Chicano identity and border crossings with the US Poet Laureate

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IMG_0488 (1)Although Juan Felipe Herrera doesn’t want to be known solely for being the first Chicano U.S. Poet Laureate, his Mexican-American heritage does play a major role in his poetry. His latest collection of poetry, called “Notes on the Assemblage,” tackles subjects like cultural identity, border crossings and immigrant farmworker rights.

Next weekend he’ll receive the 2015 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

KCRW spoke with Herrera when he stopped in Santa Barbara earlier this year. 

KCRW: Santa Barbara is made up of about 30 percent Mexican-Americans. It’s a town which can feel divided at times. How does a place like this factor into some of the work you’ve done in your writing?

Herrera: We need to work that out. We need to work through those divisions and agreements that make us feel comfortable to be on one side, and not on the other side. We need to work on it every day. It’s really easy. We can say, “Hey, how are you? Como Estas? What’s new? Can I help you? I’ll help you translate.” They don’t have to be big, revolutionary acts. Most likely, the personal gesture is going to be the most effective to begin to push and stretch and perforate those differences.

How does poetry fit into this conversation? How does a poet address tensions like these?

It is a heightened position, and that’s interesting. I talk with parents. I talk with children. I had a child come up at the end of my reading at Cal State LA. His name was Keenan. I said “what are you writing about?” He said “I’m writing about the children that are left behind by parents that are being deported.” The whole audience just froze and cried and trembled and I said “Thank you so much,” and everybody applauded. That was it, and then he stepped down. That’s where I’m at.

There’s a line in one of your poems, Border Bus, that leapt out at me. Two women are talking to each other on a border bus that has been detained:

“I don’t want to talk about it just tell them

That you came from nowhere

I came from nowhere

And we crossed the border from nowhere

And now you and me and everybody else here is

On a bus to nowhere you got it?”

Can you talk about this passage?

It was very important to me that we hear those conversations and know about those events, even though I’m the one who put those conversations together. I’ve been on buses that have migrant workers huddled up with a beat up cloth in the cold, inside the bus, heading hundreds of miles to a job. I know that job is going to pay pennies and I know they’re facing many dangers. Many of them are women, and they’re alone, and they have maybe, at best, $20 or $30 in their bag, and that’s it. That’s totally it. I want to bring their voice out and their experience out.

That line – “tell them you come from nowhere” – it seems so charged to me. Where did that language come from, and why would you use it right there?

I like that word, “nowhere.” I also like the concept of coming from nowhere. I like to talk about the notion of a people that’s constantly being in the realm of erasure. We come from nowhere because there’s nothing back there. There’s no money, there’s no resources. It’s our land and it’s torn apart. It has no value. No one has given it value, even though we give it a lot of value. Now we’re crossing into a new land that we want to prosper just a tad, and maybe we’ll return, or maybe we’ll remain in between. So, being nowhere also makes sense, when you never really have a place.

Hear Herrera read one of his poems, “Poem by Poem,” in Spanish: