A Place to Stand Summary

Jimmy Santiago Baca

A Place to Stand

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A Place to Stand Summary

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This breathtaking memoir by poet Jimmy Santiago Baca focuses on his life before, during and after his time in a maximum-security prison. The memoir even went on to win a critical award for poetry, and solidified Baca as one of the best and brightest poets writing in America today. Baca’s life and time in prison are all the more poignant in that he reveals how he was actually illiterate at the age of twenty-one. It was at this time that he was sentenced to five-to-ten years on account of selling drugs, thus sending him to maximum-security prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. After Baca’s release from prison, he emerged a changed man. He was not only able to read after prison, he left confinement with a newfound passion for poetry.

Baca was sentenced to serve time at New Mexico’s Florence Prison in 1973. Though Baca was only twenty-one at the time, he already had a troubled history with law enforcement. Once locked up, Baca seemingly continues his defiance by standing up for himself with the prison guards and other troublemaking inmates. Behavior like this lands Baca in solitary confinement more often than not, and to the casual observer, he might appear a lost cause. Though prison is thought to rehabilitate inmates, many in fact become hardened criminals due to the “live-or-die” mentality. Baca, however, and despite all odds, not only overcomes this diagnosis, but also transforms himself and his outlook on life while serving time. The memoir’s pages point to examples like Baca carefully spelling out a poem or attempting to be allowed to take classes as examples of his shifting nature.

One of the greatest turning points for the young Baca comes when a religious group volunteer sends him a letter. The missive is the catalyst that sends Baca seeking the freedom of the written word. With the aid of a dictionary, Baca begins writing letters and drafting poems. He then moves on to reading literature, and finds life lessons embedded in the words he begins to take to heart. He even has a life-changing moment when he hears the voices of Neruda and Lorca speaking to him as he contemplates killing an inmate he is standing over. It is at this point that Baca’s life really takes flight as an individual capable of pathos and forgiveness.

The narrative follows some of the conventions of other prison narratives, but departs with Baca’s pension for engaging prose. Some critics have noted that the prose is a distinct contrast from his award-winning poetry, but the core of the memoir seeks to educate by way of fact and relating harrowing experiences inside a maximum-security prison. As such, Baca’s emergence from prison—and his ability to write about what he endured while there—speaks not only to his spirit of endurance and renewal, but also to the theme of renewal as a whole. Baca was able to take the negative direction his life had been spiraling toward before entering prison and transform that road into a better journey for himself. His memoir is meant to brighten the path of those who may be facing similar circumstances, and serve as a warning for others.

Moreover, A Place to Stand sheds light on the travails of those caught up in the legal system, and what these individuals must ordeal to make it out of the system somewhat unscathed. Baca reveals that he writes for those still inside the system, both for those who helped him to become who he is now and for those who have no voice or way to express the life they endure while inside.