By Abraham Navarro
A group of formerly incarcerated students picked up their ultra-wide pizza slabs and towering salad mounds from the counter at the Arcata Pizza Deli. They dragged two tables together, commandeering chairs from the surrounding tables and gathered for the feast. Each of the Project Rebound members were hungry for conversation with the famous award-winning Chicano poet, memoirist and member of the family Jimmy Santiago Baca.
One of them asks him across the table as he takes a sip of his drink, “So, what’s the pale white monster that’s coming up to get you, Jimmy?”
They were asking about an excerpt he read from a story where he steps out over frigid ice as it splinters beneath his weight to prove his love for his wife, Stacy.
“Ah when you’re a kid you look deep in the water under the ice, you imagine all sorts of things,” Baca says.
Baca has a deep raspy voice, and he lights up when he talks to the student. He has a shaved head, furrowed brow with welcoming brown eyes and a warm complexion. Although he’s bundled up against the Humboldt evening chill in a black turtleneck and a blue down jacket, he feels cozy and right at home amongst the formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students from Cal Poly Humboldt’s chapter of Project Rebound.
Earlier in the evening in the Great Hall above the College Creek Marketplace he read exclusive excerpts from some of his unpublished work and other poems and stories of his during the Project Rebound’s third annual Reentry Forum.
Project Rebound is a program for formerly incarcerated and system impacted students at Cal Poly Humboldt. According to their website they aim to empower individuals convicted of a crime in a county, state, or federal jurisdiction who have clearly expressed their desire and readiness to earn a degree at Humboldt.
Baca has been to previous reentry forums, even attending via Zoom during the pandemic restrictions to show his support for Project Rebound and getting to know the members like Tammy Phrakonkham, 30, a Cal Poly Humboldt Project Rebound member and a returning graduate student majoring in geology in the fall.
When Phrakonkham heard Baca read his stories and share his wisdom, she felt as though her experiences being formerly incarcerated were validated. Her family comes from Laos as refugees to the United States. Growing up in impoverished conditions, she remembers her brothers and uncles all working in gangs, and she followed suit. Phrakonkham was incarcerated for stealing cars and trafficking ecstasy.
“It was all I knew,” she said. “When I listen to Jimmy, I feel like I’m not the only one.”
Despite years of isolation due to the pandemic, Baca was happy to make an appearance in Humboldt to visit his friends at Project Rebound, the first event he said he has been to since COVID-19 caused the shift to online events.
“You all have become like my adopted family,” he said to them. “If it wasn’t Project Rebound I wouldn’t have even gotten on that flight!”
Baca was adamant that poetry was for the people, those who suffer and work, play, cry, feel, live and die; poetry was not something that could be hoarded by the wealthy, kept from the poor. It was created by the people and it should be given back to the people. By sharing his work with Project Rebound, Baca feels like he has done that, and he has made a family out of them in the process.