A Night with Former US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Image of Juan Felipe Herrera courtesy of Oregon State University. Link to photo license.

“What has happened to friendship? What has happened to tenderness?”

Juan Felipe Herrera has spent his life trying to answer these personal, evocative questions through his poetry.

On May 17, the Institute of Arts and Humanities hosted an experimental reading at Atkinson Hall Auditorium featuring Herrera, a renowned poet, author, and activist. Herrera is a former California State Poet Laureate and was named the first Mexican-American U.S. Poet Laureate in 2015. Herrera has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including: “Half of the World in Light,” “Laughing Out Loud, I Fly,” 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971-2007,” and “Senegal Taxi.”

His performance was made up of small, personal anecdotes that connected back to his Latinx migrant identity, to the “missing links” between his Latinx culture and heritage, and the symbols of violence that have become attached to the migrant identity within American society.

Herrera, a son of migrant farm workers from the Central Valley, grew up in the south San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan. He spoke about experiences from his childhood, his time as Poet Laureate, and everything in-between.

Herrera recounted being shamed for speaking Spanish in first grade. He described the internalization of this moment and the difficulty that he had been going through as he was trying to fit in. It was only when his third grade teacher told him, “You have a beautiful voice,” that he started his own journey of self-acceptance. He tries to share that compliment with the many people he encounters.

Herrera shared his experiences to the audience through direct participation. They echoed back questions posed by Herrera like: “What has happened to friendship?” and “What is culture?” to which Herrera would repeat, I’m just telling you my experience,” following each personal anecdote. Through the powerful tool of storytelling, Herrera flooded the room with a sense of empathy, understanding, and connection.

What was pitched as a reading became a touching, intimate performance and conversation, infused with all the humor, wisdom, and humility that Juan Felipe Herrera so beautifully emanates.

Concluding the night, Herrera read his poem “Nuevas Gardenias,” about a hopeful future for separated families, for people who embody the Latinx migrant identity, and for a unified country that embodies the themes of friendship, equality, and acceptance.

He ended with a powerful statement, “for the open borders, for you.”

Francesca Moore is a contributing writer for the Arts and Culture Section of The Triton.