Poet and author Jimmy Santiago Baca recently received the Luis Leal Literature Award.
Baca earned the honor for his contributions of poetry, stories and books to Chican@/Latin@ literature in recent years. He will be celebrated for his award on Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. in Corwin Pavilion.
Chican@ studies professor Mario Garcia said Baca has asserted his role in Chican@ literature through numerous works that portray the struggle of underrepresented Chican@s in today’s society.
“Jimmy is receiving the Leal Award because of his major contributions to Chican@/Latin@ literature over a period of time,” Garcia said. “He is important in Chican@/Latin@ literature for his powerful but moving depictions of the lives of poor and marginalized Chican@s, including those in the prisons who — like himself — have overcome adversity to not only advance themselves, but [also] their communities.”
Baca, who learned to read and write while serving a five-year prison sentence for drug distribution, said writing poetry helped him express himself during his incarceration and following his release.
“It was a window to look at the world through,” Baca said. “Similar to an astronomer, I had a telescope. It was a poor man’s telescope to look at the world through.”
Additionally, Baca said he draws inspiration from Luis Leal himself, who was once a professor of Chican@ studies at UCSB.
“I think it’s the top reward a Latino can receive,” Baca said. “It carries more honor and integrity than any other award because the life that Luis Leal led as a scholar and a writer is pretty much unread in American rhetoric.”
Aside from not depending on outside reviews to judge the quality of their literature, Baca said he also advises writers to “get out there and see what’s on the ground.”
“It’s like reviewing a car based on looks and saying ‘well, this car looks great, so it’s probably ok,’” Baca said. “Tell them to get in the damn driver’s seat and start driving. And don’t be going 20 miles per hour — take the curves at 85 miles per hour. Fly off the cliff … go out and live.”
Baca has channeled his dedication into philanthropy by creating Cedar Tree Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides educational support to schools, community centers and prisons.
“We go into schools and teach reading and writing,” Baca said. “We create DVDs, books, lesson plans and curriculum for teachers to help kids graduate from high school.”
According to Garcia, Baca’s enthusiasm for literature and equality are evident in his work.
“He is a soft-spoken man but with deep convictions on advancing the issues of social justice in the world,” Garcia said. “His humanity mirrors the humanity of professor Luis Leal.”
Maria Herrera-Sobek, Chican@ studies professor and associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity and academic policy, said Baca is a powerful speaker with a strong personality.
“He’s such a fantastic poet and writer,” Herrera-Sobek said. “Energetic, dynamic and forceful are how I would describe him.”