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California’s first Hispanic poet laureate wants to tell our stories

(Photo/University of California, Riverside)

Juan Felipe Herrera is in Sacramento today as a judge for the California Poetry Out Loud competition. He’s had plenty to keep him busy the past few days.Last week, the award-winning author of 28 books and the Tomás Rivera endowed chair of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, was appointed the first Hispanic poet laureate of the state of California by Governor Jerry Brown.

“It means a lot,” says the 63-year-old Herrera. “I feel all our generations of California have brought me here, and I can speak for them and with them – tell their stories and histories and promote all the millions of Hispanics in California and 40 million plus in the U.S.”

As a child, the last thing Herrera thought he’d be doing as a career would be influencing the masses through words. That’s because Herrera says he didn’t like to speak.

“I really didn’t say much,” he says. “I just listened. I was very quiet. By middle school, I said to myself that it’s time I begin to speak. I joined the choir, not because I wanted to. I forced myself.”

Herrera says he was often afraid and sensitive, because his parents were migrant farmers from Mexico who were always traveling from ranch to ranch. He never stayed in one school for long. During the few times when he did muster up the courage to speak in school, he says they punished him for speaking Spanish.

“I carry these stories with me,” says Herrera. “This is a time to honor everyone – all the people of the state – through poetry and creativity. This time I’ll have more support.”

He says times were tough when he was growing up in the 1960’s, and he spent a lot of time filming it. Students wanted more Latino teachers and resources, and things haven’t changed that much.

“It’s tougher now, because there are guns in school,” he says. “A lot of work to be done. As a poet/writer, I want to assist those young people the best that I can. There are many groups and organizations I can work with to assist children and families. I want to call on them to assist me, because I can’t do it all myself.”

Herrera says he was one of approximately 60 Chicano students accepted into UCLA in 1967.

“I received a four-year scholarship, and I had a cardboard box as a suitcase,” says Herrera who studied social anthropology. “There was something I liked about books. I liked to hang out at the library. It was my entertainment center. I had a lot of time to think, scribble, and draw. Otherwise, I’d be on the street. I didn’t have anything else.”

Herrera didn’t know what he was going to do with his anthropology degree, but he says he’s never been much of a planner. He just believes in doing the best he can either as a teacher, friend, writer or poet.

“My biggest accomplishment is to be as kind as I can every day,” he says. “This new title may be the biggest in terms of medals/certificates, but something that comes from me is the kindness I can give others. I didn’t get here by myself. All the artists in California, the governor’s office, my parents, my office, they’re all rooting for me.”

He says he is inspired by so many things – from children to animals to trees.

“Students that are not doing well,” he says. “They inspire me, because I know they don’t have any food at home, and there are homeless children going to school. I feel a lot for them. They inspire me to be stronger and to be more dedicated. They show me there is more that I need to do than what I think I want to do. I have to reach out to them.”