Juan Felipe Herrera marked his first official reading as the U.S. poet laureate with a strong message of justice and human rights – and a nod to his third-grade teacher in Fresno – Tuesday night at the Library of Congress.
Herrera, the son of migrant farmworkers who was born in Fowler and lives in Fresno, is the nation’s first Latino poet laureate consultant in poetry.
It was an emotional night for the audience of more than 300. They listened to Herrera’s expressive poetry readings about exiles, civil rights, immigration and unity. The highlight of the night, though, was the “corrido,” performed with Juan Díes from the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, about the death of Sandra Bland.
The distinctive Mexican ballad style told the story of Bland, who was found dead in her cell in a Texas jail in July, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop; protests erupted over her treatment. Officials say her death was a suicide.
Díes led a Tuesday afternoon library workshop where participants developed the tragic ballad together. He sang the final product in Spanish and Herrera translated. The evening served as the kickoff event for the Library’s Hispanic Heritage month celebration and a reminder of the value of poetry.
“Juan Felipe Herrera will add to the ways we can enjoy and champion poetry throughout this country,” said Librarian of Congress James Billington. “Herrera is an American original.”
When you use your own voice, freely, then we’re all united.
Juan Felipe Herrera, U.S. poet laureate
Herrera spoke humbly of his career and new role, giving credit for his success to his third-grade teacherat Lowell Elementary School, Lucille Sampson, who first told him he had a beautiful voice.
“It was your words that made it all happen for me,” Herrera told his teacher, who was in the audience.
He urged everyone to find their voice, something that is essential to his official laureateship project, La Casa de Colores or The House of Colors, which Billington said will launch in the next few days on the Library of Congress’ poetry webpage. The project calls on people nationwide to contribute to an “epic poem” about the American experience.
“When we say poetry, it’s really the vision of all voices,” Herrera said. “It’s freedom. … When you use your own voice, freely, then we’re all united.”
Monthly, Herrera will unveil part of the poem, titled “La Familia,” each part focused on different themes of American life, values or culture.
Herrera served as California’s poet laureate from 2012-15, until his nomination in June to become the nation’s 21st poet laureate. He is the second U.S. poet laureate from Fresno in the last five years, following Philip Levine, who served from 2011-12.
The 66-year-old poet is the author of 28 books of poetry and has published 11 books for young adults and collections for children. He is also a National Book Award and Guggenheim Fellowship winner.
Recalling his life’s path, struggling with English as a third-grader to making it to the Library of Congress to read his poems, Herrera urged the audience in his last poem to “imagine what you could do.”