By Cecilia Cackley
Juan Felipe Herrera says that “It’s been a long walk from the fields of Central California…from my mother’s songs…from my father’s stories of crossing the border.” Herrera is the nation’s first Chicano Poet Laureate, and he has big plans. He makes it clear that this is a long way from where he started as a child. “You don’t have plans when you’re a migrant” he points out. “You’re moving, you’re trying to get to the next place.”
Herrera grew up in various small California towns, moving from place to place with his parents, who were migrant farmers. He attended UCLA, where he was involved in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and later earned master’s degrees from Stanford and University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. He currently holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Creative Writing department at UC Riverside.
Herrera’s first project as Poet Laureate was announced at the National Book Festival in DC last month. It is a participatory website called “La Casa de Colores” and has several different sections. The “Familia’”section is a space for people to contribute lines, rhymes or poems, including video of signed poems in ASL. Each month will be devoted to a different theme and style, until the poem grows into an epic that Herrera says will reflect “voices from people’s hearts.”
The second section is called “Jardín” and will be a space for Herrera to share inspiration that he finds in the Library of Congress collections. It might be a print or photograph, a piece of music or film or artwork, hiding on a shelf or in a file. Herrera will write poems responding to the images and sounds, and he will invite participants to do the same.
It’s pretty clear from this project that Herrera is passionate about making poetry an art form for everyone, not just for the classroom, not just for English majors and especially not just for adults. The author of several books for young readers, Herrera has won an Ezra Jack Keats Award and several Pura Belpré Honors for his work. He recommends that young readers check out works by Gary Soto, Jorge Argueta, Fransisco X Alarcón and Alma Flor Ada, but even more strongly encourages teachers to tell their own stories to their students to encourage writing and storytelling. Herrera’s favorite story-starter is a family album shared between teacher and student—“The album” he says, “becomes the story-machine.”
When asked about the importance of poetry to children, Herrera is eloquent and poetic. Poetry “is at the heart of being a child” he says, “something that reflects exactly who they are.” While creative writing is often asked to take a back seat in the classroom due to our current testing culture, Herrera is adamant that “If we start playing with words at a young age, we’ll learn how to use language very well. People will enjoy thinking—the kind of thinking that you can’t find a formula for.” He also makes the point that poetry can be a refuge for a child going through tough times or teenagers trying to figure out their identity. Poetry, he says “gives children a place to rest, a place where it’s just me. It’s a personal surfboard where you can just go along with the waves, you’re free…you have to put your thoughts and feelings somewhere. [Poetry] balances you…you learn how to walk a tightrope.”
Books by Juan Felipe Herrera for young readers:
Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.