Valley Voices

‘Immigrant’ is too painful a term; I prefer ‘pioneer’

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera gets a hug from a girl who helped read one of his poems at the conclusion of the inaugural LitHop.
U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera gets a hug from a girl who helped read one of his poems at the conclusion of the inaugural LitHop.

Attending elementary school with a diverse group of children became one of the fundamental blessings of my life. Kindergarten through sixth grade, my classmates came from a variety of backgrounds: Japanese, black, Hispanic, Chinese, and various Anglo-Saxon iterations, some landing in our classrooms by way of Indiana or Oklahoma.

The civil rights movement may have been in full swing, just as Cesar Chavez was finding his way into the agricultural fields of California, but all I could see were my bright-eyed friends: Kathy, Corean, Ruth, Calvin, Trina, Ken, and Cindy.

I was the blended farm girl: Armenian and French. Midnight Blue in the vast crayon box – or maybe Burnt Sienna. Our differences didn’t matter.

By today’s standards, my Canadian mother would have been considered an immigrant, although the label has always seemed less pungent – almost invisible – when applied to our neighbors to the north. Back then, her entry into California happened within the softer side of a double standard.

Arriving as a fair-skinned nurse with a charming accent who was recruited to work at a local hospital, she never felt unwelcome. She settled into American culture, learning about my father’s Armenian heritage along the way.

If my mother suffered any sense of displacement, it was that she had landed in a frustrating topography of heat and dust. No matter how much Pledge she used, there was always a faint layer of vineyard dirt on our living room furniture.

Selma was a very small town back then, less than one-third its current size. Looking over our backyard tetherball pole and across the neighbors’ fields, I could see the edge of town about a mile away.

Valley View Street served as the southern border between city and country, the edge of a neighborhood that populated my school. Hope took root in small wooden houses where lack of money didn’t mean lack of pride.

Prickly cacti lined the flower beds and perfectly manicured lawns graced the yards. A few blocks away, Sal’s Restaurant stood as a beacon of success, the American Dream.

Not until I was enrolled in a centrally located junior high school did I understand that affluence lived on the other side of town. The children from those families would eventually become my friends, too.

But before then, my life included a best friend Ruth. She lived with her papi and mami, the grandparents who looked after her in another modest neighborhood. I didn’t get it, but I smiled every time they called her “Cookie.”

My father would drop me off at their tiny home shaded by giant mulberry trees. Every doily and knick-knack had its perfect place, not one thing out of order. In the kitchen, the scent of Saturday morning breakfast – nopales and eggsoften lingered.

Ruth and I would walk across the railroad tracks into downtown Selma and spend the afternoon browsing the dime store before enjoying a 10-cent Coke at the drug store fountain.

In the late 1960s, the word “Hispanic” wasn’t commonly used. I couldn’t bring myself to describe my friend as “Mexican,” my lips frozen by someone else’s slur. Instead, I took to identifying her as Spanish, which was a half-truth. I played the same verbal gymnastics on myself, identifying as French instead of Canadian.

Those memories were not far from my mind a couple of months ago when I attended Fresno’s first LitHop. United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera served as keynote speaker for the literary celebration.

A native of Fowler, Herrera gifted a packed auditorium with the pulse of a provocateur and the showmanship of a comedian. This wouldn’t be a stuffy poetry reading. The audience returned the love.

Herrera’s presentation was entertaining and thought-provoking. As I listened to his anecdotes, a particular play of words caught my ear – a subtle echo, deep and knowing.

I couldn’t help but share my observation as I reached the book-signing table later that evening. I handed over one of his book of poems.

“I noticed you used the word ‘pioneer’ instead of ‘immigrant’ as you spoke tonight.”

True wordsmiths are intentional with their words. Herrera is a true wordsmith. Still, I had to be sure.

The poet nodded his head in affirmation, embellishing his signature with what looked like a bristled heart.

“The other words are too loaded and painful,” he said.

(Pioneers, yes. We’re all pioneers.)

“Let’s go with that.”

Danielle R. Shapazian is a nurse and writer who lives in Fresno. She can be reached at