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In the 1960s, when Juan Felipe Herrera was in elementary school, he lived in a homemade RV in Escondido.
“We lived in a trailer my dad made, off Lincoln,” Herrera said, “He built a house on top of a car. That way you could pull it.”
Like most campesinos, they moved a lot, the boy and his farm worker parents.
Today, Juan Felipe Herrera — UC Riverside creative writing professor, activist and artist — is California’s fifth poet laureate and the first Chicano. He was appointed to the position by Governor Jerry Brown in March. These days, with 28 books, an opera, plays and a joy that is contagious, Herrera is still moving a lot, but in a different way.
Talk with him, and he lobs the conversation south and north, east and west, in Spanish and in English, in bursts of enthusiasm, then reverie, in extemporaneous lyrics that sing his mission in jazzy ranchera riffs of hope and humor. The Señor Poeta Laureado’s mission is to advocate for poetry in “classrooms and boardrooms” and inspire an “emerging generation of literary artists.”
What will that look and taste and smell like during his two-year tenure? What projects will he bring to our classrooms and boardrooms, to our trailers and mansions?
“I’m trying to make it real, real, real, real!” he said. “And also make it cultural and also make it involved, so you can just jump in. Everybody has verbal art. Everybody has verbal art! Not everybody thinks they have poetry, because poetry is seen as kind of an ethereal, separate, super-aesthetic thing that is unavailable. But we all have verbal art — story telling, songs, speaking — that’s what I want to call on for all these projects.”
“I’m lighting up a lot of firecrackers in my poems. Like the ‘187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.’ That has 187 firecrackers in it.”
The poem is an artful, funny, sardonic response to the perceived bigotry underlying California’s 1994 anti-immigration ballot initiative, Prop. 187. The measure was overturned in court, but the bigotry lives on and so the poem, as evinced in the following excerpt.
187 Reason Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border
Because Lou Dobbs has been misusing the subjunctive again
Because our suitcases are made with biodegradable maguey fibers
Because we still resemble La Malinche
Because multiplication is our favorite sport
Because we’ll dig a tunnel to Seattle
Because Mexico needs us to keep the peso from sinking …
Because we’ve been doing it for over five hundred years already
Herrera has been doing words since he was young. First, his letters: “My mom used to buy me books in the little secondhand store [in Escondido]. She taught me the ABCs in Spanish.” Then, it was the poets, searching for them in his favorite playgrounds — libraries — and discovering Lorca, Ferlinghetti, Pasternak.
“There were no poetry classes when I was in high school,” he said. “We studied novels, but not poetry. I would have gone bananas if I’d been exposed to poetry in high school! … I was reading ‘Steppenwolf,’ and I remember it had a warning. It said, ‘For Madmen Only.’ So I wrote this poem called ‘Magic Hotel’ — something you probably have to warn somebody about reading — and I liked that kind of experimental stuff, even in 11th grade. Kind of like a watercolor of words on paper.”
Herrera wrote his own warning of sorts in his “187 Reasons” collection: “I didn’t start out to be a poet. Because I had been silenced, I started out to be a speaker.”
Speak he does, with irreverence and love, with a soft-spoken poke. Herrera writes the migratory history of California, from Mexico to San Francisco and the fields that connect them; he writes across borders between lands and people.
“They’re just shells, all that stuff, if you’ve got a good heart. In the end, color is just color, and all that ideological debris is the pits, isn’t it? In the end, it’s not about color.”
In the end, you know what would be cool? If el Poeta Laureado Juan Felipe Herrera set off firecrackers — vibrant, inspiring firecrackers — that sparked and sizzled and burst a watercolor of words into classrooms and boardrooms and knocked people out of their seats and over walls and into each other’s hearts and minds. Yeah, that would be cool, cool, cool, cool!
And he can probably do it, too.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at email@example.com.