Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in 1952 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When he was two years old, his parents abandoned him and his siblings, leaving them in the care of their grandparents. He later was sent to an orphanage. At the age of thirteen, he ran away from home and lived on the streets for a number of years. Baca was sentenced to five years in a maximum-security prison at the age of twenty-one for dealing drugs. He served six and a half years.
In prison, he learned to read and write, and corresponded with published poets. His motivation to write poetry arose out of his frustration with being able to express himself. In an interview, Baca mentions that he was inspired by reading works by Romantic poets and other great writers that he got from death row inmates. These books gave him the passion to write poetry of his own and express himself in ways that were more fulfilling than violence. This desire to write poetry and receive a GED led him to refuse work details, and led him to be branded as dangerous, spending time with many dangerous criminals. One was a murderer who was an Aryan Brotherhood member who paid him to write a poem for his mother. When Baca read him this poem, the man remarked “how does a Mexican know what’s in a white man’s heart?” This remark inspired Baca to submit his poems for publication.
When he was released from prison, he sent three poems to Mother Jones. These poems were published in 1979 in the anthology “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” depicting his experiences in prison. He later got his GED and went on to publish more works including some novels and screenplays. Baca is currently involved in Prison literacy projects, reaching out particularly to juveniles. He is also the winner of the American Book Award, the International Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize.