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Analysis of Poem 'Immigrants in Our Own Land' by Jimmy Santiago Baca

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Jimmy Santiago Baca

Jimmy Santiago Baca

Jimmy Santiago Baca and a Summary of 'Immigrants in Our Own Land'

'Immigrants in Our Own Land' is a free verse poem Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote based on his own experiences as a mestizo serving in a state prison. He is of mixed race, having a Chicana mother and Apache Indian father.

The poem contrasts the hopes and dreams of immigrants who are, or become like prisoners, 'so long gone from life itself.'

The focus is on the aspirations of those outsiders (chicanos/mestizos, with American Mexican and/or mixed Native American and Latino heritage), citizens/immigrants, who have such high hopes of positive change yet find the brutal realities of life in a new country, the USA, and within its prison system, too much.

  • The theme is that of racial identity—race relations and rehabilitation, specifically the issues relating to an oppressed minority who are incarcerated.
  • The language (diction) is matter-of-fact, plain, prose-like and often descriptive.
  • The tone is reflective, even pessimistic and at times ironic.
  • Look out for use of enjambment (where lines run on into the next without punctuation).

'Immigrants in Our Own Land' brings an outsider's knowledge of life on the inside for those mestizos/chicanos trapped in what is an often violent environment, a regime run by an administration mostly white, uncaring and biased.

Many of those inside are lawbreakers, but their lives have been skewed from an early age. Like the poet himself many are orphaned, or from broken homes, lack any formal education and have become embroiled in street crime.

All are seeking a better life, positive change; some are simply changed by years of institutional routine and manual work.

The poem's speaker (the voice) outlines the daily details, the mundane features of life, portraying 'younger ones' who 'will become gangsters' and 'old men' with 'deep,disturbed eyes'—they're all kept separate—blacks, whites, chicanos, mestizos, because that's the way things are done.

Incarceration is supposed to bring hope through rehabilitation but often the opposite is true. Punishment through oppression and boredom means that individual futures are quashed. Only a few manage to 'escape' and go on to better things.

Jimmy Santiago Baca is one such escapee. Orphaned from an early age, knowing only poverty and street violence, he eventually fell in with a bad crowd, got convicted and spent six and a half years in prison. This was his turning point.

He learnt to read and write whilst in prison and began to show creative talent with his poetry and writings. Confinement inspired poems that were to illustrate and define the tensions inherent in a brutal system of neglect and suppression.

Poems such as 'Overcrowding' and 'Count-time' highlight the failures and dull routines of the prison regime. And the sarcastically titled 'So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans' is a clear political take on a longstanding controversial issue.

'Immigrants in Our Own Land' is an insightful and moving summary of normal life for those victims trapped within an abnormal system.

In six stanzas, the narrative shifts from third person (1–3) to first person (4–5) before finally reverting to third person in the sixth.

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  • What this does is create the idea of collective thinking—using We/They/Some—the speaker as one of the gang, as the voice of the group. Using first-person perspective brings increased attention to the personal, the speaker directly involved in the issues.

The earliest poems of Jimmy Santiago Baca were published in the magazine Mother Jones. The poetry editor at the time was Denise Levertov, instrumental in helping Jimmy Santiago Baca secure his first book, Immigrants in Our Own Land, published 1979, from Louisiana State University press.

'Immigrants in Our Own Land' by Jimmy Santiago Baca

We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.

The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.

We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.

My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.

I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.

But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Immigrants in Our Own Land'

First Stanza

The first two lines, typically romantic in tone, introduce the reader to a group of people who aspire to better things. They have dreams, as yet untold—they want a better life, presumably because they are, as the title informs, immigrants, displaced for whatever reason.

They're at the gates, of a new country, of a prison? There are new papers (of identity?) given and their old clothes are discarded for fresh overalls, working overalls. The speaker seems familiar with mechanics, people who work on cars; they wear similar overalls.

Things become more involved. This is no ordinary day in the life. Then they're inoculated (given shots) against diseases. Doctors are present asking questions. The reader can only guess what they might be.

In another room counselors (people who give advice and information) tell them about the new country, the new land, they're about to become residents of. They have to take tests. Again we're not told exactly what the tests are. Do they involve language, arithmetic, politics?

Mention of the old world puts things into perspective. These people have to leave behind their old lives. They may have been craftspeople, good with their hands, their heads, full of common sense, which can be applied as a learning tool to get results and learning, like academics use books.

The difference is, this group lack education. They didn't finish high school, which means they probably dropped out in their early teens.

Second Stanza

Being newcomers they're full of hope in this new world but the old men, experienced and not up to much, are staring at them. There was talk of rehabilitation in their previous lives yet soon the administration get to work on them—they're destined to become cheap labor it seems.

Gone are the hopes of education and progress in their crafts. It's just like the bad old days. And they're also segregated, racially. So the hype and ideals are gone. They'll be paid a pittance for manual work.

The administration—the authorities in charge—the anonymous bureaucracy which controls everything. What they say goes. There's no change here for newcomers; it's just like back in the old world.

Third Stanza

Little has changed in their lives. Violence and oppression they grew accustomed to; now they're experiencing the same thing. Except here its more intense.

Even the doctors don't care about them. Mentally and physically they're worse off in this new world.

Fourth Stanza

The reader is 'introduced' to the first person speaker 'I', having been initiated via the collective 'We'. The details from the inside of a cell reinforces the idea that this is a prison and that there are real people incarcerated.

For the first time there are names—Joey, Felipé—and voices complaining about this and that. It's all very mundane, it's life at the basic level where sinks and drains need fixing, where a good time is had by smoking a cigarette.

Fifth Stanza

The speaker needs soap for laundry duties. More domesticity of a kind, the necessary chores to keep dignity at a decent level. As this goes on, more fresh immigrants arrive with that optimistic look on their faces, soon to be the victims of harsh reality and routine.

Sixth Stanza

The last lines confirm the varied destinies of these chicanos and mestizos. The basic idea is that all will be dehumanized by being inside, regardless of individual fate.

It's a rather disillusioned tone, the speaker knowing through personal involvement that this is the outcome, the result of a grinding and brutal regime. The feeling is that this is an inevitable merry-go-round for most. They enter with a dream, they exit with the dream crushed.

Yet, there will always be that special individual, that someone who emerges from the violence and boredom a better, inspired person. As Jimmy Santiago Baca himself said of his time in the Arizona State Prison in Florence, the solution for him was:

'birthing a way out through the poetry. I began to decompose the wall. I saw the walls were not the enemy. The enemy was myself.'

Jimmy Santiago Baca on Language and Poetry

What does poetry and language mean for Jimmy Santiago Baca?

'I think language gives us courage. Poetry gives us courage and faith to live with open wounds. Poetry gives us the means to understand pain in a meaningless age. Language gives us insight into the darkness that we all stumble into today. So, I don't know if it heals, but I do know that it provides us with what we lack. Language provides us with something that we desperately need. Not to close the wound, but not to forget it. Language makes us not forget what we went through. I've been shot. I've been stabbed. I got scars all over my body, and my face. My jaw is wired. My teeth have been kicked out by the Narcos. My jaw was beaten. . . was knocked out by the police. My head is full of cracks from the guards. My stomach is all scarred up. I've been shot in the legs and those are just the visible signs. The wounds that I carry inside of me are even deeper and graver. Language is the only thing that I can go to and drink from, and feel invigorated and feel happy about living. It carries the magic of my people's heart. It carries the magic that I'm in love with. If you took language away from me, I would immediately pick up a gun and go to the mountains and become a rebel. There would be no doubt whatsoever, no hesitation. So, I use language as something that connects me to beyond the world I live in, that connects me to a cosmic kind of destiny that helps me towards living a good life. So it heals me in that sense. It heals me in the sense that I'm able to love living and I'm able to look at the living. Language provides me with a journey, I would not have otherwise had. . . a journey into myself and my people.'

-'"Carrying the Magic of His People's Heart": An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca', Las Americas Journal, June 2021.


© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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