18 pages 36 minutes read

Jimmy Santiago Baca

Immigrants in Our Own Land

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1977

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Summary and Study Guide


“Immigrants in Our Own Land” is a poem by the American poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. It was published in Baca’s poetry collection with the same name in 1979. Based on Baca’s own experience as inmate in a state prison, the poem describes the shift from hope to hopelessness that most inmates experience during their sentence. Newly arrived inmates dream of rehabilitation and better life, but more experienced prisoners know that the likely effects of incarceration are bitterness and despair. As an indictment of the brutality and exploitation that prisoners face, the poem raises important questions about the purpose of incarceration: punishment or rehabilitation. This is one of Baca’s best known early poems, written during or soon after his own imprisonment. Baca is one of America’s most celebrated poets who have experienced incarceration, and his work is a significant contribution to the increasingly recognized genre of prison literature.

Poet Biography

Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1952. He is of Chicano (Mexican) and Apache descent. Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, he was first raised by a grandparent and then transferred to an orphanage at the age of five. He ran away in his early teens and lived largely on the streets, developing a dependence on alcohol and drugs. In 1973, he was convicted of drug possession with intent to sell and sentenced to five years in prison (he has claimed to be innocent of that crime). His sentence was extended to over six years, in part because he refused to submit to prison regulations that forced inmates to work outside of the prison. He insisted on being allowed to go to school instead. He was forced to spend a substantial amount of time, possibly up to three years, in isolation. (Read more about Baca’s prison experience in Biographical Context.)

Baca had no formal education and learned to read and write in prison, where he also developed an abiding passion for poetry. In his own words, discovering language and the ability to express himself through poetry transformed his life. Fellow inmates persuaded him to submit some of his poems to a magazine, which happened to be edited by the well-known poet Denise Levertov, who began correspondence with him and encouraged his writing. Immigrants in Our Own Land, the collection that includes many poems based on his experience in prison, was published in 1979. At first, Baca did not think of himself as a serious writer and spent several years roaming the country focused on other goals, but as his poems garnered increased attention and praise, he dedicated himself to writing.

Baca has published over a dozen books of poetry, multiple stories and essays, a semiautobiographical novel in verse, and a screenplay, which was turned into the 1993 film Blood In Blood Out (also known as Bound by Honor). He has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, the Hispanic Heritage Award, and the 2019 Encuentro de Escritores Award. He also received the Cornelius P. Turner Award, which honors GED graduates who have made outstanding contributions in the areas of education, justice, and social welfare. Baca has worked in all these areas for over 30 years by conducting writing workshops in prisons as well as universities. In 2004, he founded Cedar Tree, a nonprofit dedicated to providing training and outreach programs for current and former prisoners, at-risk youth, and disadvantaged communities.

Poem Text

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “Immigrants in Our Own Land.” 1979. Poetry Foundation.


“Immigrants in Our Own Land” describes the experience of prison inmates, with an emphasis on how the neglect and exploitation they encounter in prison destroy their hopes for rehabilitation and improvement. The poem begins with an implied analogy between prisoners and immigrants. Both groups experience profound change as they leave behind their familiar world and are initiated into a new life. They receive new clothes and new documents. They are evaluated by doctors and counselors. Some have skills and talents, but most have little education.

Those who have been in prison for a while observe the arrival of newcomers with weary and dispirited eyes. However, new inmates are full of hope: They might finish school or learn a trade. Instead, they are forced to provide cheap labor. Prison administration encourages racial/ethnic segregation within the inmate population. Prisoners face as much brutality and neglect as they did before incarceration. As a result, both their bodies and their minds deteriorate.

In the middle of the poem, the speaker describes a specific scene which takes place after he has spent some time in prison. He is drying his clothes on laundry lines while observing other inmates, some of them complaining about prison living conditions. Then, he spots the arrival of new inmates and imagines that they dream about changing their lives for the better, like he once did. But now he knows that their dream is unlikely to be fulfilled. In fact, many prisoners end up more deeply entangled in the life of crime, dead or losing their will to live, or bitter and disaffected, so far removed from their families and their old life that rehabilitation and social adaptation become very difficult. Few rejoin the life of freedom with as much humanity as they had before incarceration.