Poets were thicker than blood at the reception for U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera at the Guadalupe Gallery Tuesday night (see Sunday’s article). And the blood that runs through the veins of the various poets laureate in attendance runs deep with Chicano culture.
Rosemary Catacalos (2013 Texas Poet Laureate), Carmen Tafolla (San Antonio’s inaugural Poet Laureate and current State Poet Laureate), and Laurie Ann Guerrero (current Poet Laureate of San Antonio and 2016 Poet Laureate of Texas) all have Hispanic roots. Herrera himself was born to immigrants from Mexico in 1948.
The reception was only prelude to Herrera’s appearance at noon Wednesday at Palo Alto College for Heritage Month. He spoke to 175 students and poetry lovers in the Ozuna Legacy Room of his roots and education.
“I felt like I was the only Chicano at UCLA; there were only about 60 of us. I grew up an only child of a campesino. I arrived at UCLA with a box tied with big piece of rope. That was my suitcase. Every day I was lost,” he said.
There were many in the audience who are the first in their family to attend college. Herrera offered advice for the new student of today.
“I recommend you read Taking Hold by Francisco Jiménez. It will tell you how to make it through a university,” he said.
Herrera encouraged everyone to write, to find their own style.
“Poems are very direct,” he said. “I want you to write just the way you speak. If you want to add some Salsitas, I want you to add some Salsitas.
“I am here to let you know that everyone here has a beautiful voice,” he said. “I want you to feel the beautiful reality.”
His poems have more than a little sauce. “I like to write in taquerias,” he said.
Half of the World in Light, released in 2008, contains a sampling of Herrera’s work from the ’60s to the present.
“It covers so many years,” he said. “One of the first poems I wrote was, ‘Let us gather in a flourishing way.’”
He recited and translated lines from this poem:
“…where we toil siempre / in the garden of our struggle and joy / let us offer our hearts…”
“That’s the style of the poetry we were used to,” he said.
Herrera suggests exposing oneself to as many cultures as possible.
“I remember checking out 15 books and would go to our little Chicano Animal House,” he said. “We stayed up all night and talked and read.”
Part of his persona is his involvement in activism. Herrera spoke of the atrocities of Ayotzinapa. Dozens of protesters were detained by police in Mexico in 2014. They were never seen alive again. He read from a poem in his new book, Notes on the Assemblage.
“From Ayotzinapa we were headed to Iguala to say to the mayor that we wanted funds for our rural school for teachers,” Herrera recited. “We are not disposable.”
Herrera believes no one is disposable. No one should be invisible.
“We cannot grow in a closed, locked room,” he said. “We need to express ourselves in visible spaces.”
The poet invited the audience to participate in a reading of “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border” from the book of the same title.
“I want you to shout ‘Because’ after every line,” Herrera requested. The group was happy to oblige. Herrera didn’t give 187 reasons Mexicans cannot cross the border, but he gave enough to get a flavor.
Because “multiplication is our favorite sport”
Because “someone made our IDs out of corn”
Because “we’re still running from La Migra”
Because “we’ll dig a tunnel to Seattle”
Because “Mexico needs us to keep the peso from sinking”
Because “the depression of the ’30s was our fault”
Because “we shoulda learn from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882”
Because “we shoulda listened to the Federal Immigration Laws of 1917, ’21, ’24, and ’30”
Because “Operation Wetback took care of us in the ‘50s”
Because “you can’t deport 12 million migrants in a Greyhound bus”
The audience howled with laughter.
Herrera was asked how he knows when a poem is finished.
“Sometimes, I like to make a tortilla and eat it right now,” he said. “Other times, it doesn’t come out right and I have to add more masa or make it rounder. Poetry is like that.”
Experimental movement, experimental thought is necessary to work through a problem.
“Sometimes something happens to us and we can’t figure it out,” he said. “Just jump cultures. Jump the border. Forget about logic. Just put things and pieces together. We use our bodies and minds to develop new ideas.”
He advised the crowd to resist worrying about finding inspiration to write.
“It’s O.K. to write about the same thing,” he said. “But you can write about things that are easier.”
One of his projects as U.S. Poet Laureate is La Casa de Colores.
“We are invited to open the door of La Casa de Colores,” he said. “Poetry tackles paradox. We must use new thoughts and ideas to solve old problems. Our communities need you to solve the problems that face us.”
*Top image: U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera presented poetry and advice at Palo Alto College’s Heritage Month. Photo by Don Mathis.