Juan Felipe Herrera: How his Poetry forces us to Confront Society and its Paradoxes

“Life is infinite but our existence is finite, so we have to meet up with that paradox. It's literally - walking freely - speaking with others - listening to others - enjoying this amazing incredible thing called life and there's conflict in it and we need to walk right through it and respond to it.” Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Mexican American appointed as the 21st United States Poet Laureate. Herrera grew up in California as the son to migrant farm-workers.

His childhood as the son of Mexican immigrants strongly shaped much of his work and he began loving poetry by singing about the Mexican Revolution with his mother.

He has spent his life crossing borders, erasing boundaries and expanding the many voices that illuminate our larger American identity.

Herrera was educated at UCLA and Stanford University. In addition to publishing more than a dozen collections of poetry, Herrera has written short stories, young adult novels, and children's literature.

Emy diGrappa (00:09):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences, and use stories to explore culture, history and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwy.org.

Juan Felipe Herrera (00:27):

By the time I hit high school, then I put that worry and stress in those early days on paper, and it became poetry.

Emy diGrappa (00:46):

Hello. I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question, “Why?”. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why.

                 Today we are talking to Juan Felipe Herrera. Juan Felipe is the United States Poet Laureate. He is a poet, performer, writer, cartoonist, teacher and activist. Welcome Juan.

Juan Felipe Herrera (01:43):

Well, thank you very much. It's a, it's a great pleasure.

Emy diGrappa (01:45):

It's such a great pleasure to have here. One of my first questions because you are the son of farm workers, and it says in your biography that you lived from crop to crop and from tractor to trailer to tents, and on the roads of the San Joaquin Valley and the Salinas Valley. Tell me what that was like growing up.

Juan Felipe Herrera (02:05):

It's kind of a magical world in some ways for a child, because you have, I had the open sky, I had a lot of movement, being in my father's interesting army truck from the '40s, which is a giant truck, and very cozy in that manner. And it's also meeting friends and making new friends, the night, the infinite big night, and the storytelling. Seeing my mother heal women. Being out there in the blistering sun, playing with ants, chickens and planting crops.

                 So it's all those things and this swirl of life activity of the migrant farm worker like my parents. As a child it was extremely exhilarating, free, and a lot of happiness and a lot of movement. At times a lot of anxiety now that I remember, because then my father would have to leave and then I didn't know where he was and my mother was worried, so then I lived in a worried household at times. And then things changed again and got better, and then they went back. So it has all those qualities in it. A lot of freedom, a lot of hard work, anxiety and exhilaration.

Emy diGrappa (03:13):

And what or who influenced your life to go on to school and get out of working as a migrant farm worker, because I understand that's a cycle that continues in those families. What influenced you?

Juan Felipe Herrera (03:26):

Well, a lot of things. I think it was the choices my parents made. My father decided one day to go to the city. He says, “Let's go to San Diego,” and my mother said, “That's a good thing to go to San Diego. Juanito has to get on with school. We just can't be trailing up and down.”

                 And then my father said, “Well, let's go to San Diego where they have the best climate in the world.” Everything had “in the world” after it, or “the best in the world” after it. “Let's go to Ramona, uh, top of the mountian, uh, near San Diego, East of San Diego.” “Why are we going there?” “Because it has the best water in the world.” So then we would move because it was the best water in the world, or the best climate in the world.

                 So that was part of my, uh, uh, taking root in a city with, uh, with schools in a barrio, Logan Heights Barrio, which had, which was a segregated community. I just found that out recently. I was talking with my friend Jose Talamantes from San Diego, same, uh, barrio. I said, "Jose, I don't know how my father found that barrio. I mean, you know, how did he always know where to go? And uh, 'cause I had never been there, so he must have found it on his own. How did he select it?" She goes, “Well Felipe, don't you know that in the '50s Logan Heights was a segregated community.” I go, “No, I never thought about that.” So it was like that.

                 Most of all my mother's constant conversation with me. I never had a moment with her where she was silent and I was silent. There was, that never really did happen maybe until when I was an adult and I was reading or writing myself into the ground and she was just, you know, around the house here and there. But she was always saying, telling me her stories, telling me riddles, asking me to figure out the riddles, playing word games, uh, just talking about her own life as a young woman and the women in the family, their life. So I was, I was, I grew up in a lot of conversation and storytelling and jokes and rhymes. So I lived in a, in a household, a trailer, in a trailer of, of literature. So I think, uh, it's my mother who really made it all happen for me.

Emy diGrappa (05:41):

That is wonderful. That is so wonderful to hear that. And tell me also, besides your mother, how many brothers and sisters did you have?

Juan Felipe Herrera (05:53):

Well you know, that's a good question. My father had a earlier family.

Emy diGrappa (05:57):


Juan Felipe Herrera (05:58):

And then we had our family, and uh, in my tight little family it was only me.

Emy diGrappa (06:04):

Oh, I see.

Juan Felipe Herrera (06:04):

So I'm an only child and uh, and I was born when my father was 66. So, so the household was very unique.

Emy diGrappa (06:15):


Juan Felipe Herrera (06:15):

You know, uh, life was a little, was a little more mellow, because both of my parents, they weren't really loud people. Uh, they really weren't. So now that they were older in, in their years-

Emy diGrappa (06:31):


Juan Felipe Herrera (06:31):

... it was even more quiet. It was even more quiet. And the lifestyle was also a very gentle lifestyle. So I grew up in a gentle, quiet, um, a gentle, quiet life with uh, incredible transitions.

Emy diGrappa (06:48):

So that must have been part of your experience in... You, it sounds like you kind of grew up in more of an adult world-

Juan Felipe Herrera (06:59):


Emy diGrappa (06:59):

... as an only child and then had that opportunity to go on to school, which is excellent.

Juan Felipe Herrera (07:06):

You, you're right. I, I, I've thought about that a couple of times, and I say a couple of times because for a long time I, I was unaware of it, that I had grown up as (laughs) as an adult since I was like five years old. I used to worry a lot. I used to worry about my mother, what she was eating, and what she should eat. And if she looked a little sad, what was going on with her, and where's my father and what are we going to do next. As a four year old, as a five year old, I was worrying and worrying and worrying and stressed out and stressed out. And that could have, it could have, it could have been, it could have been better, but that's the way it was.

Emy diGrappa (07:49):


Juan Felipe Herrera (07:49):

As time went by, by the time I hit high school, then I put that worry and stress in those early days on paper, and it became poetry. And I, I tore it out of myself in a way because I could, I could feel all this internal combustion. And I said, “I have to do something. I just can't stand it. I can't stand, um, being smoldering and being afraid to speak and having all these anxieties. They're kind of, they're eating, they're eating me up.”

                 So that's when I joined choir. I didn't want to be in it, but I thought choir was the answer because I was going to be asked to just break out of myself like it or not and sing like it or not. And I wasn't aware that I was going to be singing on a stage. I just knew that I was going to be asked, I was going to be asked to sing, and there was no way out of it because that was what the class was about. That's what choir was about. But I had never thought... It sounds easy but I just didn't think that it would involve being on a stage. I knew it was going to be in a room, but it just didn't occur to me that I was going to be on a stage with curtains opening looking at an audience besides my, uh, you know, my choir friends and singers. And that's what it turned out to be. I kind of started practicing being a poet, uh, for the people way back in 8th grade.

Emy diGrappa (09:17):

At that time, huh?

Juan Felipe Herrera (09:17):


Emy diGrappa (09:18):

That, (laughs) that's amazing. I love that story. So it just came out, it came out of your soul.

Juan Felipe Herrera (09:24):

It leaped out of my soul for a billion reasons, but it had a deeper reason. I'll add so.

Emy diGrappa (09:33):

Why do you call yourself an activist? What makes you an activist? What, what are you an activist for?

Juan Felipe Herrera (09:37):

Well, it's a good word. It's a fun word. It's a good word. It has the word act in it, and I believe in action. Uh, and that's a good thing. Activist also just means that you're acting, uh, and doing things for others. You could be an activist with your poetry and call it even. You could get out on the streets and march and call it even. You could visit people in hospitals who are sick and no one knows you're there, but you're helping them and, uh, listening to them, taking care of them. Uh, or it could be the fact that you're just looking out for the welfare of, uh, of your friends and neighbors. Or you are actually doing some mighty, deep, ferocious journalism. Or you really are way out there, you know, face to face with, uh, things that are difficult and uh, you're in another country or you're demonstrating in a dangerous, uh, uh, environment. So all of those have levels.

                 And the thing is, that we want to respond to the suffering of human beings. One way or another. So we're all born natural activists. We can't live and survive and learn and grow by ourselves, so we have to come in contact. We have to respond to conflict. We have to ideally respond to the suffering of others, animals and land and people. And it's a good thing. It brings happiness, and happiness is the goal.

Emy diGrappa (11:06):

What, what change do you want or what effect do you want your poetry to have on people young and old? Is there a message you, you want them to walk away with?

Juan Felipe Herrera (11:20):

I want, I want them to walk away with their own sense of kindness. Their own sense. I don't have a, a package of messages for them. I wouldn't want to have that. I just want to express myself as openly and creatively as I can in their behalf.

                 And also, I want to present, you know, my own, uh, you know, quirky material that I like, uh, as a gift to them and also as a possibility that they can do the same. That we can go beyond our uh, the four walls we have created for ourselves. Uh, we don't have to have walls. We don't have to have those boundaries. We can just, uh, walk in the rain. We can walk in the rain. We can cross the line and uh, sit down and say hello. Uh, and we could also walk backwards if you want to. Try walking backwards. (laughs)

                 We don't have to be robots. It's easy to become a robot, a machine, doing the same thing every day in the same way. Uh, the minute we do something a little differently, we're beginning to enjoy life, because life is very, very big and it has many, many, many filters and lenses and colors and temperatures and textures and spices and voices and dimensions and extensions onto infinity. So imagine just rotating around your little room with three ideas in your head. There's more to it and we only have, uh, enough time to, uh, to say hello in our lives. So we've got to say a lot of hellos. (laughs) I mean, life is infinite, but our existence is finite, so we have to meet up with the paradox.

                 So just you know, it's really literally just walking freely, speaking with others, listening to others, enjoying, uh, this amazing, incredible thing called life. And there's conflict in it. We need to walk right through it and respond to it, respond to it creatively, or simply stay still for a moment or two and see it and notice it and take it in. Not run from it and say, “Well, there's nothing I can do,” and then we run. Or saying, “It's that person's fault. I had nothing to do with it,” and then we move. If there's nothing you can say or want to say or want to do then just wobble for a little bit. Just wobble, tremble for a little bit in front of reality. Just tremble a little bit. Don't shut yourself down. Don't run away. Don't escape. Do not avoid. I do this. Do not think I'm a saint. I work on it as best as I can. And then you can move. You can move on.

                 I'm hoping people get a sense of their own kindness in whatever way, not that I'm going to talk about it, but that's what poetry is at the heart of it.

Emy diGrappa (11:20):


Juan Felipe Herrera (14:23):

It's a gift. An offering.

Emy diGrappa (14:26):

Do you have a poetry that you have by heart that you can-

Juan Felipe Herrera (14:30):


Emy diGrappa (14:30):


Juan Felipe Herrera (14:34):

Poetry that I have by heart.

Emy diGrappa (14:35):

That you can do right now.

Juan Felipe Herrera (14:38):

Just five words.

Emy diGrappa (14:39):


Juan Felipe Herrera (14:40):

And they are, “You have a beautiful voice.” That's it. It's like a leaf falling from a tree. You know, it falls from a tree and, and, and it's a beautiful leaf, but if you don't notice it, it's just going to be a leaf. If we don't notice our voice, it's just going to be a sound. A poem sometimes is very small, like a leaf, and if we notice it, there's a lot of beauty in it, like a leaf.

Emy diGrappa (15:12):

I just got a blessing talking to you. (laughs)

Juan Felipe Herrera (15:17):

(laughs) I got a blessing too talking to you.

Emy diGrappa (15:17):

Thank you so much.

Juan Felipe Herrera (15:17):

Yeah, you're welcome.

Emy diGrappa (15:24):

Thank you for being here.

                 Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This ThinkWY podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkwy.org.