From the fields to the Library of Congress, Juan Felipe Herrera took a winding path to poetry

JUDY WOODRUFF: A look at the new poet laureate of the United States, a man with a distinct style of writing who is the first Latino to hold the position, and who served as California's poet laureate. Now he's stepping onto a larger stage.

Jeffrey Brown has a profile.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA, U.S. Poet Laureate: Let us gather in a flourishing way (SPEAKING SPANISH) pearls of great flowing vines. (SPEAKING SPANISH). Let us gather in a flourishing way.

JEFFREY BROWN: A blend of languages, as a car cleaves its through the dry, gusty, 90-degree heat of a Sunday afternoon in California's San Joaquin Valley, behind the wheel, 66-year-old Juan Felipe Herrera.

Were you surprised when you got the call about the poet laureate?


JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: It's not something you get everyday.

I was surprised. And it was like a super surprise. I'm thinking yes, and I'm also thinking this is very big.


JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Because it is very big.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herrera was born here in Fowler, but he didn't stay long. A child from itinerant farmworkers, campesinos from Mexico, his first years were spent on the road.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: We went from crop to crop, field to field. And my father had that Army truck, a 1940s Army truck from Fort Bliss, El Paso.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. That's how you traveled?

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: That's how we traveled.

JEFFREY BROWN: All around California?

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: All around California in that big Army truck.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was during those long travels that his mother first entertained young Juan with a tattered family photo album, entrancing him with story after story to accompany the pictures.

When the family settled near San Diego and Juan Felipe went to school, he too wanted to tell stories. It was forbidden.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: The first day I walked in, I wanted to talk. And the first day I walked in, I wasn't allowed to talk because I — I only knew Spanish. And because of that, perhaps, I really wanted to talk.


JEFFREY BROWN: It was words and poetry that illuminated his path into the larger world.

When you come to a place like this now, do you see a line from here to your poetry?

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: It's an interesting line. It's a very interesting line.

Perhaps, like, the way these leaves spread out and the way they curl in many directions and how they have many features, I think that's how my road has been.


JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: It has reached out in different directions, to Mexico, to the indigenous pueblos, to families and students, teaching and workshops, experiments, and, of course, my father and mother's hands on these leaves.

JEFFREY BROWN: You being born right in a place like this.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: And being born right here.


JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: So it's all my story.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the campus of Fresno State University, where he would later teach, Herrera told me of his time as a college student at UCLA in the fervor of the 1960s and '70s, part of a movement for Chicano civil rights and culture.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: I think we were working on becoming visible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Becoming visible.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Becoming visible and also making our communities visible and our histories visible and our words and way of seeing what was going on visible.

Let us gather in a flourishing way. (SPEAKING SPANISH)

JEFFREY BROWN: After teaching at the University of California, Riverside, for many years, Herrera has now retired to Fresno, where he lives with his wife, Margarita, children and grandchildren nearby.

He's author of more than 20 books of verse and prose, including a number written for children. His poetry is a mix of styles. Some feel like an incantation. He cites Allen Ginsberg as one major influence.

One of the things I find interesting reading your work is, it's very experimental poetry, different styles that you're trying. And yet, at the same time, you are clearly trying to reach people, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: You want to be understood.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Yes. And we can understand poetry from a billion — in a billion styles, experiment, tradition, combination, spice, meter, image. It's all there for the poet and for the listener and for all of us. That's what it's about, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: As California's poet laureate, Herrera wrote and engaged others on issues of the day, including bullying among young people, and he's long been concerned with the human and policy drama of migration.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: I have a piece called "Border Bus," and it's about two women on a border bus, on a bus that — you have been detained and you have been arrested and you have been hauled in and put in a bus, and one says, where are we going? And the other one says, nowhere. And the other one says, I come from nowhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of all, Herrera told me as we walked through Fresno's Fulton Mall on a quiet Monday morning, he now feels a great responsibility.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: And I know I'm representing the Library of Congress, all the people of the United States and, of course, the Latinos and Latinas as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: A very particular community.


And it's very important, because I want to promote the writers in those communities, promote writing, promote reading, promote books, and promote the people and their stories and who they are, who we are. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have got a big platform.



JEFFREY BROWN: From California's San Joaquin Valley, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.