Story by Portia Choi Photograph by Ezekiel Espanola
There is excitement in the auditorium. The first Latino to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera will be presenting soon. He is from the Central Valley, born in Fowler, Fresno County. He is the son of migrant farm workers.
The presentation was at the Simonsen Performing Arts Center at Bakersfield College on March 29, 2017.
Herrera directed his comments to the students in the audience. “I am so happy you are here. Congratulations on being here. You are the leaders, the pioneers,” said Herrera.
Herrera entertained the crowd with combination of seriousness and humor.
Herrera spoke of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers. He spoke of the threat of children being abandoned due to parents being deported.
He spoke of his recent experience in a school in Idaho. There were 95 languages spoken in the school. Some of the students were refugees. He remembered one student saying “I believe in peace; I wanna see peace.”
He entertained with names of Mexican pastries, “pan dulce” or “sweet bread.” There was conchas or shells, empanadas or turnovers and besos or kisses.
He spoke of new ideas. Herrera gave the example of E=mc2 by Einstein which changed the world perspective. There can be new ideas. He had the audience repeat “Never seen this before.” The implication that it may never been seen before, but it can be seen.
He said “maybe we can share . . . we can give our hearts to others, and maybe share the beauty. . . within us.”
There were several persons from the audience interviewed at the presentation.
A Bakersfield poet, Julie Jordan Scott said, “He has a true Central Valley Voice. He’s been here, he knows the people. He’s an insider. It’s like a little boy seeing a rock star. There’s a connection. He’s a celebrity.”
Jason Sperber is interested in poetry. It “gives people a voice in a way that other genres or media don’t,” said Sperber. One can “say things in poetry in a true and impactful way, way than in other voices.”
Agustin Bojorquez’s interview was done through a sign-language interpreter, Tom Moran. Bojorquez was inspired by where we live. “It was good to see myself as who I am, equal to other people. Feel free to interact with hearing people,” said Bojorquez. He also said that it doesn’t matter whether one is “deaf, hard of hearing, hearing or blind, it doesn’t matter as long as we are happy.”
A faculty of Bakersfield College, Terry Meier, had recently used Herrera’s poems in her class. The book was 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border by Juan Felipe Herrera. Meier had her students attend Herrera’s presentation because she wanted the students “to open their eyes and ears to poetry.”
Following are excerpts from Notes on the Assemblage by Juan Felipe Herrera.
By Juan Felipe Herrera
No somos nada y venimos de la nada
pero esa nada lo es todo si la nutres de amor
por eso venceremos
We are nothing and we come from nothing
but that nothing is everything, if you feed it with love
that is why we will triumph
We are everything hermana
Because we come from everything
Poem by Poem
By Juan Felipe Herrera
— in memory of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson Shot and killed while at church. Charleston, SC (6-18-2015), RIP
poem by poem we can end the violence
every day after
every other day
9 killed in Charleston, South Carolina
they are not 9 they
are each one
we do not know
you have a poem to offer
it is made of action — you must
search for it run
outside and give your life to it
when you find it walk it
back — blow upon it
carry it taller than the city where you live
when the blood come down
do not ask if
it is your blood it is made of
wash them stop them
From Notes on the Assemblage, copyright 2015 by Juan Felipe Herrera.