When they weren’t erupting in laughter over the analogies made by Juan Felipe Herrera, the several hundred youth crowded in the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State for the 45th annual Chicano/a Youth Conference got the point for the importance of higher education from the U.S. poet laureate emeritus.
Herrera was the keynote speaker for the event Saturday. Nearly 500 middle and high school students, and their parents – from as far north as Stanislaus County and as far south as Bakersfield – were on campus to hear the 69-year-old Herrera, and to take part in numerous workshops ranging from information on DACA to children’s rights.
The aim of the entire conference hopes to encourage the pursuit of higher education.
“This is how it happens: How am I going to bring about change? This is how you do it. You’ve come together; different communities, different experiences,” Herrera explained.
Herrera, born in Fowler to migrant farmworkers María Luz Quintana and Felipe Emilio Herrera, related well speaking in both Spanish and English, and with plenty of well-received comical gestures not unlike the approach of George López and Paul Rodríguez. He also served as California’s poet laureate in 2012.
Because of his parents following the work, Herrera, also a cartoonist and musician, attended many schools while living in trailers and temporary housing (shacks) for migrant workers prior to his 1967 graduation from San Diego High School.
“Un mano for the pan dulce! (An applause for the Mexican pastries!) You’re not going to respect the borders from where you come, you’re going to come together like the way you are right now,” said Juan Felipe Herrera, also a former professor at Fresno State and UC Riverside.
Herrera’s résumé includes degrees from UCLA (1972), Stanford (1980) and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (1990). In 2016, he was presented with an honorable doctorate from Oregon State.
“So another mano for coming together today.”
Audience members were treated to pan mexicano (Mexican pastries) at the rear of the auditorium after his presentation and before the Mexican dance and rally during the conference.
“I thought he was funny and got his point across. Engineering, I would like to work with something like the high speed train, rail,” said Richard Armenta, a Livingston student who attended the conference with his mother. After the conference, the Armentas were going to dinner and a movie at Maya Cinemas on campus. Armenta said when he was in fourth grade in Stockton, his parents worked in fields.
“Our young people are facing many challenges; economic challenges, the hard labor that the parents do, and then again, the racism that flows through our nation given who we are; mexicano, with papers or without papers,” said Herrera, who now lives in Fresno.
“I want to give them a moment where they can express a positive moment. I’m so glad to see them. They’re so full of life. I’m here to support them.”
Herrera makes at least 60 to 90 presentations throughout the nation per year.