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About this poet

learn about la casa de colores

Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California, on December 27, 1948. The son of migrant farmers, Herrera moved often, living in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California. As a child, he attended school in a variety of small towns from San Francisco to San Diego. He began drawing cartoons while in middle school, and by high school was playing folk music by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.

Herrera graduated from San Diego High in 1967, and was one of the first wave of Chicanos to receive an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship to attend UCLA. There, he became immersed in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, and began performing in experimental theater, influenced by Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez.

In 1972, Herrera received a BA in Social Anthropology from UCLA. He received a masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1990.

His interests in indigenous cultures inspired him to lead a formal Chicano trek to Mexican Indian villages, from the rain forest of Chiapas to the mountains of Nayarit. The experience greatly changed him as an artist. His work, which includes video, photography, theater, poetry, prose, and performance, has made Herrera a leading voice on the Mexican American and indigenous experience.

Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry, including Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015); Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona Press, 2013); Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008), a recipient of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross The Border: Undocuments 1971–2007 (City Lights, 2007); and Crashboomlove (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), a novel in verse, which received the Americas Award.

His books of prose for children include: Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial Books, 2014); SkateFate (Rayo, 2011) Calling The Doves (Children's Book, 2001); Upside Down Boy (2006), which was adapted into a musical in New York City; and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (HarperCollins, 2005), which tells the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl.

Ilan Stavans, the Mexican American essayist, has said: "There is one constant over the past three decades in Chicano literature and his name is Juan Felipe Herrera. Aesthetically, he leaps over so many canons that he winds up on the outer limits of urban song. And spiritually, he is deep into the quest that we all must begin before it is too late."

In a profile of Herrera in The New York Times, Stephen Burt wrote: "Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed."

Herrera has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize's Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement.

Over the past three decades, he has founded a number of performance ensembles, and has taught poetry, art, and performance in community art galleries and correctional facilities. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and served as chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at CSU-Fresno.

In 2015, Herrera was named Poet Laureate of the United States, for which he launched the project La Casa de Colores, which invites citizens to contribute to an epic poem. Herrera is Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fresno and UC Riverside. He also holds honorary degrees from California State University, Fresno, Skidmore College, and Oregon State University. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2011 to 2016. 

He is the father of five children, and lives in Fresno, California, with his partner, the poet and performance artist, Margarita Robles.

read juan felipe's letters to students


 

Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015)
Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona Press, 2013)
Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008)
187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross The Border, Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007)
Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler (University of Arizona Press, 2002)
Giraffe on Fire: Poems (2001)
Thunderweavers (University of Arizona Press, 2000)
Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (University of Arizona Press, 1999)
CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse (University of New Mexico Press, 1999)
Loteria Cards & Fortune Poems (City Lights, 1999)
Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America (Temple University Press, 1997)
Love After the Riots (Curbstone, 1996)
Night Train to Tuxtla: New Stories and Poems (University of Arizona Press, 1994)
Memoria(s) from an Exile's Notebook of the Future (Santa Monica College, 1993)
Akrílica (Alcatraz Editions, 1989)
Facegames (Dragon Cloud, 1987)
Exiles of Desire (Arte Publico, 1985)
Poetry Rebozos of Love (Tolteca, 1974)

Children’s Literature

Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes (Dial Books, 2014)
SkateFate (Rayo, 2011)
Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (Harper Collins, Joanna Cotler Books / Tempest, 2005)
Downtown Boy (Scholastic, 2005)
Cilantro Girl / La Superniña del Cilantro (Children's Book Press, 2003)
Grandma & Me at the Flea / Los Meros Meros Remateros (Children’s Book Press 2002)
The Upside Down Boy/El Nino de Cabeza (Lee & Low Books, 2000)
Calling the Doves / Canto a Las Palomas (Children's Book Press, 1995)

Borderbus

A dónde vamos  where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos  where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is gonna get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos  but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras  I just know a few words

You better figure it out hermana the guard is right there
See the bus driver

Tantos días y ni sabíamos para donde íbamos
So many days and we didn't even know where we were headed

I know where we're going
Where we always go
To some detention center to some fingerprinting hall or cube
Some warehouse warehouse after warehouse

Pero ya nos investigaron ya cruzamos ya nos cacharon
Los federales del bordo qué más quieren
But they already questioned us we already crossed over they
already grabbed us the Border Patrol what more do they want

We are on the bus now
that is all

A dónde vamos te digo salí desde Honduras
No hemos comido nada y dónde vamos a dormir

Where are we going I am telling you I came from Honduras
We haven’t eaten anything and where are we going to sleep

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 nowehere you got it?

Pero por eso nos venimos para salir de la nada
But that’s why we came to leave all that nothing behind

When the bus stops there will be more nothing
We’re here hermana

Y esas gentes quiénes son
no quieren que siga el camión
No quieren que sigamos
Están bloqueando el bus
A dónde vamos ahora
Those people there who are they
they don't want the bus to keep going
they don't want us to keep going
now they are blocking the bus
so where do we go

What?

He tardado 47 días para llegar acá no fue fácil hermana
45 días desde Honduras con los coyotes los que se—bueno
ya sabes lo que les hicieron a las chicas allí mero en frente
de nosotros pero qué íbamos a hacer y los trenes los trenes
cómo diré hermana cientos de
nosotros como gallinas como topos en jaulas y verduras
pudriendóse en los trenes de miles me oyes de miles y se resbalaban
de los techos y los desiertos de Arizona de Tejas sed y hambre
sed y hambre dos cosas sed y hambre día tras día hermana
y ahora aquí en este camión y quién sabe a dónde
vamos hermana fíjate vengo desde Brownsville dónde nos amarraron
y ahora en California pero todavía no entramos y todavía el bordo
está por delante
It took me 47 days to get here it wasn't easy hermana
45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones that—well
you know what they did to las chicas
right there in front of us so what were we supposed
to do and the trains the trains how can I tell you hermana hundreds
of us like chickens like gophers in cages and vegetables
rotting on trains of thousands you hear me of thousands and they slid
from the rooftops and the deserts of Arizona and Texas thirst and hunger
thirst and hunger two things thirst and hunger day after day hermana
and now here on this bus of who-knows-where we are going
hermana listen I come from Brownsville where they tied us up
and now in California but still we're not inside and still the border
lies ahead of us

I told you to speak in English even un poquito
the guard is going to think we are doing something
people are screaming outside
they want to push the bus back

Pero para dónde le damos hermana
por eso me vine
le quebraron las piernas a mi padre
las pandillas mataron a mi hijo
solo quiero que estemos juntos
tantos años hermana
separados
But where do we go hermana
that's why I came here
they broke my father's legs
gangs killed my son
I just want us to be together
so many years hermana
pulled apart

What?

Mi madre me dijo que lo más importante
es la libertad la bondad y la buenas acciones
con el prójimo
My mother told me that the most important thing
is freedom kindness and doing good
for others

What are you talking about?
I told you to be quiet

La libertad viene desde muy adentro
allí reside todo el dolor de todo el mundo
el momento en que purguemos ese dolor de nuestras entrañas
seremos libres y en ese momento tenemos que
llenarnos de todo el dolor de todos los seres
para liberarlos a ellos mismos
Freedom comes from deep inside
all the pain of the world lives there
the second we cleanse that pain from our guts
we shall be free and in that moment we have to
fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings
to free them—all of them

The guard is coming well
now what          maybe they'll take us
to another detention center we'll eat we’ll have a floor
a blanket toilets water and each other
for a while

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

From Notes on the Assemblage. Copyright © 2015 by Juan Felipe Herrera. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.

From Notes on the Assemblage. Copyright © 2015 by Juan Felipe Herrera. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera is the Poet Laureate of the United States. He served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 2011 to 2016.

by this poet

poem

I sit and meditate—my dog licks her paws
on the red-brown sofa
so many things somehow
it all is reduced to numbers letters figures
without faces or names only jagged lines
across the miles half-shadows
going into shadow-shadow then destruction         the infinite light

here and

poem

—in memory of
Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance,
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor,
Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney,
Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.,
Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson
Shot

2
poem

for Phil Levine, RIP

They are writing about you Phil—you know
good stuff—the prizes     Detroit and that
poem where you said in past lives you
were a wild sun-crested fox being chased
by “ladies and gentlemen on horseback”—
you said

2