Thursday, June 11, 2015

From Field Labor to Laureate—The Journey of Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera performing his work.

My bitching about being overlooked for selection of Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress has become a stale joke repeated here once too often.  As much as I may hate to admit it, as a versifier I am so far down the totem pole of able and creative voices that I am obscured by new mown grass at the base.  I can’t even quibble that the selection goes primarily to practitioners confined to an academic elite.  For some years now a wide range of voices from varied backgrounds, ethnicities, races, regions, and gender have demonstrated the Library’s commitment to recognition of the broad excitement of American poetry.

The announcement this week of the selection of California Chicano Juan Felipe Herrera is proof positive of it.  The 66 year old Herrera—my exact contemporary, by the way—is a vibrant, unique, and even exuberant poet who has drawn of his life experiences and his culture to create wholly original work that seamlessly blends English and Spanish without embarrassment or explanation.  As an actor and performer, his work is meant to leap from the page—it demands an audience and the active interaction between speaker and listener.  Herrera has also worked in theatrical pieces and prose for adults, youth, and children

As the immediate past Poet Laureate of California he traveled that state and visited every corner promoting poetry to young people who have responded with enthusiasmAlong the way he created a massive, multi-contributor unity poem share at a number of popular live readings.  It was likely that energetic dedication that caught the attention of the national selection committee.

Herrera was born on Christmas Eve 1948 in Fowler, California.  He could hardly call the San Joaquin Valley town near Fresno in a vineyard and agricultural district his home town.  His parents María de la Luz Quintana and Felipe Emilio Herrera were Mexican born migrant farm workers who had been following the crops since their own childhoods.  His belly button had hardly time to heal before his parents moved on to the next fields.

As compesinos the young family was constantly on the move living in migrant camps, trailers, and even tents.  His mother took him with her to the fields as a baby and when he was old enough he worked alongside his parents.  He attended more than a dozen schools in dusty agricultural towns from near the Bay Area south to San Diego.  He spoke Spanish at home and early on was punished for speaking it in school.  By his middle school years he was fluent in English.  He would be comfortable in both languages, often mixing them.

Herrera was unusual in that he was an only child in a culture that valued and produced large families.  Inevitably that meant he was lavished with more attention and encouragement than many migrant children might receive.  He was bright and artistic.  In middle school he began drawing cartoons and by high School had picked up the guitar but he was playing and singing the songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Graduating from High School in San Diego in 1967, Herrera was bright and accomplished enough to win one of the first Educational Opportunity Program Scholarships for disadvantaged students to attend one of the state’s flagship schools—the University of California at Los Angles (UCLA).  There he was drawn into the whirl of counter culture, radicalism, and a burgeoning Chicano identity movement of which he was soon an important part.

As a young performer/poet.

Chicano identity recognized and drew pride from Indio and Mexican roots, but recognized a distinct cultural identity of those born or largely raised in El Norte.  And at UCLA he was not only absorbing and reflecting the militant Chicano movement, but being moved by the Beat poetry of Alan Ginsberg, jazz, and experimental theater.  Much later he reflected on this mixture of identity and experience in this poem:


Odd to be a half-Mexican, let me put it this way

I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the question of the half

To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing

One could say only Mexican

Then think of pyramids – obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with

Flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts – these are not Mexican

They are existences, that is to say

Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum

Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees

Then darkness

What is the other – yes

It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles

European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect

Better to think of Kant in his tiny room

Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time

Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation

Concerning the way light bends – all this has to do with

The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being






How they stalk you & how you beseech them

All this becomes your life-long project, that is

You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half

Mexican, then the half against itself


Juan Felipe Herrera

Herrera graduated from UCLA in 1971 with a degree in anthropology but with an itch to write poetry and to blend it with performance art breaking down barriers between genres, between artist and audience.  “I used to stand on the corner in San Diego with poems sticking out of my hip pocket, asking people if there was a place where I could read poems,” he told an intervier, “The audience is half of the poem.”

Herrera became involved with the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego which encouraged and developed Chicano arts out of a converted water tank in Balboa Park.

Later Herrera moved to San Francisco where a Beat poetry scene still thrived.  He fell in with the informal group of poets and artists in the Mission District with whom he often shared readings in coffee houses, bars, and impromptu street corners.  He was honing his craft.  In 1974 his first poetry collection, Rebozos of Love was published by the Chicano movement press Tolteca Publications.  It would be more than ten years before another would be printed.

In the meantime Herrera finished a Masters in Social Anthropology at Stanford in 1980His interest in Mexican cultural roots caused him to organize and lead Chicano trek to Mexican Indian villages, from the rain forest of Chiapas to the mountains of Nayarit. The experience profoundly changed him and influenced his subsequent work. 

But he wanted to concentrate on developing his craft as a writer.  He enrolled in the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop earning in Master of Fine Arts in 1990 and subsequently staying on as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow.  His collections Exile of Desire (1985), Facegames (1987), and Akrílica (1989) were products of this period. 

Chicano activist and poet.

Returning to California Herrera established a solid academic career as Chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at California State University, Fresno and for the last ten years until retiring earlier this year as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside.  During the same years he founded several performing arts and experimental theater groups, taught poetry, art, and performance in community art galleries and correctional facilities.  He became a Director of the Art and Barbara Culver Center for the Arts in Riverside.  He was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2011.  And ultimately Governor Jerry Brown appointed him California Poet Laureate.

Herrera really hit his creative stride in full maturity despite decades of activity under his belt beginning with Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream in 1999 and CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse the same year.   Since then he has penned nearly twenty books including his award winning young adult and children’s books, The Upside Down Boy/El Nino de Cabeza, Grandma & Me at the Flea/Los Meros Meros Remateros, Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro, and Downtown Boy.

Meanwhile his adult collections have earned widespread praise and honors including Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler, 187 Reasons Mexicans Can’t Cross the Border: Undocucments 1971-2007 (a unique collection of nearly three decades of work intended for oral performance), and his latest master work Senegal Taxi which brings to light the tragedy and genocide in Darfur through multiple voices—child victims, perpetrators, even inanimate objects.

Together this body of work has earned armloads of prizes and honors while Herrera has been showered with fellowships.  Through it all he remains personally modest and a little awestruck at the fuss and recognition.  Becoming the first Latino to be named Poet Laureate has only magnified the attention.  William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican, and who was one of half a dozen towering figures of 20th Century American poetry, was on a path to be named to the post, but was blocked by Red Scare Era politics.  Surely the selection of Herrera, the old Chicano militant, will be just as objectionable to the xenophobic American right wing.  But it seems to be unanimously popular with working poets and has been greeted with huge celebrations in Hispanic communities and press.

Herrera, who still lives in Fresno with his long time companion Margarita Robles, a performance artist and poet in her own right, is not yet sure what he will do as Poet Laureate.  But with his expansive, exuberant personality and ability to not only be an ambassador for poetry but to inspire young people and the marginalized to find their voices, you can bet that Herrera will be out and about, not lurking among the stacks of the Library and giving staid readings for polite audiences. 

Everyday We Get More Illegal
Yet the peach tree
still rises
& falls with fruit & without
birds eat it the sparrows fight
our desert
burns with trash & drug
it also breathes & sprouts
vines & maguey
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
un-powdered in the apartment to
deal out the day
& the puzzles
another law then another
spirit exile
migration sky
the grass is mowed then blown
by a machine sidewalks are empty
clean & the Red Shouldered Hawk
down — from
an abandoned wooden dome
an empty field
it is all in-between the light
every day this changes a little
yesterday homeless &
w/o papers Alberto
left for Denver a Greyhound bus he said
where they don’t check you
walking working
under the silver darkness
walking working
with our mind
our life

Juan Felipe Herrera

No comments:

Post a Comment