112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Performativity of Pinto Poetry: Analyzing How the Content and Design of Prison Poetry Reveals the Preservation of Racist Ideologies

Jazmine Wells, Texas Christian University

The language and rhetorical design of prison poetry illustrate the marginalization and discrimination Latino males experience both inside and outside of prison. Because these conditions must be transferred from society in order to exist inside of the prison, I argue that an analysis of pinto poetry will reveal the preserved, active, racist ideologies of our society that are often masked by non-preforming laws.


The aesthetics of prison poetry, or pinto poetry, not only illustrate the density of a symbolically and physically imprisoned artist’s mind, but it also reveals the preservation of supposedly destroyed ideologies. Prison poets such as Jimmy Santiago Baca, Pancho Aguila, and Raúlrsalinas utilize their prison sentences to compose poems that amalgamate their current incarceration with their previous states of imprisonment. Pinto poetry makes apparent the connections between a Latino male’s life in society and in prison. Pinto poetry reveals how Latino males are discriminated against in prison by receiving harsher treatment from guards compared to white inmates, are given the lower quality jobs, are segregated from other inmates, and are only enrolled in more labor focused educational programs. Scholars Patricia Sánchez-Flavian, Robert Johnson, and Nina Chernoff agree that pinto poetry tells us more than just what it is like to live in prison, in fact, it reveals the potential danger, paranoia, and oppressive human conditions Latino males experience inside and outside of prison.

Prison literature as a genre (memoirs, autobiographies, fiction, poetry) accounts for the reoccurring hostility toward Latinos (racism, classism, marginalization), but the content and the design of pinto poems reinforce the ill feeling society holds toward Latino males. The descending staircase design of Aguila’s “Way Down Here” and “In the Beginning” makes the argument that Latino’s are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The continuous strain of questions in Raúlrsalinas “Journey II” all answered by “that’s a black/white problem,” speaks to the Latinos marginalization not only by ideologies, but by the black/white binary.

Theodor Adorno’s “On Lyric Poetry and Society” argues that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism. Although lyric work comes from the individual it is still a representation of the social, more specifically it is a scope the gives access to what social ideologies hide. The individual is inseparable from society; therefore, the social is manifested in the individual’s language. Language is the medium between the poet’s detachment from society and society’s agency in motivating the poet’s self-absorption. The pinto poet’s language is evidence that prison is a space where racist ideologies have been transferred to, which furthermore means they still actively exist in our society. Laws such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Pay Act 0f 1963 claiming to protect individuals from discrimination, but according to Sarah Ahmed the language of documents such as these are non-performative. Meaning, the language of these documents are a confession that society has discriminated against certain individuals and are implying a change in this behavior, however, language is not an action. Through an analysis of pinto poetry I will illustrate that the pinto poet’s language reveals Latino males are victimized by the law, rather by it because laws merely mask how they are really treated. Thus, by conceptualizing prison poetry produced by incarcerated Latino authors as lyric work, the preserved, active, racist ideologies of our society will be revealed.