Juan Felipe Herrera, poet laureate of California, has been teaching courses through the American Ethnic Studies department at the UW during spring quarter. His poetry, short stories, novels, and performance art have examined the social issues experienced by Hispanic Americans throughout the United States.
“I had been plotting to bring him here for some time now,” said Professor Lauro Flores, chair of the American ethnic studies department. “I still can’t believe it that he’s here because he’s so popular.”
Herrera grew up in the San Joaquín Valley of California, and he says he was inspired by his experience as the child of migrant workers.
“I’ve always loved to write stories about people,” Herrera said. “I’ve written stories about my parents, farm workers whose stories never left the household. That brings me a lot of happiness, to talk to really good people, people who have had a tough life.”
Herrera said he owes everything to his mother, whose stories and aspirations led him to a career in storytelling. She hoped to be a dancer and actress in the 1920s, but was discouraged by her male family members who said that such careers were not suitable for women.
“My imagination was painted with my mother’s stories,” Herrera said. “I realize now that those were women’s stories. Men have their stories of journeys and traveling abroad and conquering new lands, building churches and crossing the border by themselves, jumping on a train and opening new horizons. My mother’s world was inside the house. [Her stories were] full of feeling.”
Herrera’s own ability to tell stories took many years to develop. On his first day of school in San Diego, he hesitated to speak to the other first graders.
“I started speaking Spanish, and it was English-only, so that was a problem,” Herrera said, laughing. “My introduction to school life was being spanked in front of everybody for speaking in Spanish and for being late.”
Herrera quickly learned English and became immersed in his education. He graduated from San Diego High School and then attended the University of California, Los Angeles on an Educational Opportunity Program scholarship in 1967. It was at UCLA that Herrera first became interested in public speaking.
“It was a speaking time, a speaking culture,” he said, recalling memories of students giving speeches throughout the campus. “I was always inspired by speakers. I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how to do it. I was so scared.”
To overcome his fear, Herrera joined choirs, where he was forced to use his voice. He formed theater groups with other university students and developed his public speaking skills. As he was introduced to new literature from around the world, his worldview and passion for social issues grew.
“The ’60s were a time when everybody was reading books, and they were kind of avant-garde books and radical books,” Herrera said. “Today, there’s social networking, but we didn’t have that. We had books. Books were our social network.”
After living a quiet life as an only child, Herrera says that theatre was an opportunity to share new ideas with other young people.
“[I had been] living on the periphery of cities in little trailers, never being in the middle of town,” Herrera said. “[I was] being a window shopper instead of walking inside the store. Performance, for me, was a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to be a window shopper anymore.’”
Herrera attended Stanford University for graduate school, and he became a well-regarded performer and writer. His success has continued to grow over the years; he recently won the Pura Belpré Award for his latest book, “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes.” This award is presented annually to a writer whose work celebrates Latino cultural experience.
“Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes” contains biographies of people whose contributions to society are often overlooked. Herrera said it was difficult for him to write a nonfiction book after primarily writing poetry for many years.
“I didn’t know how to do it, and it hurt, it hurt a lot,” he said. “I wanted really get into the character, and I didn’t know how to do that. It was like diving into a swimming pool and wanting to get to the bottom, but you keep on floating at the surface. I didn’t know how to get to the bottom of that character’s life.”
After a long process of uncovering information and conducting interviews, Herrera was able to assemble a collection of stories about Hispanic Americans who have made important contributions to art, politics, science, and more.
One of Herrera’s current projects is titled “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.” On his website he invites people to submit poems about unity in any style or language. The poems will be broadcast on digital billboards throughout California.
The theme of unity can be seen throughout Herrera’s life; a unity of Spanish and English characterized his education, a unity of Hispanic and American cultures inspires his work, and a desire for the unity of all people prompted his latest project.
“I’ve lived a very rich life, because I’ve had many lives in one life,” Herrera said. “The life as a farmworking child out in the open fields, life in the cities, life as an artist and poet, and life as a teacher.”
Herrera said he has enjoyed the friendly atmosphere of the UW and Seattle, and it’s clear that the professors and students have enjoyed learning from him.
“[Herrera is] a very dynamic, joyful type of person,” Flores said. “His presence here has infused students, colleagues, faculty, and the staff with a very refreshing sense of optimism and activity.”
The American ethnic studies department aims to educate students about various perspectives of life in the United States, and Herrera has certainly shared his perspective through his art and teaching.
Reach writer Katie Anastas at email@example.com. Twitter: @KatieAnastas