Talks borders, challenges and lifting up one’s voice

As the twice-seated U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera admits he often walks a fine diplomatic line between not naming names and bridging political and cultural gaps, especially in today’s unique climate.

His aim, he says, is to help bring back joy in a time of division.

“Writing represents a new challenge,” he said during an interview March 1 at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “We have this group over there, and this group over here – so how do we bring them together? Do we just go with this group over this group? There are human beings on both sides.’’

Herrera, the official poet for the United States and the first Latino to be appointed to the position, is visiting UTRGV this week as the headliner for the university’s annual FESTIBA (Festival of International Books and Arts).

What he has learned this year about his role as the national poet laureate, he said, is that he now has to be even more inclusive in his writing and focus even more on bringing unity to all races and cultures. His work has always been about “otherness” and identity, he admits, but recent changes in the country have brought about the need for change and adaptation in his work. It is a challenge, he said.

“Every minute, we are affected by what is going on, because of who we are,” Herrera said. “This is a big change. Things have become so polarized;­ for example, Black Lives Matter and the police, or weaponization vs community, or, in terms of class, where there are big pyramids of money in one corner, with a few people having that wealth, and the rest not having anything. We have those big contradictions.”

Herrera’s determination to give voice to his social conscience stretches across decades. His poems have brought a voice to immigration issues, the struggles of migrant farmworkers, and to the July 2016 shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers. As a way to heal, and to celebrate the lives of those lost and their families, he wrote “@ the Crossroads - A Sudden American Poem.” His challenge was to not dwell on tragedy, but rather, to celebrate life on both sides of the pain.

“So what can I do to bridge that gap between people? How are we going to find joy and suffering? That was a big challenge. Everyone was weeping, because you have to mourn. But where is the joy in that? Can we ever find the joy in these situations? That is when I said I was going to write the piece ‘@ the Crossroads: A Sudden American Poem.’”

INSPIRING YOUNG MINDS

Herrera is an affable, charismatic man with a pivotal ability to connect with his audience, whether he is interacting one-on-one or addressing a potentially tough crowd, like high school seniors.

His high-energy delivery – and his ability to code switch in English and Spanish – reached out and hooked his young audience on Tuesday at UTRGV, about 400 Valley GEAR UP students who easily related to his personal stories about his farmworker abuelos and his parents. He allowed students into his life with admissions of his own insecurities and his own struggles to find his voice.

On his first day of first grade, he told them, he was silenced with a spanking for being late to class, and for speaking Spanish to his teacher. He was mortified.

“That is how I began school. I began by crying. Imagine that. Que feo (how ugly),” he said.

Throughout his presentation he asked students to recite mantras, and his poems, along with him – poems like “Ayotzinapa” and “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way.” They did so loudly and with spirit, and he said he hoped to get them motivated and inspired to one day write their own stories.

“Gear up with my voice,” the students chanted along with Herrera. “Gear up with my new thoughts. Gear up with my writings.”

CROSSING BORDERS

Herrera, who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, knows more than a little about borders.

His mother and father crossed borders to get to America – a story familiar to many in the Valley audience and especially poignant today, with immigration at the center of the national political agenda. As the U.S. poet laureate – he was appointed by the Library of Congress – Herrera said he remains non-partisan when it comes to the hot issues; still, he said, he knows what it’s like to grow up on a border.

“I grew up with the ‘border machine,’ living in little ranches. And I remember, at the age of 5, I’m with my friends on that little plot of land owned by mexicanos who didn’t have papers. So, one little sweet day, the green van came and pulled them out of their little houses … and there go my little friends and that family, into that van, never to be seen again. And we had to move. Since I was a child, I have seen that,” he said.

Herrera said it is hard to avoid answering questions about immigration and the border wall, so he makes sure not to mention specific names of officials. Anyway, he said, his feelings can be found in his poetry and in his books for children.

He has written more than 30 books and he currently is writing another with the draft title, “America, Stop Deporting Us,” he said.

“So all this discussion and rhetoric about the wall and illegal ‘aliens,’ it always leaves a thorn in my side.

“I look for ways of encouraging people and writing about ways to get beyond thinking about those things, and to consider a larger horizon – without borders,” he said.