TEN YEARS AGO, when my abuelito was still somewhat able-bodied and definitely still breathing, when he was living alone, with a tumbling kaleidoscope of different aunts and uncles moving in and out of the two small but spare bedrooms of his home, I decided, in a moment of nostalgia, to drive by his house unannounced. Surrounding the house was a dirt yard, and on one side, my grandmother, when she was alive, had grown cacti near roses. Cars also bloomed in the yard, surrounded by a slouching aluminum fence. My grandfather was not a perfect man. He drank incessantly and sometimes became violent without provocation. Children and women didn’t matter. I was afraid of him as a child, but I was taught to love him, and I did love him as I grew and began to understand how time and circumstance can press anyone mean.
I had never been in that house alone, always people were bustling from room to room. But that day the house was empty; no one was home but no one ever locked the door, so I decided to write a note to my grandfather. For 15 minutes, I stitched together a message without a Spanish/English dictionary. As I left his house I felt proud of the note but also felt strange, having been inside alone, a feeling commensurate to wandering around a church or stadium alone.
When I called my father to brag that I had left my abuelito a note in perfect Spanish, a testimonio that would make my father proud, he informed me of my grandfather’s secret. That day, 10 years ago, I learned my grandfather was illiterate, in both English and Spanish.
How was I supposed to know? I had spent so many of my formative years around him, spent so much of my early life slamming Tonkas together while he watched baseball. Who knows anything about the people closest to them? I never thought it was strange that my grandfather never read or wrote anything. I was more surprised that after living in this country for 50 years, he still didn’t speak any English. I saw the bottom of his boots splayed beneath a jacked car more than I saw his face smile. This was normal. It was my grandmother who read to me for hours. This seemed natural. It also seemed commonplace that none of his children spoke Spanish. Not one. His children, all 10 of them, understood Spanish for the same reason police officers in the barrio speak at least snatches of Spanish, because to not understand could be dangerous.
Much of my childhood I had felt remote, stranded from a larger whole. I’m sure most of my family has felt this estrangement. They sure looked stranded as I watched them running down the street, shoes or no shoes, my grandfather chasing each of them with a machete. At one time or another in my childhood, I saw this happen to each of my aunts and uncles, my father too. Most of America has felt this estrangement. We have all been chased by the machete we call time. We call expectation. We call oppression. We call desire. So everyday we want to call in sick because everyday we get in to our cars, or on a subway, or an elevator, or an airplane, or a tank, and we can only sit a thousand miles close to someone. Our channels are specialized, devoted to what we play or want or fear, giving us 24 hours of an umbrella to shade the day. We drive-thru our lives with only a fog horn for a voice.
My father eventually became more fluent in Spanish because of summer trips to Tijuana, and because he picked lettuce in fields after high school. He used the money he earned to buy a Monte Carlo working in those fields. El carro firme, his friends said as he turned a small steering wheel made of a chrome chain with the palm of his right hand. That car got him my mother. That car got him me. He decided to trade in the car, which really upset my mother, so he could get a truck to better provide for the family. Providing made everybody happier. In two generations, the Martinez family has gone from illiterate to published author.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s family has gone from migrant worker to poet laureate of the United States in one generation. One generation. I am an adamant objector to the Horatio Alger myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, but Herrera’s story is one of epic American proportions. The heads carved into my own Mount Rushmás would be Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Frida Kahlo, El Chapulín Colorado, Selena, and Juan Felipe Herrera.
Two years ago, I asked Juan Felipe Herrera to participate in a roundtable on the state of Latin@ literature for the literary journal Gulf Coast, for which I am an editor. With generous wisdom, he recounted history and a hope for a better tomorrow, discussing subjects such as appropriation of Latin@ culture:
I think, maybe, we have reached a moment where we can no longer talk about these things as separate strands or influences or acts. It's more like a human mural in motion. Lets do this: let’s look at deep kindness and deep acts of compassion. Direct impact, into the eyes, hand-to-hand — like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in their early stages of bringing change. They knocked on doors, introduced themselves, sat with the campesinos, and began a dialogue then moved from that point. Commodification, appropriation—well, when did this all begin? Let the poem unmask this. Let our lives unmask this, moment to moment.
One of my favorite parts of the roundtable process was trading emails with Juan Felipe. His generous encouragement of my work as a poet made me feel less isolated. His kindness brought me closer to him and created a more concrete idea of Latinidad. In one conversation, Herrera recounted to me the development of his collaboration with the Mexican-American linocut artist, Artemio Rodriguez, on Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives. The book juxtaposes the traditional Mexican game lotería with the traditional images reinterpreted by Rodriguez and with the words envisioned anew by Herrera. The book stirs. One particular poem and image pair resonated with me repeatedly, “La Mano.”
The left-handed angel was punished
She was made to wash under the hand of language.
She was anonymous to the villagers.
Her braids became wings. Her face, a tattoo of two hearts,
Her spirit became Alpha. And yet,
She draws the sun, the dead-eyed orb, the Shining
One that leads us.
La Mano stands for the hand of the thief, symbolizing distrust, an inability to change true nature, and caution of one’s choices. Herrera equates La Mano with the poet. In the hands of Herrera, the trope of the tortured artist is capsized, and though the poet is punished, it is in this exile, in the use of language, that the poet leads society. Many of us are made illiterate from society by our circumstance and demeanor; as a result, some of us turn to poetry. Unfortunately, some of us face other, harsher realities, silent with few options. To remember this, on the inside of my left bicep, I have Rodriguez’s lithograph of La Mano tattooed. I have lived many lives, changing my nature many times, but I have always carried Herrera’s prescient words, even before the tattoo, even before I ever read his lines.
Narratives, the stories we tell as we propel through our own lives, are fundamental and inextricable from existence. This is why people, I include myself, fight in the name of civil rights, of all kinds. Juan Felipe Herrera is a cosmic warrior for us all, the closest kin to Walt Whitman walking.
Juan Felipe Herrera has affected many lives; I’ve asked a few friends to share their reflections on his appointment:
Rigoberto González: I believe Juan Felipe Herrera’s appointment is a timely one, particularly as we enter an election year that’s fraught with the usual anxiety and misinformation about immigration issues. Herrera is a beloved poet whose extensive body of work reminds us that the politicized world of the immigrant, and of the Mexican community within the United States in particular, also participate in shaping the rich cultural identity of American literature.
Sandra Cisneros: Poetry belongs to everybody. Poetry is most alive in places like Ferguson and places of fear. Poetry comes out from places of oppression, sometimes in alternate venues. We need somebody that thinks outside the box, and nobody thinks further out of the box than Juan Felipe Herrera. Coming from where he comes from, his poetry has to come from a beautiful place. He knows the stories. He knows the people. He knows the culture. Juan Felipe will make us proud! AJUA! It’s a great honor. He is all-inclusive. He is the number one border crosser, in many ways that is what we need in this time, a person that transcends divisions, that can move us into the new millennium. He is the vato loco laureate of the United States.
Eduardo C. Corral: Juan Felipe Herrera has enriched poetry and enlarged Latino poetry. He keeps making it new, current. As poet laureate, he’s going to amplify the presence of poetry in our lives.
Francisco Aragón: His persona embodies an exuberance that will, I predict, enrich and delight the men, women, and children he will come into contact with during his term(s).
I don’t think I speak for myself only when I say that his selection is a long overdue gesture that acknowledges artistic communities that are often overlooked by oblivious gatekeepers.
In this sense, his US poet laureateship, like no other in my view, feels, fully, like the people’s poet laureateship.
As this news sinks in, I find myself asking: what moments in recent (literary) history does this one feel akin to? These are my three:
- In 1990, early into my 10 year residence in Spain, I learned that the late Oscar Hijuelos had won the Pulitzer Prize. I immediately went to Madrid’s English language bookshop and purchased The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Reading it, I was transfixed by the way Hijuelos captured particular registers — modes of speaking — of his urban characters. They sounded like people I knew growing up. My heart swelled.
- Three years later, in 1993, what I remember most about the news accounts of Toni Morrison winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, was the tenor, not the contents, of the comments made by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I came away with, and was moved by, a deep sense that for Gates, an African-American scholar, Toni Morrison’s Nobel was one of the highlights not only of his career, but of recent African-American history. In other words, Morrison’s Nobel was something larger than herself.
- (no surprise here:) Richard Blanco’s selection as inaugural poet.
Recently, Juan Felipe shared with me, over dinner, that when he was introduced to Georgette Dorn, the long-serving chief of the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress, who’d been informed of his selection, she whispered to him:
“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time.”
Carmen Giménez Smith: JFH is one of the most important poets of his generation. His influence is long-reaching, and he’s also taught generations that a poet is also a political being. He has an amazing ear, and will be an invaluable and dynamic influence in his position as poet laureate. I’ve spoken to many people who are beside themselves about this excellent news. This is not hyperbole: JFH is going to change how the poet laureate serves the nation and all its people. I’m thrilled that this position will widen his audience. He’s a genius in heart, soul, and mind. His ear and his lexicon are beautiful and complex: un verdadero Americano.
Tim Z. Hernandez: It was 1995, and I was in a bad place. My uncle was killed by the police while unarmed, and I decided my anger needed to be released somehow, so I began writing horrible poems, bad song lyrics, and corny manifestos. I had heard about a teatro performance over in nearby Fresno so I drove out there and hung around afterward to meet the performers. There was this man, this crazy looking Chicano with a neon orange shirt and paisley pants — the first poet I had ever met in my life. In a strange, brief exchange, he pointed at me, and said, “You must be a poet!” I was painfully shy in those days and I remember chuckling nervously. I was 21 years old and had never been called that by anyone. I took his words to heart, and by the next year I was practically living on his couch. I never attended Fresno State University, where he taught at the time (didn’t have the grades), but instead sought his mentorship at his home in north Fresno. He and his family took me in, and we spoke about Lorca and Ginsberg, Dario Fo, Fellini, art, and activism late at night and early in the morning. This was my beginning. It was during this time that I decided I would become a writer and performer — a voice, at whatever the expense. And whenever I would take myself too seriously, Juan Felipe would make a suggestion along the lines of, “You should give Clown School a shot!”
Some people come along in your life and you just know they were meant to be there, to hold the lantern, to nudge you when you need it most, and to be a kind of gentle guide throughout. Juan Felipe and his wife Margarita Luna Robles have always been this for me. They have always been a team in their mentorship and leadership. If Juan Felipe’s creativity is the kite, then Margarita’s Zen is the string that keeps him tethered.
Over the past 20 years, I have seen Juan teach, perform, write, create, and embrace the community with opens arms and an open heart. What he does and the way he does it is unparalleled in its mastery. (I once saw him bring a room of at least 100 screaming children to a complete calm, long enough to have them chanting poetry in unison. I have also seen him turn a room full of politicians and corporate types into smiling, clapping, lovers of poetry.)
For those of us who have known him all these years and have had the privilege of his mentorship and friendship, it was a no-brainer that he should be selected to the post of poet laureate of the United States. There is no one more deserving of the honor, and at the same time, no one more qualified to be the ambassador of poetry, youth, and literature on that grand a scale, regardless of race or background. Long before the cameras had ever focused their lens on him, Juan Felipe Herrera has been committed to these very things since day one. Perhaps, in some small way, this is a sign of good things to come.
Brenda Cárdenas: I can think of little news in the poetry world that would make me break into dance on the spot, that would make my heart sing “Yes! Yes!” like learning that Juan Felipe Herrera had been named poet laureate of the United States. All the sweeter that I happened to be on a vacation in northern Wisconsin with friends, including the poet Mauricio Kilwein Guevara, who has also long-loved and championed Herrera’s work. We toasted and sent out so many good vibes that we almost managed to conjure Juan Felipe out of the thick pine forest to receive our abrazos.
Why so much celebration? Juan Felipe Herrera is not only one of the country’s most prolific poets, he is one of its most inventive who has been transgressing the borders between languages, genres, aesthetics, cultures, levels of consciousness, and strata of meaning since his first work emerged in the 1960s long before anybody was talking about “experimental Latino/a poetry.” No matter how you try to categorize any of his work — poetry, memoir, performance piece, children’s book, young adult novel, bilingual ekphrastic lotería deck — it will bust out of that jaula and embrace flux, fusion, or what he has called “constant transformative motion.” I’ve always connected to this vibrancy in Herrera’s work — this kinetic electricity that at times feels like the energy of the earth itself surging up through one’s toes. When I began to read his poems, I recognized something that spoke to the kind of rugged joy, the gut abandon I felt at the center of my own writing. At the time, I was surrounded by restraint, and Juan Felipe’s work gave me permission to break free. In fact, I’ll never forget when he told me I was like the Chicana Janis Joplin of poesis. And still today when I’m at my best, it’s because I allow myself to be “The wild girl with crazy real happiness / Swaying inside of me — roaring / Out of me at the blur of / Blue-blue rain on my fuzzy fancy face” from Herrera’s poem “Splattered on the Wall.”
Herrera’s life-embracing work opens into mystery and ultimately connects us through that mystery to each other. His vision invites many voices to share the cilantro and chile verde at an ever-expanding table. He is a true community poet. No matter how many books he publishes, how many awards he wins or accolades he receives, you’ll find him visiting elementary schools and mentoring younger poets — forever the flint that lights the spark. If proportions were true, his shoulders would be gargantuan and his trail of breadcrumbs infinite, for he carries so many along with him. Sure, it means a lot to me that Juan Felipe is the first Latino poet laureate of the United States, but it means even more that his immense talent is so recognized and that this poet, whose name could be the definition of kindness, takes up this torch.