Three Questions for Juan Felipe Herrera Regarding His New Book, “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes”




JUAN FELIPE HERRERA was raised in a farm-working family in the San Joaquin Valley. A graduate of UCLA, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Stanford University, he has written 30 books (so far) in various genres. An artist and photographer, Herrera is a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. Herrera’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN USA Award. Poet Laureate of California, he lives with his family in Fresno.

Herrera’s latest endeavor is Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes published by Dial Books for Young Readers. Beautifully illustrated by award-winning artist Raúl Colón, Herrera offers a perfect and eloquent vehicle for introducing youngsters to 20 remarkable Latinos and Latinas from all walks of life, from the United States Supreme Court to academia to Hollywood to California’s farms. Every library should carry this book especially as the political environment — yet again — is inflamed by anti-immigrant sentiment.

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DANIEL OLIVAS: In your introduction to Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, you observe: “In a land of immigrants, it is an irony that Latino lives have been largely ignored.” Is this a book that you’ve been thinking about for a long time?

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: It’s a book, in a sense, threaded throughout my work during the last 45 years — as it is integral to Latin@ and Chican@ literary projects and social science endeavors as well as all grassroots research since the Civil Rights movement. That is to say, that we have always wanted a democratic awareness of all of our stories — everyone, all colors, all languages, all religions, all gender identities and orientations. To tell you the truth, I was bowled over at the lack of materials — interviews, books, research — on Latin@s that have achieved great heights. So much so, that I had to make calls and interview family members and the people themselves. It is one thing to enjoy the names and the lists of amazing people and their deeds and to hear their names in the media and holiday occasions and it is quite another thing to step into deep research and find a handful of dusty volumes and a couple of glossy biographies and autobiographies. We need writers to get to the task. And we need to walk these books to the centers of educational institutions — this is what it is all about. More books are coming out. This is good.

You offer portraits from a wide variety of heroes from all walks of life. How did you go about choosing your subjects?

The publisher and I traded our preferences quite a bit — even though, like I said, the lack of research was a major factor in the selection potential. For a book like this, you want to get personal, listen to dialogue, notice key stories and moments the people experienced, their influences, family stories, sayings, and dreams. We do the very best we can. If people’s stories are of interest to you, now is the time to have that interview, make a visit, roll some tortillas together, look at the family albums, and record what’s being said — do not wait for tomorrow. Society begins with being social. Then we share conversations and expand.

In doing your research for the book, were there any surprises?

Every Hero was a surprise. Joan Baez made me see how a skinny, nervous, brown, bullied, shy, intelligent, and political high school girl launched herself on stage against her inner No, and became the voice of a new folk song movement of social change. I became keenly aware of Dolores Huerta’s fearlessness and her superb powers of out-talking lawyers and politicos and agribusiness industrial owner-giants — fast thinker and tall, brave soul. My heart split in half when I learned of Roberto Clemente’s struggle as a puertorriqueño in the baseball world and most of all, beyond his incredible contributions to baseball, his vision for young Latin@ children and his absolute activism to feed and clothe the poor. The relationships among the women heroes is astounding, painful at times, and yet they leaped forward. Border issues, citizenship, from island to mainland, fame, struggle, moments of enlightenment, ultimate transcendence — all of this floored me. I bow to all these heroes. Thank you, gracias, I say to them every day.

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Daniel Olivas is a regular contributor to LARB.



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