Juan Felipe Herrera. Photo: Michael Elderman
When Juan Felipe Herrera started third grade in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, he spoke little English; until then, he’d followed his parents, migrant Mexican farmworkers, from crop to crop around California. He couldn’t understand anything his classmates said to him, so he made no attempt to respond. The boy thought to himself, “My tongue is a rock.” He wouldn’t speak for fear of sounding stupid.
As his vocabulary improved, his teacher, Lucille Sampson, broke through his silence by assigning Herrera to write his first poem in English. Sampson pushed him further out of his shell by asking her students to perform plays and songs. “You have a very beautiful voice,” she told him when he sang “Three Blind Mice” in front of the class. Moments like these, according to Herrera, launched the career of one of America’s most celebrated Latino poets. (Sampson still receives dedications in his books.)
“I didn’t even know I had a voice,” says Herrera in his casual California Chicano twang. He’s 60 now, and the author of more than 20 acclaimed books, including this year’s new-and-selected-poetry volume, Half the World in Light, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle award. “That’s how far away I was. I was just an observer.”
Herrera’s family moved frequently between San Francisco and San Diego when he was a kid. In 1958, at the age of 10, he shared a room in San Francisco’s Mission District with his teenage cousin Tito Quintana, whom he calls “the family beatnik.” The walls in Quintana’s room were black, save for an eyeball painted on one of them; he’d mounted the album covers from jazz records by the likes of Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader, and hung strange mobiles. Music by the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria provided the soundtrack when Quintana wasn’t pounding his own bongos. Herrera, having just found his voice in San Diego, now had the perfect place to raise it.
Herrera arrived in San Francisco between two of its more celebrated moments. The North Beach writers and their fans whom San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen had nicknamed “beatniks”—Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, et al.—would soon hand the spotlight and stereotypes to the Haight and hippies such as Stephen Levine and Janis Joplin.
“All those currents were combined: storytelling, the political moment, the ’60s, the civil rights movement, and my desire to speak, to break through,” remembers Herrera, who nowadays wears his mustache thick, his glasses round and his hair cropped and graying. “I felt locked in, locked up. I had been hurt in school because I spoke Spanish only. I was very sensitive, so it became a battle for me: the pain I was feeling about being Mexicano, Chicano, Spanish-speaking only.”
Herrera would take the number 14 bus from Mission Street to downtown and hop the cable car at Powell and Market streets to head toward Chinatown, or he’d transfer from the 14 to the 47 Van Ness and ride to the piers to net crabs. Some days he’d walk past neon signs that advertised nudie bars and sniff the beef sizzling on steakhouse grills. San Francisco stimulated the kid from all over as no place else had. And once Herrera hit high school, he added another stop to his route, and a whole new type of stimulus: City Lights Bookstore, a place he would continue to visit after he left San Francisco to get his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, and a place where he still occasionally finds himself the featured reader.
“The texture of the books, and the kind of books that City Lights carried, and then the atmosphere inside and around the bookstore, and the narrow stairway that goes down, and the 3,000 posters and handouts that you read on the walls as you go down,” Herrera recalls over the phone from Riverside, where he teaches creative writing at the University of California, when asked what he remembers of the bookstore. He consumed all the words he could get, roamed California, and started to put down some lines of his own. “I just got deeper and deeper into it. I traveled and I wrote nonstop, so it became my life,” he says of his early years as a writer and reader. “It became my entire life, so then I wanted for it not only to be my life, but I wanted to share my life with others, and listen to their stories, and create a beautiful kind of a class of poetry that circulated among all of us for the better of all. That’s how it began.”
He changed his life and changed his look. “I used to strut down Haight-Ashbury as a high-schooler with my corduroy double-pleated who-knows-what bell-bottoms and my New York East Village leather boots and my see-through lime-green East Indian traditional shirts and every bead you could think of wrapped around my hand as I thought about Jimi Hendrix’s latest album, Are You Experienced?,” he says. Still, he wasn’t just about being a hipster.
His work reflected the struggles he witnessed all around him. “I came out of the civil rights movement and also was involved in the Chicano-Latino literary political-arts movement of the ’60s and ’70s and to the present,” he says. Herrera marched for the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and ’70s and against U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1970s and ’80s—but for the most part his poems were his placards. In poetry he explored the issues of injustice, oppression, inclusion, and exclusion that fueled the rallies, debates, and conferences in which he participated. “We had a lot of concerns about questions of homeland, questions of cultural roots, reclaiming our culture, you know, questions of religious foundations,” he says. “What is a community? What are our indigenous community roots? Questions of language: What is our language? What is language? Literature: What is literature? What are all those things? We had to reevaluate. All of us did—not just Chicanos and Latinos. All people of color, the gay and lesbian movement did the same thing, the black-arts movement did the same thing, the feminist movement did the same thing, the working-class movement did the same thing: reinterpreting what we thought was real.” With his fellow Latino writers—and concurrently with so many other artistic and political movements—Herrera wrote about the struggle he witnessed. “The mere act of writing can be a way of speaking: an act of liberation, teaching, learning, sharing, crossing over from silence into being,” he says. “Writing more than ever is one of the most powerful ways to clarify and deflect misinformation and, most of all, to aid in the end of suffering of many. Writing is not activism when it is solely entertainism—as the late Harold Pinter puts it in his Nobel speech.”
In 2005, four decades after he first leafed through the work of Allen Ginsberg at City Lights and got turned on to new ideas and questions, Herrera began choosing poems for a pair of complementary, career-spanning new-and-selected collections. City Lights put out 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border in 2007, and Half of the World in Light, from the University of Arizona Press, hit shelves in July 2008.
The first book on the long literary road to these two collections was Rebozos of Love—selections from which still find their way into creative-writing and Chicano studies curricula—published in 1974. The words in the volume can confuse monolinguals, as Herrera never sticks too long to English or Spanish, preferring that third language, the version of Spanglish common in and specific to California.
“(Dawning Luz)” offers a characteristic mash-up of words and worlds: lluvia means rain, roja means red, fuente means fountain, and luz means light. When you add connotations and double entendres in two languages, you can easily end up wondering what anything means anymore. It’s an in-between world that Herrera still relishes. “I use words in those books on occasion that are directly from my childhood, and they’re ways of speaking that farmworkers, campesinos, or working-class Mexicanos or Latinos employ every day to communicate,” he says. “It’s part of our linguistic universe and not necessarily valued in officialized language classrooms, but I choose to use those words because those are the words that I know. When I read those words in the classroom in California or the Southwest or any classroom where there’s migrant students, they’re going to know those words.”
After his first book was published he often read his work publicly, and the opportunities to combine art and activism multiplied. He met the Chilean poet Fernando Alegría in San Francisco at the Sexto Sol Conference for Latino writers in 1974. Later that year, Herrera went to Mexico City for the Fifth Festival of Chicano Theater and the First Latin American Teatro Festival and then met up with Alegría in El Salvador to get further informed and inspired. “He was a great mentor,” Herrera said. He marched when he had to, but mostly he wrote.
In the late 1970s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology at UCLA, he returned to the Mission District while pursuing a master’s in the same field at Stanford. There he met Stephen Kessler, a poet studying in the university’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Kessler would translate and, in 1989, publish a bilingual edition of Akrílica, Herrera’s fourth book and the only volume he wrote entirely in Spanish. Herrera let it all hang out in the book, writing it long, to 250 pages, and experimental. Even after cutting it back to 186 pages, Herrera says, he didn’t have it in him to put it into another language. “Can you help me get this translated into good English?” he asked Kessler. “Because I’m fried, I’m fried. That’s it: I’m not about to attempt to translate this monster. You like to translate, so, if you’re open to it. . . .”
Kessler thought Herrera was wild but magnetic. In a phone interview from Santa Cruz, California, he calls Herrera’s style “heteroformalism,” a blend of tones, modes, and registers with uncommon stylistic flexibility. “I don’t see it so much in a single poem but in the range of styles and voices and moods and modes—comical, polemical, reportorial, satirical, lyrical, incantatory, introspective, collective, etc.—from one text to the next,” Kessler explains, “unlike many poets, who can only write one kind of thing over and over and over in a single signature style.” A bit overwhelmed by the task, Kessler enlisted the help of poet Sesshu Foster, who called Akrílica “rock ’n’ roll surrealism.” The Chicano poetry stalwarts Francisco X. Alarcón and Dolores Bravo and Magaly Fernandez also consulted on the project. “This may be the first book of the post-Reaganite era, an era when English-only, evasive, nonreferential poetry glutted the market,” the poet, novelist, and agitator Ishmael Reed wrote in a blurb. “Juan Felipe Herrera cares as much about people as he does landscapes. His energy is boundless. . . . He restores integrity to surrealism, an esthetic which has recently fallen on hard times.”
The book is a mix of love and war and observations and social justice.
the bodies of bright red oxygen who denounce the plague America
the gangrene the intervention the sores the pus of
bayonets in El Salvador the mothers with daughters of seven and
twenty Lenten years point at the Junta reclaiming the sleepless volcano.
—“24th & Autumn,” from Akrílica, written in 1980, “for El Salvador”
In 1988, around the time he was polishing the final text of Akrílica, Herrera left California for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, under the tutelage of Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, and Marvin Bell, Herrera began to learn craft. “Juan Felipe, you’ve got to work on simplicity,” Herrera remembers Stern saying. “You’re too complicated. You’re obscure. I recommend you work toward simplicity.”
“What do you mean, I’m obscure?” Herrera thought to himself. “I want to be more obscure next time—wait till you hear my next piece.” He tried out simplicity anyway, and his newfound ability to write more clearly and concisely led him to publish in an unexpected genre. “I discovered Stern was right,” Herrera said.
In the decade and a half since his graduation from Iowa, Herrera has written four young-adult novels and half a dozen children’s books, all in verse, in addition to putting out a collection or chapbook just about every other year. “Writing for children—a book that a child is actually going to pick up and enjoy and read and want to read again—I mean, that’s hard to do,” Herrera says of the new challenges presented to him by the genre. “You can’t use all these fancy words that as poets and adult writers we want to use. We want to have fun with the language and go against it and create new fusions of sound, words, and ideas, but most of that has to be transformed when you write for children. When we write for children, simplicity is the key, and of course the beauty is that if you can get to simplicity and provide a story that children are going to enjoy and relate to and be inspired by, a whole universe is available. But it’s tough; to this day I battle with it.” He won the Ezra Jack Keats Award for children’s literature and the Américas Award for the 1999 young-adult narrative CrashBoomLove. Drawing on his Iowa education, Herrera creates lines that tell complicated stories in language clear enough for readers of all levels. It’s mellower work than he did in the wild Akrílica years, a fact that Herrera himself notes without regret.
Though much of his recent work has been written for children, the anti-immigrant wave of the past few years—and the response to it by the Chicano community, in events such as the millions-strong marches in Los Angeles—have inspired Herrera to engage in further observation and activism. Much of the newer work in 187 Reasons—named after California’s 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187—comes in the form of unpunctuated, scarcely capitalized prose poems that Herrera calls the “Aztlán Chronicles.” In “Riverside Train West” (from volume 1, number 1), “ . . . the young chicanos ask me if I am a journalist with my notes & camera no I say just going to the city where we got a day,” he writes, describing a Metrolink ride to Los Angeles for 2006’s Day without a Mexican demonstration.
Herrera now plans on “stepping back from writing, just stepping back from the voices in my head, the voices in our heads, the agendas in our heads, the agendas in my head, what I consider to be the message.” He’ll continue teaching at UC Riverside, where he’s been since 2005, after a long stint at the California State University in Fresno. He started teaching at Fresno in 1990, the year he earned his MFA from Iowa.
With his partner in art and life, the poet Margarita Robles, he’ll continue leading “streetshops”—happenings somewhat akin to traditional writing workshops, but infused with motion, music, and multimedia. Streetshops are an attempt to get the words from the page to the people by enhancing the manner in which they’re delivered, and they’re open to whomever is open to them. But there’s less urgency for Herrera to make himself heard now. Years after finding his voice, he’s ready to step back and simply help others find theirs.
“Even though we mean well when we write, it’s an aggressive action,” he says. “It’s making a statement or delivering a product or making an incision—making an incision into society and into nature—so I want to reflect on letting things speak on their own, without having to speak for them—it is a poet’s paradox.”
Many Chicano poets have come to look up to Herrera. “For Chicanos, poetry has always been an essential form of expression,” poet Rigoberto González says. “It is our art, our declaration of perspective, but it’s also our cry of protest. Juan Felipe Herrera has the distinction of being one of these political activists who went on to build a career around his talent.” González ranks Herrera among Chicano poetry’s best, along with the recently deceased Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado, Alfred Arteaga, raúlrsalinas, Luis Omar Salinas, and Gloria Anzaldúa, and the “still marching” Lorna Dee Cervantes and Alurista. “Juan Felipe Herrera (and all those Chicano writers I just mentioned) taught me that writing is activism—not documentation.”
Herrera gives us his newest work in the final poems of Half of the World in Light: a section called “The Five Elements,” divided into “Wood,” “Fire,” Earth,” “Metal,” and “Water,” and navigating the continents, conflicts, and tragedies of days recent and long gone. His sympathy goes out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 train bombings near Madrid; his characters inhabit Afghanistan and Austin, Texas. In “Follow Różewicz,” he writes, “all these years, he utters so many things / about days gone and villages raped and / winters that lasted decades / how the women / clenched their hands and held their backs.”
Will a writer who found his voice half a century ago, nurtured it in the academy and on the street, channeled it into more than 20 books, and still has so much to say find comfort in silence for long? His tongue was once a rock, but now he speaks for multitudes.