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As Life Was Five Analysis

Author: poem of Jimmy Santiago Baca Type: poem Views: 11

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Portate bien,

behave yourself you always said to me.

I behaved myself

when others were warm in winter

and I stood out in the cold.

I behaved myself when others had full plates

and I stared at them hungrily,

never speaking out of turn,

existing in a shell of good white behavior

with my heart a wet-feathered

bird growing but never able to crack out of the shell.

Behaving like a good boy,

my behavior shattered

by outsiders who came

to my village one day

insulting my grandpa because he couldn't speak



the invader's sword

the oppressor's language-

that hurled me into profound despair

that day Grandpa and I walked into the farm office

for a loan and this man didn't give my grandpa

an application because he was stupid, he said,

because he was ignorant and inferior,

and that moment

cut me in two torturous pieces

screaming my grandpa was a lovely man

that this government farm office clerk was a rude beast-

and I saw my grandpa's eyes go dark

with wound-hurts, regret, remorse

that his grandchild would witness

him humiliated

and the apricot tree in his soul

was buried

was cut down

using English language as an ax,

and he hung from that dead tree

like a noosed-up Mexican

racist vigilante strung up ten years earlier

for no other reason than that he was different,

than that they didn't understand

his sacred soul, his loving heart,

his prayers and his songs,

Your words, Portate bien,

resonate in me,

and I obey in my integrity, my kindness, my courage,

as I am born again in the suffering of my people,

in our freedom, our beauty, our dual-faced,

dual-cultured, two-songed soul

and two-hearted

ancient culture,

me porto bien, Grandpa,

your memory

leafing my heart

like sweetly fragrant sage.

But the scene of my grandpa in that room,

what came out of his soul

and what soared from his veins,

tidal-waving in my heart,

helped make me into a poet

singing a song that endures and feeds

to make my fledgling heart

an eagle,

that makes my heavy fingers

strum a lover's heart and

create happiness in her sadness,

that makes the very ground in the prairie

soil to plant and feed the vision of so many of us

who just want to dance and love and fly

that makes us loyal to our hearts

and true to our souls!

It's the scene

that has never left me-

through all the sadness

the terrors

the sweet momentary joys

that have blossomed in me,

broken me, shattered my innocence


never forgotten the room that day,

the way the light hazily filtered in the windows,

the strong dignified presence of my grandfather

in his sheepskin coat and field work boots,

that scene,

the way the boards creaked under his work boots,

haunted me

when my children were born at home

and my hands brought them into this world,

that scene was in my hands,

it echoed in my dreams, drummed in my blood,

cried in my silent heart,

was with me through hours of my life,

that man behind the counter,

his important government papers rattling in the breeze,

disdainful look on his face,

that scene, the door, the child I was,

my grandpa's hand on the doorknob, his eyes on me like a voice

in the wind

forgiving and hurtful and loving,

to this moment-

his eyes following me

where I swirl in a maddened dance

to free it from my bones,

like a broken-winged sparrow yearning for spring


let the scene go, having healed it in my soul,

having nurtured it in my heart, I sing its flight, out, go,

fly sweet bird!

But the scene that dusty day

with the drought-baked clay in my pants cuffs,

the sheep starving for feed

and my grandfather's hopes up

that the farm-aid man

would help us as he had other farmers-

that scene framed in my mind, ten years old

and having prayed at mass that morning,

begging God not to let our sheep die,

to perform a miracle for us

with a little help from the farm-aid man,

I knew entering that door,

seeing gringos come out smiling with signed

papers to buy feed,

that we too were going to survive the


the scene with its wooden floor,

my shoes scraping sand grains that had blown in,

the hot sun warming my face,

and me standing in a room later

by myself,

after the farm-aid man turned us down

and I know our sheep were going to die,

knew Grandfather's heart was going to die,

that moment

opened a wound in my heart

and in the wound the scene replays itself

a hundred times,

the grief, the hurt, the confusion

that day changed my life forever,

made me a man, made me understand

that because Grandfather couldn't speak


his heart died that day,

and when I turned and walked out the door

onto Main Street again,

squinting my eyes at the whirling dust,

the world was never the same

because it was the first time

I had ever witnessed racism,

how it killed people's dreams, and during all of it

my grandfather said, Portate bien, mijo,

behave yourself, my son, Portate bien.

Submitted by Ian Segal


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