FEATURE: The People’s Poet
U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera crosses borders and generations.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – Everyday we get more illegal…
So begins a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States whose visit to Jackson this weekend marks the highlight of Teton County Library’s National Poetry Month celebration. He gives a public address 7 p.m. Friday at the Center for the Arts.
The first ever Mexican-American appointed to the office of Poet Laureate, Herrera is the son of migrant farmers. Born in 1948 in the agricultural town of Fowler, California, Herrera has witnessed—and spoken out about—the plight of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. for five decades. When he writes, “everyday we get more illegal,” the words are both timeless and timely.
Fears of deportation have skyrocketed among communities across the U.S. since the election of President Donald Trump. The Trump administration has continued its hardline stance outlined by candidate Trump on the election trail to oust “illegal” immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. As recently as April 12, The Washington Post reported an internal Department of Homeland Security document shows that the agency has already increased its stock of detention beds for undocumented immigrants by 30,000.
According to CNN, this same memo says the agency has been recruiting local police departments to join its 287(g) program, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement agents to operate as federal immigration agents. Despite assurances from Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen and Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith that people with no criminal backgrounds should be alarmed, local Latino residents are still afraid. “It’s a scary time for people,” said Shelter JH co-founder Mary Erickson at a recent Civics 101 workshop.
Herrera likes to highlight the important role immigrants play in American society and their allegiance to this country. “[Immigrants] work very hard,” he said during a Democracy Now interview. “We live and die in those fields. We need support, resources, education.”
Herrera’s poetry speaks to the conditions faced by Latino immigrants in Jackson and across the country, where despair lives alongside hope, where life rises from ashes, and generations of people continue the humble, tenacious quest to feed their families and build good lives for themselves.
From “Everyday We Get More Illegal”
laws pass laws with scientific walls
detention cells husband
with the son
the wife &
the daughter who
married a citizen
they stay behind broken slashed
un-powdered in the apartment to
deal out the day
& the puzzles
another law then another
‘The uncertainty when you don’t belong’
Herrera’s personal story is emblematic of the kind of opportunity immigrants in the U.S. hope to find. Creative from an early age, he drew cartoons and played folk music in middle school and high school. After graduating San Diego High in 1967, he received a scholarship to UCLA from the state-funded Educational Opportunity Program. While in college, Herrera joined the Chicano Civil Rights Movement/El Movimiento Chicano, which took inspiration from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement and encompassed a range of social and economic justice issues for Mexican-Americans. The movement was fueled in large part by art and poetry.
Herrera began publishing poetry and performing in experimental theater throughout the 1970s. In 1980 he received his master’s degree in social anthropology from Stanford. A decade later he earned his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Now, as Poet Laureate, he has attained the highest honor in the nation for a poet, and he is the first Latino to do so.
Herrera said the honor of being named Poet Laureate touched more than just himself. “It means my whole life,” he told Democracy Now. “And the life of many generations of Latinos in this country, and the writing we have done for so many years.”
Despite his long history in the struggle for equality and dignity for Mexican immigrants, his poems maintain a contemporary relevance, noted Pati Rocha, Latino outreach coordinator at Teton County Library. Rocha met Herrera 15 years ago at a conference and she has twice facilitated visits by Herrera to work with students in Jackson’s public schools. His April 21 appearance will be the first time he gives a public address in Jackson.
“I think the Latino kids might relate to his poetry more than the adults because, like them, he was raised here,” Rocha said.
However, Rocha also recognized ways in which Herrera’s poetry does speak to first generation immigrants. Rocha herself is a first-generation immigrant from Colombia. She came to the U.S. 20 years ago, fleeing violence and poverty. “Herrera touches on how we feel as immigrants, that we feel like we don’t fit anywhere,” she said. “I feel like I belong nowhere. He touches on that uncertainty you feel when you don’t belong.”
A group of Teton County sixth graders are studying Herrera’s poetry this year as part of a Latino Leadership advisory class with Jackson Hole Middle School teacher Michelle Rooks. They have focused on Herrera’s poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal.” The students are constructing their own poems inspired by Herrera’s poem, and they will present them to him during a visit to their class, as well as in a video to be made available through the library.
Studying one poem in depth has allowed the students to contemplate the meanings of the poem line by line. One line in particular, “it is all in-between the light,” prompted the students to discuss what is legal and what is not legal, and how that might shift due to prevailing political winds. Students said they and their families have been particularly afraid since Trump was elected.
Derek, 12, said that he saw a woman on television talking about how her husband did not come home from work one day. She later learned he was deported. Derek now worries that could happen to one of his parents.
Blanca, also 12, shares Derek’s fears. She talked about the ripples of fear a recent visit from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials sent through the Latino community when they arrested several local men. Her parents closed their business early for the day and drove her home without stopping anywhere along the way. She heard whispers of “ICE.” Even though the threat has passed, Blanca is still gripped with fear. “I have been staying up late to see if my dad comes home from work,” she said.
Blanca’s classmate Julietta, 11, has been sleeping with her parents since the last time ICE was in town. “My mom carries a photo of me with her, so if she ever gets detained, they will know I am involved,” Julietta said. “After ICE came to town, I couldn’t stop shivering with fear. I got so scared.”
“What will happen to me?” asked Nicole, another student. Her biggest fear, however, is her parents being deported.
For classmate Jheili, 11, those fears were partially realized two years ago when her father was deported. “He said he would be back, but he never came back,” she said. “My baby sister never met our dad.”
When ICE came through Jackson, middle-schooler Ashley and her parents locked their doors and did not go outside. “But we fear more for my uncle,” she said, tears in her eyes. “He has been deported twice.”
“It’s sad to see pieces of the poem being lived out,” Rooks said. The class lost one of its fellow students when his father was deported earlier in the year. The student had to move to Idaho to live with his mother, but the transition has been hard on everyone.
“I miss my friend,” one student lamented.
When Herrera visits their class, the students will perform “Everyday We Get More Illegal” as a group. During a recent practice session, they used percussion instruments to punctuate various lines. Each of the 14 students read a line, or part of a line, and sometimes all 14 read together. The effect was powerful. The “we” in the title reverberated in the small classroom. Barely more than a decade old and the kids understand something about survival and injustice that is well beyond their years.
Concocting the solvent
Herrera has said that he feels we are witnessing “a new segregation” in America.
In a conversation with poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Jane Hirshfield at the 2015 National Book Festival, Herrera said, “There are all these stereotypical, manufactured ways of talking about each other … and it seems to be getting more crystalized and more hardened.”
Poetry, according to Herrera, provides an antidote. “Poetry is like the solvent or magical liquid, like rain, that softens everything up.”
Rooks has witnessed this softening effect of poetry among her Latino Leadership students. For students who are new to English, poetry allows them to express ideas without worrying about perfect grammar. Students are also able to be freer in their writing, she says. “With poetry, it seems anonymous. You don’t have to have characters or names. You can be more honest.”
Local poet Matt Daly (who happens to be a sibling of this reporter) says that because of this freedom from formal constraints, poetry can create an intimacy between the poet and the listener. “Too often these days we see language used haphazardly and narcissistically to carve out an identity and position for the speaker,” he said. “In contrast, a poem is a gift that allows the reader or listener to make meaning.”
Herrera employs another softening agent in his poetry—humor. “His poetry blends surrealism and fantasy with politics and modern real life situations,” said poet and library adult program coordinator Leah Shlachter. “While he often tackles serious political topics, his poetry is also very playful and funny, using humor as a corrective societal tool.”
But not always. Herrera also engages tragedies and injustices without humor, and extends his humanism beyond Latino experience to encompass the complexity of living in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world. In his poem, “Poem by Poem,” Herrera writes about the nine victims of racial violence killed in a South Carolina church in 2015. He tells the reader:
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
This concept of a poem as a form of action resonates with Daly. “I think a poem can be a kind of action to end injustice and violence because poems focus on relationships and can re-envision relationships. I think violence often emerges when people ignore relationship in favor of the two poles: ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Herrera told NPR that a poem could indeed bring about radical change. Not necessarily by “changing the levers of society,” he said. “It’s more like reading your poem … maybe you share it for a minute and maybe somebody is listening. And in that minute we both are changing, and perhaps that is the change we are seeking. It is personal, intimate and momentary.”
Another local poet, Connie Wieneke, said she responded to the universality implied in Herrera’s “Poem by Poem.”
“Poems are about the words, the language that is carried in the blood, in the breath, in the muscles by each of us,” Wieneke said. “We must honor the words we carry. It’s all about remembering the specifics of what happened, not clouding events over with rhetoric, but remembering there were nine people and those nine are each of us as well.”
In many instances, Herrera’s poems are incantations conjured to combat erasure. His poem “Borderbus” does this beautifully by weaving together a dialogue between two women crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. Shifting back and forth from English to Spanish, the poem illuminates the numerous layers of dislocation experienced by the two women. They are in between homes, no longer in their home countries and yet not situated anywhere else either. They are simply on the bus, which is being stopped and searched. Caught entirely in limbo, one woman advises the other:
… 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?
However, the woman’s companion comes to see that their dislocation can be transcended and that they are in fact citizens of the world. Here Herrera shows how poetry can expertly, exquisitely encompass a singular experience, a ubiquitous experience, a political message, and a progressive new vision of a world in which we all belong. The rhythm and language of the last stanzas transform a dark bus ride full of danger and uncertainty into a bid for freedom much larger than simply for two people:
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
In celebration of Herrera’s work, the library installed two large chalkboards in the library gallery for community poems. Inspired in part by “Borderbus,” one poem prompts, “I come from . . .” and people can fill in the space below. Some of the responses include, “I come from a town by Lake Michigan”; “A serendipitous series of accidents”; and “The American dream of two immigrants.”
The other space contains the prompt: “I dream of…”
Community poets have finished the sentence with, “being less fearful and more secured”; “the place that I come from”; “paz” [peace]; “a world without war”; and “la comunidad unida” [the community united].
When Rooks’ Latino Leadership student Nicole, 12, pondered what people dream of when they immigrate, she imagined traveling through a tunnel toward a light.
“It’s dark in the tunnel but at the end you see something brighter,” she said. For her, she reflected, that might be to have a career and start a family.
Hardly the sort of dream that should be illegal… for any citizen of the world. PJH
Teton County Library presents Juan Felipe Herrera, “We Come from Everything: Poetry and Migration,” 7 p.m. Friday, April 21 at the Center for the Arts. Free tickets available at Teton County Library.
Writing workshop with Juan Felipe Herrera 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 22 at the library’s Ordway Auditorium. No tickets or registration required.
By Jackson Hole Middle School 6th Grade Latino Leaders, using lines from “Everyday We Get More Illegal” by Juan Felipe Herrera
Left for America on planes, buses, vans, they said
Under the silver darkness
It is all in-between the light
I imagine going through a tunnel
To a better life
To a brighter future
They stay broken slashed
“I haven’t seen my parents in nine years,” my mom said.
My entire family
Left in Mexico
Rare visits by the lucky ones
Borders that divide
Means we won’t come anymore.
I don’t know half of who I’m missing.
My dad’s tarantula,
My mom’s dog
Our hopes and dreams
How can America be the land of the free if
We can’t feel it?
With our mind