was too proud. I realized that my mother had already succeeded in turning her against me. I felt bitter because Id always done things for her. (Page #)
First his mother disowns him and now he thinks his sister, Martina, has done the same. The feeling of being wanted is deep within Baca and he is still waiting for recognition. His family still hadnt accepted him even though being a little older now. Baca later writes:
I wanted to run like I did as a kid but I was in this cell. I had nothing. Martina and Mieyo had each other. Uncle Refugio, the bottle, drinking every day. Father, fighting and drunkenly searching for Mother. Uncle Santiago, respect from friends and love and work with his ranch animals. Grandpa and Grandma had god and each other. Uncle Carlos and Aunt Jesse, money and power. All of them knew where they were going (Page #)
Baca is left alone in jail with no visits or letters from his family to see whether hes doing good or not. All he has is himself and he has to be the one to decide to change to fit in.
Another problem Baca encounters in his memoir is illiteracy. He grew up in the Spanish speaking country Estancia with his grandparents who spoke their native language. Jimmy, childhood Baca, hated school and barely attended so he never got the chance to learn English as a child. Baca states
School wasnt anything like I expected. Within a week I faked being sick in order to stay out. The real reason was I was ashamed, not only of my patched clothes but also because I didnt know anything the teachers were talking about. I couldnt talk to the kids because they were so much smarter than I was. (Page #)
It seems as though he gave up on school before he could even learn anything. His mother would tell him that he should be just like those kinds of kids at his school. Jimmy hated books and he hated reading as a child but when he goes to lock up he plans to look forward to reading. Baca writes I set my cigarette down on the concrete floor and murmured the words, sounding out the letters deliberately to see if I could understand them. I had trouble... (Page #); here he is to discover his way to making a change in his life to better himself. After being incarcerated for awhile Baca realizes he was no longer a twenty-two-year-old illiterate brown man (Page #) Now no longer being illiterate is one of the steps he takes to being accepted.
Besides suffering with illiteracy Baca also battles with homelessness. Baca writes Mieyo and I were driven instead to an orphanage and dropped off We were not coddled or given any special treatment at the orphanage, nor did anyone tell us anything about our parents with being abandoned by his parents Baca and his brother, Mieyo, are sent to The Saint Anthonys Orphanage. Baca later describes:
I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources werent available or because they just could no get it together. My job was to witness and record the it of their lives, to celebrate those who dont have a place in this world to stand and call home.
Baca says that his home is poems, his journals and his writings are home to him. Basically writing brought him to a happy place in his life and he finally feels accepted by society. He has found his place to stand in this world and his experiences are what led the way for him.
Struggle brings determination in A Place to Stand written by Jimmy Santiago Baca. His journey takes him from the hate of reading to the love of composing poems and journals. Even though Baca was abandoned by his mother and father, left without a stable home and having to struggle with illiteracy and masculinity; he found his place to fit in. He encountered so many challenges that are relatable to public eye. What happened to him as a young child is what helps create the person he is today. He is now a well-known writer/poet who tells his life experiences through his work of arts.
This essay is reasonably well organized. You seem to know what you want to do with every paragraph: describe Baca's issues with masculinity, then his issues with abandonment, then his issues with education, and then his issues with homelessness. That kind of clear organization is great because it tends to make the task of understanding the essay relatively easy. Readers love that. Readers love also to have a good sense of where the author is going in an essay. The problem with your essay is that it doesn't really (this is, I realize in mid-flight, the meanest way of putting it, but I've started, so ...) go anywhere. But what does it mean for an essay to go somewhere?
Well, I think you already know the answer to that question because you start your essay with a great essay-directing question: What does it mean to have a place where you fit in? I realize that this is a kind of abstract, philosophical, and, therefore, difficult question to try to answer, but if your essay did try to answer it, then it would be, so to speak, going somewhere.
You will have seen by now that I am suggesting an analogy (albeit a weak one) between your question (what does it mean to have a place to fit in?) and mine (what does it mean for an essay to go somewhere?). I'm about to get ridiculous now. Think of a house with rooms as being like a bit of prose with paragraphs. Think of each room having a purpose (bedroom, kitchen, etc.) being a bit like each paragraph having a purpose (Baca's issues with masculinity, his issues with literacy, etc.). Think of a house becoming a home (a place where one feels one belongs) being a bit like a bit of prose becoming an essay (writing that goes somewhere). I want to stop being ridiculous now because if I start talking about how a house becomes a home is like how prose becomes an essay, you'll see quickly that I've run out of analogical ammunition. Well, let me take a cheap shot: Make a house a home by giving it a purpose for its inhabitants beyond that of merely housing them. Make your prose into an essay by giving it a purpose beyond that of merely describing its object.
Okay, that's horrible, and Im embarrassed. So let's get serious. When you write in such a way that you are merely describing a thing (such as the contents of a book), you are doing no more than saving your reader the trouble of looking at that thing himself. That's not nothing. If you were writing an essay about, say, a foreign country that I did not expect to visit, I'd be delighted with a good description. Travel writing doesn't have to have any other point (although the best of it often does). If you were synopsizing a book because your reader is too lazy the pick the thing up himself, then a good description would also be an appropriate accomplishment. But when you write a essay of literary criticism, your purpose is to teach me something about the book that would not be obvious to me even if I chose not to be a dilettante and actually bothered to read the thing. Poets and novelists and good writers of literary memoirs answer difficult questions obliquely. They write about the sense of not belonging or of not being at home in the world, but not in the way a philosopher like Heidegger might write about such things. They do it with stories and figures and images and stuff. Indirectly. Obliquely. The critic turns all of that stuff into graspable meaning. Your essay sets out to do that when it asks "What does it mean to have a place where you fit in?" But then you abandon your question and devote all of your effort to telling me what I would already know if I'd read the book. I'm not at all bored by your essay, because I haven't read the book, but perhaps your teacher has .
If I had read the book, then, the bad news is that I would have essentially ignored everything in your essay up until the last paragraph. The good news is the last paragraph. The last paragraph is where your essay, as an essay, begins. So let's look at your last paragraph and see if it answers your guiding question (or what ought to have been your guiding question).
You say "struggle brings determination." That's a good start, because it's not just describing the book, but interpreting it. You here tell me something I wouldn't necessarily have already known just from reading the book. It's the kind of claim I might agree with if I'd read the book, and it's also the kind of claim I might disagree with. That's the kind of claim you are looking for: an arguable one. Presumably, I mean to say, there are different ways of thinking about "struggle" in _A Place to Stand_. Perhaps I might think that Baca found his proper place _despite_ his struggles, or I might think he found his place _because of_ his struggles. Your final paragraph, however, is a bit ambiguous on this point. You say "Even though Baca was abandoned etc, he found his place to fit in," which sounds like the first option (the "despite" option). But you also say, more in keeping with the first sentence of that final paragraph, "What happened to him as a young child is what helps create the person he is today," which sounds a bit like a turgid cliche, but in any case is closer to the second (because-of) option: the very thing that seem to render him homeless, figuratively speaking, in fact enabled his finding his proper place, his home.
So your essay is ambiguous on the crucial point, but even if it were not, it still wouldn't provide an answer to the initial question. Let's say you go with the second option. In that case, answering the question would entail demonstrating exactly how the struggles create a person who has a place to fit in.
What I suggest you do, then, to turn your essay into, well, an essay, is this. Take your last paragraph, disambiguate it, and make it part of your first paragraph. That is to say, turn it into an umambiguous, arguable claim about the significance of the book. Then prove that your arguable claim about the significance of the novel is the correct one.
I was intrigued by your essay, so if you do undertake the kind of heroic revision I'm suggesting here, please share it with us.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments; you might drop a message to email@example.com to ensure your comment is noticed in relatively short order.
Submitted by: dyndyn23
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Please welcome poet and recipient of the prestigious International Award
Jimmy Santiago Baca
to Upaya Zen Center for a special dharma talk entitled
The Ring in the Bell’s Steel: Learning to Trust our Voices.
He will also share a clip of the forthcoming
documentary about his life, A Place to Stand.
Saturday, September 20th from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.
Please RSVP to our front office at 505-986-8518 ext. 11
A reflection on Jimmy Santiago Baca’s brilliant memoir A Place to Stand, adapted in a soon-to-be released documentary
by Áine McCarthy
This is the remarkable story of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s life. From the strong clear voice of his adulthood, artfully bearing witness with the written word, he tells of his childhood, how as a boy he overheard his mother being raped, how he and his mother visited his father in jail after he’d been arrested for drunk driving when he was five years old. He describes the despair he saw in his father’s eyes at that time, and how, in time, his own eyes would come to reflect that same kind of despair, just as he would find himself locked up behind the same bars (3). He tells of the ways each of his parents abandoned him and his siblings, sending them to live with their grandparents, with whom he shared loving relationships. With vividness, he paints loving portraits of each of these people in his life, their spirits and their struggles. He relives the traumatic death of his grandfather and how, in the wake of it, he and his siblings were sent to live at a religious orphanage. “When I asked the nuns if my parents were coming back, I was told the matter was in God’s hands and children shouldn’t ask such questions. God knew what he was doing. I should consider myself blessed, because God had something special in store for me. I felt lost and confused around grown-ups. They never told the truth. They were always hiding something that would eventually hurt me,” (19).
Later, after running away from the orphanage, he remembers, “My parents never did come, and at thirteen years old I found myself behind bars for the first time, in a detention center for boys. The bars weren’t there to keep us in so much as to remind us that we weren’t really wanted anywhere else,” (20). When forced to move cells in prison years later and triggered by the sight of a the box in which he would move his things, he reflects, “Everywhere I went, I arrived and left with a box; it reminded me that I had no place in this world, that no one wanted me… Psychic wounds don’t come in the form of knives, blades, guns, clubs; they arrive in the form of boxes—boxes in trucks, under beds, in my apartment when I could no longer pay the rent and had to move,” (243). Touching on these many transitions and the pain of each, Jimmy recounts his young adult life, his time in California; his involvement with selling marijuana and the increasingly chaotic lifestyle that work created. He tells of how, after a terrifying drug experience, he made plans to move back to New Mexico with his girlfriend and quit the business, and how—just before they had planned to leave—he is framed in a federal bust and charged as a kingpin in the heroin industry. He remembers driving to Albuquerque before turning himself in: “I was supposed to be driving this road with Lonnie to get married and settle down and prove to everyone how I had made it and how wrong they were about me… Now everyone could point and say, I knew it. I told you. He’s no good. He’s nothing but a criminal. It hurt to admit they were right. Still, I wanted to explain to someone that it was all a mistake. All I ever wanted was to have what others had. I didn’t want sympathy or pity. I just wanted a fair go at the things they had,” (87-88).
In the second half of the book he details the resulting sentence of five years he then serves at an Arizona state prison. “I landed there…by being a poor kid with too much anger and the wrong skin color and by fucking up again, though this time I was innocent of the specific charges against me. I was only twenty-one years old, still young, but by then I had already served a long apprenticeship in jail time… No, prison was not new to me when I arrived at Florence; I had been preparing for it from an early age,” (4). He charts his descent into “the most frightening nightmare I ever experienced” that was prison. In this poem, “They Only Came to See the Zoo” he writes about a group of legislators that passed through his cell block, at one point:
…Did you tell them
Hell is not a dream
And that you’ve been there?
Did you tell them? (232)
He retells the stories of the time spent in isolation that followed committing violent acts of self-defense, and the countless threatening confrontations that surrounded and ensnared him. At one point, he talks about overhearing a man on his tier he thought he knew well, Bonafide, brutally raping his new cellmate, “pulverizing him,” (190). Witnessing this, realizing that a totally “alien” person lived inside someone he thought he respected, filled Jimmy with “a bitter awareness that being in prison could turn a man into a monster. Somewhere deep inside myself,” he wrote, “I knew that, put in the wrong place at the wrong time, Bonafide would have tried to rape me. The rage that came out of him was the kind of rage that transcends friendship. It’s the kind of rage that can only be created in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest,” (191).
Determined to preserve his spirit, Jimmy teaches himself how to read and write, and thus begins the ascent of his soul, documented through the means that strengthened and transformed him. In a fateful moment where he comes close to stabbing another inmate, he hears the voices of Neruda and Lorca “praising life as sacred and challenging me: How can you kill and still be a poet? How can you ever write another poem if you disregard life in this manner?” (206). In this encounter, the voices of the poets guide him away from this act. In another would-be “showdown,” with several other inmates, Jimmy has a vision that comes in a series he describes as a “nervous breakdown” of sorts. Locked in the threat of their gaze, he remembers, “Suddenly, staring at them, I saw past their faces, past their flesh, into their hearts; I saw them as infants, their parents addicted to drugs, screaming and drinking,” (242). With this flash of empathy and insight, his so-called nervous breakdown abruptly ends. As his writing opens him up, he forms a profound new sense of identity based on bearing witness to the suffering of prison, in his own experience and that of those around him: “My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one,” (244). Writing reveals for him a path forward, and “a place to stand,” a way of compassion; he writes: “Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me; it was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to wring from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was not based on fear or bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and a belief that I belonged,” (5).
Through little garden plots I was enchanted by
Nuns cultured at the orphanage,
Through streets torn and twisted like gnawed bark
I lived on like an insect,
Through all the writers and artists of America
Who never wrote my story,
Through all the stately documents deceiving my ancestors,
Quietly by itself are the Healing Earthquakes,
From sides it comes
Through the black-knotted drunkenness of my father,
Through the cold deep bowels of hope,
Through the trowels of sombrero’d bricklayers
And wall-builders spreading the moist mortar,
Through all the Chicanos in work T-shirts,
To the snarling guards that broke loose from their chains,
To the crumbling houses of the poor,
Through the scorpion-tailed magnums and carbines
Held at their heads by death squads,
Healing Earthquakes comes up from debris and rubble,
Splitting its own body and heart
Into a million voices and faces,
Mumbling below in its own discontinued winds,
Threading slowly my torn soul in a grip of fury,
To the eye of its mark it leans undaunted.
I am Healing Earthquakes
Not in the swirling commotion upward of the atom bomb,
Nor the blast and heraldic upshot of a rocket,
A lesser man by all the lawbooks,
A man awakening to the day with a place to stand
And ground to defend. (225-6)
This documentary A Place to Stand explores the subject of human potential will have it’s National Premiere in Santa Fe on Friday, September 26th. For more information about the film, please click here.