poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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


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)

Saturday Night at the Buddhist Cinema

                                                            There were elephants

in cabaret dress reddish & cadmium blue

& dolphins in undetermined incarnations (I felt as if

I had interrupted the process I mean

the organ player had not risen

remember the Castro theatre off of Market?

It was Visconti’s Rocco & His Brothers & the lights went out maybe

1992 during the Rodney King revolt

the dolphin was working this out somehow tweeting

blinking his tiny saucy eyes I was in the third row as usual

in the middle) there was a horse torn unbridled

immense & stoic being pinned

with a hideous medal by the War Provosts it turned to us &

waited waited              for someone to take her home

the cow was there


            in a Mexican Pancho Villa outfit

                                    spraying everyone with snowflakes &

                        you you            should have seen us


how we had realized the Way

how we rubbed the blood off of our faces after the killings &

how we stuck it to the assassins huddled in a shabby corner

you should have seen the Pig Act

the pig                         a real pig with a wig in flames

in pinkish pajamas & a cigar doing a Fatty Arbuckle schtick

he even ordered 18 eggs over easy with 18 sides of sourdough

cranberry sauce sardines & a side of pastrami he was

hanging off the window ledge top story of the St. Francis

yoddling to a Gloria Swanson look-alike in a cashmere robe

(it was hilarious it was

what we all dreamed of yes that was it     it

was what we all dreamed of) the chicken in kimono pirouetted

with piquant harpsichord arpeggios

Sonata in E Major by Domenico Scarlatti the evil iris

on the side of the cheeky make-up popped

that is when I fell out

slid to the toilet but there were no towels or stalls or water

it was some kind of trick I said & blew my nose

into my sleeve an Italian piece from Beverly Hills 1966

(why was I there

all of a sudden?)


                        For the Short Feature everyone shouted

Wheres the Tuna?
                                                      We want the Tuna?

                        We want the Tuna!

What about the Tuna?


The organ rose from the stage

the song Avremi der Marvikher jittered the chandeliers

sung by a scrubby lanky tenor in a shredded vest

I had the same Chrysanthemum eyes of exile

I had the same wet braided locks & the black spot

            we all danced with straw stuffed violas we lost ourselves

            we regained some kind of  tree-strength that had been severed

the screen lit up with our faces huge hands

reached out to us we lit a tiny fire in the village

that is when my mother María danced an incredible

inappropriate Polka at the center of the plaza (How could that be?

She died decades ago!)

I was expecting parables on the Three Treasures

I was running from the bombs I was delirious for shelter

Outside everything was on fire and the gasman was after me

Imagine that Why me? I said. Why me!  But it was no use

so I ran in here

so I crouched under the seats

next to a woman in an emeraldine scaly dress

she was calm & stunning &

strumming a pearl-edged ten-string Stella

you’re Ava Gardner I said Where’s the exit?


 This is the exit.

Copyright © by Juan Felipe Herrera. Used with the permission of the author.

Copyright © by Juan Felipe Herrera. Used with the permission of the author.

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


your hands my hands

kindnesses   dances   silences  sitting      you  i

                El  Paso   Texas   Segundo  Barrio

Juarez   1918           1936  in  gypsy     dress  actress

you sing        i sing we sing        lullabies of old

this     now lines now     my birth


Yet the peach tree 
still rises
& falls with fruit & without
birds eat it the sparrows fight
our desert       
            burns with trash & drug
it also breathes & sprouts
vines & maguey

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


collected in

To celebrate former Academy of American Poets Chancellor Juan Felipe H...