Son of migrants, Juan Felipe Herrera to become first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate

It was an unusual place to talk with a poet laureate. But then the poet in question is himself unique, his appointment today by the Library of Congress makes him the first Latino to hold the position.

We stood in the heat and dust of a field on a farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Juan Felipe Herrera pointed to grapes on a vine and talked of how his parents had worked in places like this, picking fruits and vegetables. Herrera was born here in Fowler, but he didn’t stay long. His mother rested from giving birth and then the family piled into the 1940s army truck his father had bought and set off again, up and down California, “crop to crop, field to field.”

Herrera is a lovely and modest man, who seems genuinely moved by the honor being bestowed upon him. He and his wife, Margarita, told me separately of how all this was unimaginable decades ago — their humble origins, their early attempts to find a voice through writing and theater. Herrera spoke of being part of the ferment and excitement of the 60s and 70s, the attempt by people like himself to “become visible” through the creation of a stronger Chicano culture. He told me of being punished in the first grade because he couldn’t speak english; he then went on to get degrees at UCLA and Stanford, and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Herrera will take up his duties in the fall, succeeding Charles Wright as Poet Laureate.

As we stood there, I asked if he saw a direct line from this place to his poetry and now, to his role as laureate. “It’s an interesting line,” he said. “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. It has reached out in many directions — to Mexico, to indigenous pueblos, to families and students, teaching and workshops and of course my father and mother’s hand on these leaves. And being born right here. It’s all my story.”

We’ll tell that story later tonight on the NewsHour. Join us.