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Son of farmworkers is poet laureate

Vida En El Valle

(Published Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 09:29AM)

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"That's kind of the deeper key to what I want to do; open the borders between people."

-- Juan Felipe Herrera

Ever since Ina Donna Coolbrith was appointed California's poet laureate on June 30, 1915, no Latino has ever held the title.

Leave it to Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of migrant farmworkers from México, to make history.

Herrera, 63, was appointed state poet laureate last week by Gov. Brown.

"This is a great honor for me and my family," said Herrera, a former professor at California State University, Fresno and currently the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

"I want to thank all those who have inspired me at Fresno State, UC Riverside, the beautiful valleys and deserts of San Joaquín and Coachella and Salinas and Imperial, where I have visited many schools, families and farmworkers, like my parents."

Herrera was chair of Fresno State's Chicano and Latin American Department from 1990 to 2004 before leaving to UC Riverside. He has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, prose, plays, children's books and young adult novels.

To the state's 13 million Latinos, Herrera issued a challenge: "38 million Californians strong; each one a poem. ¡Viva California poética! Now's the time."

Herrera grew up in Fowler and earned his bachelor's degree from UCLA. He obtained his master's in social anthropology from Stanford and a master's of fine arts from the University of Iowa.

Herrera's appointment, which must still be confirmed by the state Senate, was welcomed by many.

Fresno State President Dr. John D. Welty called Herrera's appointment "both recognition of his accomplishments and inspiration for Latino writers everywhere."

Dr. Víctor Torres, current chair of Fresno State's Chicano and Latin American Studies department, called Herrera a mentor.

"Juan Felipe deserves all the accolades that come his way," said Torres. "He was the department's most popular professor because of his uncanny ability to nurture and expose the creativity within his students -- creativity the students themselves did not think they possessed."

Dr. Luz González, dean of Fresno State's College of Social Sciences, applauded the appointment.

"We consider Juan Felipe to be one of the most brilliant poets, writers and teachers of our time," said González. "He developed a strong following of students hungry for Chicano/Latino literature and theater.

"Professor Herrera taught from the heart and, in doing so, he earned the respect and admiration of his students and colleagues."

Alex Espinoza, an assistant professor of English at Fresno State, notes Herrera's appointment as special.

"As the first Chicano poet laureate of the state, his appointment legitimizes our collective experiences and shows that our stories have the capacity to be not just Chicano/a stories, but California stories through and through."

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