Juan Felipe Herrera Named California Poet Laureate

The award-winning UC Riverside poetry professor is known for chronicling the lives of Mexican Americans.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — University of California, Riverside poetry professor Juan Felipe Herrera — known for chronicling the bittersweet lives, travails and contributions of Mexican Americans — was named California Poet Laureate by Gov. Jerry Brown today. The two-year appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate.

Herrera, 63, the son of migrant farm workers, holds the Tomás Rivera Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He joined the UCR faculty in 2005.

The award-winning Chicano poet said he was touched by the honor and acknowledged the influence of Tomás Rivera, a noted Chicano author, poet and educator who served as UCR’s chancellor from 1979 until his death in 1984.

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

“I want to thank UC Riverside for such a great community of support,” Herrera said. “All the students here inspire me greatly. This award is for all the young writers who want to put kindness inside every word throughout the state, because kindness is the heart of creativity. I also want to acknowledge the great work of Tomás Rivera. He has been a leading light in the world of poetry for all the young people in the boys’ clubs, the girls’ clubs, the soccer fields and in every K-12 classroom – every young person with a pencil or a laptop or chalk and hip-hop on their minds. This is for the full and total expression of all of the people of this great state.”

Herrera said he especially wanted to thank and acknowledge UCR leaders for support, particularly Chancellor Timothy P. White; College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Dean Stephen Cullenberg; and creative writing department Chair Andrew Winer.

UCR is “extraordinarily proud of Juan Felipe Herrera, who is not only a poet but an author and writer of children’s books,” Chancellor White said. “Herrera is the epitome of living the promise of a California public education. This son of farm laborers was the first in his family to attend college. Today he is a revered, award-winning poet and writer who speaks to the young and the old through his depictions of the lives of ordinary people.”

The recognition of Herrera is well-deserved, Cullenberg said. “This is a great honor for a great poet and a wonderful teacher,” he said.

A panel of experts convened by the California Arts Council submits a list of candidates for California Poet Laureate to the governor, who makes the appointment, which is confirmed by the Senate. The position, established in 2001 by the Legislature, is intended to spread the art of poetry from classrooms to boardrooms across the state, and to inspire and educate all Californians about the poets and authors who have influenced the state.

Andrew Winer, chair of the UCR Department of Creative Writing, expressed his delight: “This honor reflects what we have had the privilege of seeing up close ever since he joined our distinguished faculty: namely, this remarkably gifted poet’s unique ability to connect—through his art and teaching—with everyone, regardless of their cultural or educational background. Here at UCR, Juan Felipe Herrera is a beloved professor and colleague. That he’s a highly-acclaimed international figure who was also recently elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets will never prevent this compassionate and generous teacher from reaching out to students on campus or beyond in the greater community.  The diversity, quality, and public visibility of his writing and teaching make him as perfect a fit for UCR and its Department of Creative Writing as he is for the position of Poet Laureate of California.  We’re all so proud of him.”

One of the goals of the poet laureate project is to introduce poetry to students who might otherwise have little exposure to the literary form.

That is a goal dear to Herrera, who, like more than half of UCR students was the first in his family to attend college.

“I did not start out to be a speaker, or a writer or much less, a poet or professor,” he recalled in a 2009 speech during the inauguration of UCR Chancellor Timothy P. White. “Quite the contrary, my beginnings were at the margins of society, where promise-stuff is elusive and rarely reaches fruition — in the fields of California, as a campesino child of farm workers. All I truly owned were simple, humble things — my father Felipe’s tellings — how in 1899 he jumped a train from Chihuahua, Mexico, at the age of 14, straight to Denver, Colorado, where he would later work tending cattle, farming crops and setting railroads. And I had my mother Lucha’s reminiscences of her journey with her eight siblings and mother, a few years after the Mexican Revolution — crossing into El Paso, Texas, then, after World War II, to San Francisco to work as a ‘salad girl’ at the St. Francis Hotel. That is all I possessed.”

The door of promise opened, he said, when he enrolled at UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology in 1972. He went on to earn a master’s degree in social anthropology from Stanford University and a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop).

Herrera told celebrants attending the inauguration ceremony that the promise is alive in UCR students.

“To truly live the promise we must fearlessly love the promise — the people. This is the heart of it all: Love for our families who have struggled in the past. Love for our coming generations so they shall rise above suffering. This kind of love must be something like Tomás Rivera’s motives for writing his poetry: a creation without boundaries, a living voice of freedom in a world of walls. In a time of walls, UCR is such a boundless and powerful poem. I see it in my students, I see it in what they do.

“UCR is verse by our students written in many alphabets of breath, cultural meters and social stanzas, lines that amble and rhyme stories of humble homes and hard work familias, narratives jeweled with radical landscapes and multi-colored registers.”

Herrera has published numerous volumes of poetry, prose, theater, children’s books and young adult novels, among them “Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems” (University of Arizona, 2008), which received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, the International Latino Award in poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has been elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, and has received the Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, and the UC Berkeley Regent’s Fellowship. Other honors include the Breadloaf Fellowship in Poetry, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Fellowship, the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Hungry Mind Award of Distinction and the Focal Award.

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