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A painful narrative that still connects

December 1, 2009 | 11:25 am


Students at a continuation high school in Southern California connect to Jimmy Santiago Baca's 2001 memoir "A Place to Stand," their teacher Jean Gillis writes at La Bloga. Because her teenage students aren't reading at grade level -- they might be reading at anywhere from a second- to fifth-grade level instead -- she reads the book aloud.

The students read along with me, and we build up our stamina so that we can concentrate on the story for up to 30 minutes a class period. My students may not have experienced that childhood luxury of being read to..... But it is the potency of the narrative that hooks them. How many times have they told me that they have never read a whole book until this one? It's so important to me that they read, that they feel invited to that table of readers and not hang back in the shadows of the excluded.

Baca, who was abandoned as a child in Arizona, didn't learn to read until he was imprisoned for dealing drugs. An almost complete autodidact, literacy became his lifeline. Does some of this idea reach the students who read his book? From our 2001 review by Michael Harris:

Lying in his cell, remembering a brief period in his childhood when he lived with his grandparents in a traditional New Mexico farming village, Baca discovered that he had things he desperately wanted to write about, and he taught himself to read and write, with minimal help from inmates and outside correspondents. His first note to one of the latter in 1975 is painfully illiterate, but less than two years later he was reading poets Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda and writing powerful, sophisticated poems of his own....

Pain must be expressed or it kills the self and others -- that's the message Baca distills from his life's story.

It's easy to forget that not everyone feels, as Gillis writes, "invited to the table of readers." But Baca's struggle drew them there. He has won awards for poetry and nonfiction, and earlier this fall published a novel about the sons of two farm workers, "A Glass of Water."

-- Carolyn Kellogg