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Professor Juan Felipe Herrera, Son Of Migrant Farmworkers, To Become Nation’s First Latino Poet Laureate

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A son of two migrant farmworkers will become the next United States poet laureate, the Library of Congress announced today.

Juan Felipe Herrera, a UC Riverside professor who also served as poet laureate of California from 2012 to 2014, will become the first-ever Latino to fill the position.

From the Huffington Post:

For his term, Herrera is envisioning a program with the Library of Congress that he calls Casa de Colores — House of Colors — to include people of every color and cultural background. He may host voice ensembles with young people to engage with poetry, perhaps taking a poem by Walt Whitman and then having a group write a poem together to perform in spoken word or with music. Or perhaps the public could contribute to a national writing project by making submissions online.

“Yes, I am the first Latino poet laureate in the United States. But I’m also here for everyone and from everyone. My voice is made by everyone’s voices,” Herrera said.

At the same time, he said, he also wants to encourage more young Latino students to write and read and benefit from the Library of Congress’ resources.

“You know, we speak about understanding each other, having those conversations nationwide — culturally, historically — and yet there’s a lot of gaps,” he said. “So I want to assist with closing the gap of knowing about and hearing about our Latino communities in terms of literature, in terms of writing.

“And I want our young Latinos and Latinas to write their hearts out and express their hearts out and let us all listen to each other.”

The New York Times notes the significance of Herrera’s appointment as the country debates immigration reform going into the next Presidential election.

A US-born son of migrants, immigration and growing up biculturally have long been topics in Herrera’s writings, with Herrera having “spent his early years living in tents and trailers in farm communities around Southern California.”

Herrera has described himself as a “political poet,” in 2011 penning a poem titled, “Everyday We Get More Illegal”:

Yesterday homeless &

w/o papers Alberto

left for Denver a Greyhound bus he said

where they don’t check you.

Herrera’s father learned English “by paying fellow workers pennies to teach him each new word.” Herrera’s own shyness resulting from also knowing little English would cause him to “shut down” in school.

But Herrera overcame this shyness by joining school choirs, and after graduating from UCLA thanks to a Educational Opportunity Program scholarship, also earned graduate degrees from Stanford and the University of Iowa, and became a creative writing professor at UC Riverside.

“I’m here to encourage others to speak,” Herrera said. “To speak out and speak up and write with their voices and their family stories and their sense of humor and their deep concerns and their way of speaking their own languages. I want to encourage people to do that with this amazing medium called poetry.”

“My mother would be so happy,” Herrera said when asked how his immigrant mother would’ve reacted to the news of his appointment. “She’d be clapping. Maybe crying. And dancing.”