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Three Online Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca

Note: The online source for these poems is Jimmy Santiago's Official Homepage at

By Jimmy Santiago Baca

Click here for a 1.3MB audio clip (.wav format) of "EL GATO"

At eight
El Gato's uncle lures them with grain in a pail
and shoots the brown pig between the eyes,
shoos the red-snouted white and black brothers
from guzzling blood in the trough.

At ten Gato walks chop-block streets
with a rooster's tail strut
razored for a fight – life
a broken fire hydrant
flooding streets with blood.

In opulent estates,
fountains gazelle and bridal-train gardens drain
abundantly over spear-tipped walls.
Grecian statues offer laureled wisdom
to butlered adults with paper-weight hearts,
who answer the burning and gunning of America,
by building more prisons.

Nobody cares what El Gato'll find to eat or where he'll sleep,
under street lights throwing dirt clods
at hornets' nests, unafraid of being stung,
he vows to avenge his poverty,
to gash unmercifully with a bicycle chain
spineless attorneys taking advantage of his misery,
rob a construction executive in a limousine
sampling heroin off a hooker's thigh,
mug preppy brokers with golden smiles
whose gutter glares condemn him,
and all the chumps
who never cracked a soup-line biscuit
or had a court gavel crush their life,
should know he plans violent schemes against you,

saints melt his pain red hot,
he'll hammer sharp to take you down
to darkness where he lives
and impale your heads
on La Virgen De Guadelupe's moon sickle.

Twelve years old. El Gato is no good,
dime bagging Peruvian flakes,
inhaling a glue-rag.
With all your police and prison sentences,
you can't chase El Gato from the street
or stop him from selling drugs,
because in his square white paper
lives God -- El Gato deals God -- who gives reprieve
from earthly hell and makes him feel good,
gives him hope and self-esteem,
and transforms despair to a cocaine-heaven,
until he's killed or OD's
like other homeboys trashed
on a stack of county jail corpses,
who understood life was a sewer grate
their dignity poured down with discarded litter,
where crack creates light when all one has is darkness.

Crack is God
when hopeless days bury El Gato under
rock piles of despair,
blocking him from feeling any more,
breaking his heart into pieces of NOTHING.
El Gato is no good and preaches NOTHING door to door,
a strong kid full of NOTHING,
from NOTHING does he ask a blessing,
to NOTHING does he pray, hopes NOTHING
forgive his wrongs and NOTHING
helps when he take vengeance on us.

Now fourteen,
beneath a moon above the sport caster's booth,
at the out doors boxing coliseum,
after crowds go home and the ring removed,
El Gato shadow boxes invisible opponents
and raises his hand as champion.
He joins homeboys against a rival gang,
skips bleachers over hand-rails out of breath,
and holds court in the field with bats, pipes, chains,
brass knuckles and guns,
in a game every kid has to hold a five-ace winning heart,
or die with a poker player's bluffing hand –
death nothing but an eight-ball roll on the break.

El Gato's life is a Babe Ruth pop-up,
sailing beyond the rival gang's catch, hop scotching crime-chalked sidewalks, fleeing police over backyard fences
from guard dogs barking,
down scuffed alleys where clapping windows and shutting doors applaud him,
sliding under a stripped car homeplate, hearing the news Jo-Jo and Sparky got shot,
he x's their names off building scorecard-walls for dead.

At sixteen,
a brown fighting get down impromptu warrior,
lip-pursed ooohing fevered to defy,
clicking tap shoes on sidewalks,
chi chi chi cano, heel to toe, chin to chest,
chi chi chi cano,
T-shirt rolled to bare midriff, pomade hair back,
low-hugging hip khakis,
inked-cross on right hand,
bandanna'd, top button
tied on his Pendelton, lean and mean,
haunting us with his gangsta' signs.

El Gato learned his history
around water-bucket talk,
listening to mule-tongued growers
mutter holy whys they barbwired lands off,
clacking hoe in grower's dirt
on skulls and bones of his people
murdered and buried in chains.
In branding-hot noon
he cuts lettuce for bronc-buckled
soft palmed land owners
posing as frontiersmen,
their steer-horn cadillac radios
tuned to religious broadcast
blaring glory to their godliness,
as they loom over him,
"God hates you spic. God hates you!
You're dirt, boy, dirt! Even dirt grows weeds,
but you, you're dirt that don't grow nothing but more dirt!"

Beat purple at nine,
wood-paddle whizzing
butt bullet stings.
El Gato touched washcloth to welted bruises
on thighs, legs, back, winced under the shower nozzle, cursing life.
His heart the severed head of an outlaw
pickled in a jar of liquor and drugs
to numb the hurt.

Purging his shame for being born,
OD'd, was stabbed and shot,
wanting to believe he was bad.
It was better than falling into darkness
where nothing existed but more darkness.
He wanted to exist even as dirt, no good dirt.

At nineteen, trying to rebuild his life,
El Gato got the urge to get high and did –
put pistol to his head and played roulette,
his bloodshot drunkard's eye seething rage
his guardian angel didn't want him dead.

The dirt yard pleads for his daughter's laughter,
her tricycle treads scribble,
You are always gone,
in whiskey and drugs,
never here to play or help me grow.

No heat, light or food.
His baby's crying
chisels on the headstone of his bones
her need for a father,
wobbles to a stop
when he picks her from the crib,
inhales her milky aroma,
patting and kissing her,
walking her back and forth
in the cold living room,
warming her with his skin heat,
breathing warmth on her,
holding her to his chest,
humming a deep-chest hymn
learned from his grandmother –
" Bendito, bendito, bendito sea dios,
los angeles cantan y daban a dios..."

" Blessed, blessed blessed is the lord
the angels sing and give to the Lord..."
Her tiny hand flexes, a wing
unwrinkling from cocoon for flight,
fossilized in the stone of his arms.
El Gato is two men with one life –
he loves her, cares about her feelings,
wants to live at home, be a family man,
grow old with one woman.
But the warrior bares thorny teeth
at domesticity, slurs in disgust
at the dreamer's naivetι,
wants to brawl unafraid of dying young.

Tonight his infant is him
and he is her. He sees himself
as he was born,
innocent and perfect, whole life ahead of him,
and sees she can become him,
no good. He hums her holding tight,
melting into one hug humming her
'til dawn thaws frost down window casements
into stucco cracks, stray hounds croon in ruts,
yeowling cold from jaws, tooth-scratching
stickers from paws, he walks and walks
his sleeping infant in his arms,
humming hurting-man blues.

Thinking how to give his family a better life,
he strolls the ditch-bank next morning,
surprised to see pebbles last night's rain uncovered --blues and greens. He wants his tears to reveal
what is covered in him like that.
He throws a stone in the irrigation water,
where it gasps his child's awe-struck mouth glistens
for breath, for a chance at life, glimmering ripples calling him to be a father.
El Gato realizes he must start today.
Where the stone hits is the center of the ripples,
where the stone hits is the center that causes action. Where
the stone hits is the beginning,
where he is now,
is the center. He is the stone, he held in his hand as a kid and threw to see how far it could go.

El Gato changed.
At twenty one
he prays his lightning self
carve from thrown away wood-pile days
a faith
cut deep to the knot-core of his heart,
giving him a limb-top buoyancy,
awakening, a realization that he was
a good man, a good human being,
healing emotional earthquakes in himself.


Crying Poem
By Jimmy Santiago Baca

Click here for a 1.2MB sound clip (.wav format) of "Crying Poem"

 For the longest time,
I haven't been able to cry.
Tears start to come while I'm watching a movie tears
starts to come,
swelling my whole body a tulip starting to open under moon,
then the petals of my eyelids
and something in me braces
and I don't cry.
When we crashed into a telephone pole
my dad yelled me not to cry,
I was terrified, almost killed –
but don't cry,
he said.
I couldn't cry because men don't cry.
When the dog bit me on the leg I couldn't cry,
when Joey died I couldn't cry –
how cool it would feel
to have a tear slide down the corner of my eye
on my cheek,
to the curve of my lip,
where I could taste it –
but I don't cry.
Something blocks the paths, channels
under my skin.
Tear ducts are red cracked clay,
for thirty years,
drought famine'd,
since I was eight when I got a beating for crying.
My heart an open furnace oven door,
rage seething for tears to cool it down,
but coal hoveling men keep feeding it
don't cry don't cry don't cry.
I want to untie my hands like a tired boxer's gloves
and lay them down on the table, gripped in their tight
clench of defense,
and I want to grow new hands
open flowers,
moistened by my tears.
I love the color blue
color brown.
I'd love
to touch my chapped cheeks
and whisper in tears
my compassion.
But I've always had to stop it up in me, hold my breath back,
                                    keep my mouth shut tight
                    so as not to cry.
Man, I cry,
and it's a lie I don't.
I embrace my brother and pray shoulder to shoulder.
I kneel and kiss earth,
and I cry -- if only I could cry.
Don't translate my tears into thought,
I want to sob autumn tears on my window,
streaking the pane blurring the world.
I want to fill every hole in my heart with glimmering tear pools,
fill my kitchen sink with tears,
just thinking of me not crying all these years,
makes me want to cry,
but I been taught not to cry –
big people don't cry, people say,
ain't those alligator tears boy,
can't fool me with those tears –
Fooling no one but myself not crying
                    step aside –
                    I'm going to cry,
                    until my shirt is drenched,
                    and my hands shimmery wet
                    with tears,
                    running down my face on my arms,
                    my legs and breast,
and you have to look at me,
because I'm drowning your manly ways in my tears,
                    to get back my tears.
                I'm crying until there isn't a single tear left
                    for what we been through not crying,
                    how we fooled ourselves thinking men don't cry.
I'm crying on the bus, in bed, at the dinner table, on the couch,
enough to float Noah's boat,
let out the robin of my heart,
bringing me back my own single shoot of greening
life again –
and you go fuck yourself
dry eyed days,
here I come,
giving you a Chicano monsoon season,
here comes this Chicano cry baby,
flooding prison walls,
my childrens' bedrooms,
splashing and tear slinging
tears up to my ankles,
planting rice and corn and beans
in fields glimmering with my tears,
and all you dry skinned nut-cracking ball whackers,
don't want to get your killer bone-breaking boots wet,
step aside,
because I'm bringing you rain.

Goodbyes were crying events –
Goodbye to grandma, to my brother,
friends, my neighborhood,
teachers and other boys,
and I never shed a tear,
though I felt them coming up in me.
I bit my teeth down hard to hold the tears back,
lowered my face and thought about something else.
I kept hearing voices in me,
telling me not to cry, don't cry, don't cry!
Boys don't cry,
leave yourself open,
become liable to get an ax in your heart by some non-crying fool,
be a sissy,
puto, you be hurting
yourself if you cry.
I hurt when I didn't cry,
all those times when I didn't cry ashamed
to in front of people,
fearful others would think I'm not a man,
fearful I'd be made fun of,
whole groups of us heard tragic news
and no one cries,
because it ain't right –
we need to weep –
get up in the middle of the night,
and cry, like a endurance's hips and stomach convulse during
child birth, we need to give birth
to that terrible convulsion of tears,
weep for those we never wept for,
let the legs shake and your arms embrace you
in a junkie habit for tears,
weep for the poor in prison
taken from their families,
the fieldworker's daughter
eaten by cancer from pesticides,
and weep,
for all those homeless
who couldn't meet mortgage payments,
those sleeping under bridges,
and the hopeless,
cry our differences into a lake,
where we can all cleanse our goodbyes and apathy,
papas cry for their children,
let children cry in my arms,
men cry in my arms,
endurance cry in my arms,
let us all cry,
after lovemaking and fighting,
make cry a prayer,
a language made of whimpers and sniffles and sobs,
cry out loud, louder, cry baby, cry! Cry! Cry!


Tire Shop
By Jimmy Santiago Baca

Click here for a 1.1MB (.wav format) sound clip of "Tire Shop"

 I went down yesterday
to fix a leak in my tire. Off Bridge street
there's a place 95 cents
flats fixed,
smeary black paint on warped wood plank
between two bald tires.
I go in, an old Black man
with a Jackie Gleason hat greasy soft
        with a mashed cigar stub in mouth
and another old Chicano man
working the other
pneumatic hissing tire changer. The walls are black with rubber
soot blown black dust everywhere
and rows of worn tires on gnawed board racks for sale,
air hoses snaking and looped over the floor.
I greet the two old men
        "Yeah, how's it going!"
No response.
They look up at me as if I just gave them a week to live.
        "I got a tire needs a tube."
Rudy, a young Chicano emerges from the black part of the room
pony tailed and plump
walks me out to my truck and looks at the tire.
"It'll cost you five bucks to take off and change."
        I nod.
He tells the old Chicano, who pulls the roller jack
        with a long steel handle outside,
and I wait in the middle of the grunting oval tire
changing machines,
while the old guy goes out and returns with my tire.
        He looks at me like a disgruntled Carny
        handling the ferriswheel
for the millionth time
and I'm just another ache in the arm,
        a spoiled kid.
I watch the two old men work the tire machines
        step on the foot levers that send the bars around
flipping the tire from the rim
and I wonder what brought these two old men to work here
        on this gray evening in February –
        are they ex-cons?
Drunks or addicts?
He whips the tube out," Rudy " he yells
        and I see a gaping hole in the tube,
"Can't patch that," Rudy says
        Then in Spanish Slang says, "no podemos pachiarlo,"
"we got a pile of old tubes over there, we'll do it for ten
At first I think he might be taking me
        but I hedge away from that thought
        and I watch the machines work
the spleesh of air
the final begrudging phoof! of rubber popped loose
        then the holy clank of steel bar
against steel
and every gently the old Chicano man, instead of throwing the bar
on the floor,
takes the iron bar and wipes it clean of rubber bits
        and oil
and slides it gently into his waist belt,
        in such a way
I've only seen mother wipe their infant's mouth.
And I wonder where they live these two old guys
I turn and watch MASH on a tv suspended from the ceiling
        six '0 clock news comes on
Hunnington beach blackened with oil.
Rudy comes behind me and says,
"Fucking shame they do that to our shores."
I suddenly realize how I love these working men
working in half dark with bald tires
like medieval hunchbacks in a dungeon.
They eat soup and scrape along in their lives –
how can they live I wonder on 95 cents a tire change
in today's world?
I am pleased to be with them
and feel how barrio Chicanos love this too –
how some give up nice jobs
in foreign places
to live by friends working in these places
and out of these men revolutions have started.
        The old Chicano is mumbling at me
        how cheap I am
when he learns my four tires are bald
        and spare flat,
        shaking his head as he works the tube into the tirewell.
I notice his heels are chewed to the nails
his fingernails black
his face a weary room and board stairwell
        of a downtown motel
given over to drunks and derelicts, his face hand worn
        by drunks leaning their full weight on it
wooden steps grooved by hard soled men just out
        of prison, a face condemned by life to live out more days
        in futility.
I bid goodbye to the Black man chomping his ancient cigar
the Chicano man with his head down
and I feel ashamed, somehow, that I cannot live
        their lives a while for them.
Grateful they are here, I respect such men, who have stories
that will never be told, who bring back to me
        my simple boyish days, when men
in oily pants and grubby hands talked in rough tones
        and worked at simply work, getting three meals a day
        on the table the hard way.
They live in an imperfect world,
unlike men with money who have places
to put their shame
these men have none,
other put their shame on planes or Las Vegas
these have no place
but to put their shame on their endurance
        their mothers
their kids
unlike men who put their shame
on new cars
bank accounts
so they never have to face their shame
        these men in the tire shop
        have become more human with shame.
And I thought of the time my brother betrayed
        me leaving me at 14
when we vowed we'd always be together
        he left to live with some rich folks
and I was taken to the Detention Center for kids
with no place to live –
        I became a juvenile
        filled with anger at my brother who left me alone.
These tire shop men made choices
never to leave their brothers,
in them I saw shame with no place to go
        but in a man's face, hands, work and silence.
        And as I drove away, nearing my farm
I saw a water sprinkler shooting an arc of water
        far over the fence and grass
it was intended to water --
        the fountain of water hitting a weedy stickered spot
that grew the only single flower anywhere around
        in the midst of rubble brush and stones
        the water hit
and touched a dormant seed that blossomed all itself
        into what it was
despite the surroundings.
Something made sense to me then
and I'm not quite sure what --
        an unconditional love of being and living,
        and taking what came one's way
        with dignity.
That night in my dream
I cried for my brother as he was leaving,
        all the words I used against myself
        rotten, no good, shitty, failure,
        dissolved in my tears,
my tears poured out of me in my dream and I wept
for my brother and wept when I turned after he left
        and I reached for my sister and she was having coffee
with a friend --
        I wept in my dream because she was not available for me
when I needed her,
and all my tears flowed, and how I wept, my feeling my pain
        of abandonment,
        all my tears became that arc of water
        and I became the flower, by sheer accident in the middle
        of nowhere, blossoming....


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