Truthdigger of the Week: Juan Felipe Herrera, the Next U.S. Poet Laureate
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Reading the articles that jubilantly announced Juan Felipe Herrera’s appointment as the next poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday almost brought me to tears. It wasn’t just that a fellow Chicano poet (and UCLA alum) would hold the position that moved me but also what it will mean for a too-long-silenced Latino community to have its stories disseminated across the country, in Spanish and English lyric, sometimes even with an accompanying guitar. As the current poet laureate of Los Angeles, Luis J. Rodriguez, puts it, “We’re being recognized in a very powerful and important way. … Juan Felipe, poet laureate of the United States—this is symbolic of how important our literature, our stories are.”
And if anyone is up to the job of telling these tales as the first Latino poet to carry the U.S. laureate title, it absolutely is Herrera.
Born in 1948 in California to Mexican migrant farmworkers who moved to the U.S. after the Mexican Revolution, Herrera in many ways embodies the American dream so many immigrants hope to achieve after they cross the Mexico-U.S. border at great personal risk. Much of his childhood was spent in “tents and trailers in farm communities around Southern California,” according to The New York Times. He would go on to attend UCLA when he received an Educational Opportunity Program scholarship. Herrera, who began his wordplay at a young age, studied social anthropology both as an undergraduate at UCLA and as a graduate student at Stanford University. He continued to write throughout his educational career, ultimately obtaining his master’s in fine arts from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop in his 40s. At UCLA, he took part in the ’70s Chicano movement, and today his poetry still contains elements of activism as he writes about the experiences of immigrants in the U.S., with books such as “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007” and “Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream.” Herrera’s work, however, isn’t limited by borders or to border crossing; he also writes about other important contemporary events such as the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, the topic of his most recent collection, “Senegal Taxi.”
His deftly written poems, which experiment with form and which mix and meld languages, are often playful and always forceful. His poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal” beautifully portrays the “spirit exile[s]” created when:
laws pass laws with scientific walls
detention cells husband
with the son
the wife &
the daughter who
married a citizen
they stay behind broken slashed
In “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings,” Herrera writes about a lyrical form that does not understand invisible lines created to divide:
First, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy …
James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress and the person charged with choosing America’s poet laureate, compares Herrera’s work to Walt Whitman’s; Herrera, however, credits progressive Beat poet Allen Ginsberg as one of his great influences. In a post by Mike Sonksen for KCET’s website, Sonksen relays comments by a poet and friend of Herrera’s, Sesshu Foster, about the Chicano poet’s trajectory from farmworker to “pioneer”:
Herrera was a mover and shaker everywhere he went; he knew about all [the Chicano literary] scenes; he’d performed with Culture Clash and teatros, on pyramids and stages in Mexico, coffee shops and college campuses across the U.S. for hipsters and Chipsters, pochos and campesinos, for anyone and everyone. … [in the ’80s] it seemed likely that a whole generation of West Coast writers of color, like Jessica Hagedorn, Alejandro Murguia, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Omar Salinas, Jeff Tagami, Ntozake Shange, Cherrie Moraga, and Ana Castillo, would only be known by the rest of us in small circles, like friends, with their books published by tiny presses in small editions. …
And yet, Herrera managed to break through the walls built by an elitist, often racist, literary establishment and has published over two dozen tomes of poetry, short stories, young adult novels, plays and even children’s books. His variety of publications shows a desire to spread the word to readers of all ages and tastes, and his professional career as a teacher in colleges as well as prisons, art galleries and community centers shows his commitment to poetry as literary liberator that makes no distinctions of class, race, gender or age. As he puts it when reflecting on his time as California’s poet laureate from 2012 to 2014:
People already have the poetry; they just need a reminder that “Yes, this is the time to express yourself.” … So my main goal was to shake hands with as many people as possible, of all ages, and to reshake them into poetry.
During his tenure as the Golden State’s poet laureate, he wrote poems to raise awareness on issues such as bullying and he visited communities all over California, reading and collecting lines for “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World,” a growing piece to which anyone can contribute that he describes as an “unending poem for peace.” And perhaps this last fact is what is most inspiring about Herrera—that in a country in which immigrants are more often than not mistreated and further displaced and where racial tensions seem to be at a new high, just as wars continue to spread across the globe, the poet is still working toward peace with a smile on his face (just take a look at the PBS “NewsHour” interview below). If that is not a cause for hope, I don’t know what is. And I’m not the only one who thinks so:
“I think people heard about what he was doing as California poet laureate in ways that you don’t always hear about what state poets laureate do,” says Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress [, in a Los Angeles Times article]. “That was really exciting to see. … He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring. … He’s the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it’s something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we’re in.”
Herrera himself admits that uniting us at a time of great division is exactly what he’s setting out to do in his new gig:
People are asking “why are we so far apart?”—whatever the issue. I want poetry, and what I do as a poet laureate, to bring us closer together. That’s the heart of it.
For all of this, the Chicano bard is our Truthdigger of the Week.