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As Life Was Five - Poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca (Jimmy Santiago Baca)

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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 English English- 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 I've 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 fields, 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 drought; 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 English, 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. Jimmy Santiago Baca

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