Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera Speaks on Immigration

Poet Laureate Juan Felipe HerreraStudents, faculty, and staff flocked to the Soda Center early Saturday morning to hear Juan Felipe Herrera, the United States poet laureate. Herrera, the first Latino to hold the highest poet position, was the featured speaker of the 2015 Leadership for Social Justice Conference, “Living Truths: Migrating Voices,” which aimed to spark conversation on immigration issues. The Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) sponsored the event in the hopes that attendees would learn new information, understand the complex issue of immigration from an emotional viewpoint, and use their knowledge to take action.

President Jim Donahue introduced Herrera, saying, “Saint Mary’s needs to be a place that has conversations that matter.” Donahue remarked that in his brief time speaking with Herrera beforehand, he realized he was “someone who could lead the conversation. We are indeed in the presence of someone who is extraordinarily special.”

The son of migrant farm workers, Herrera has written prolifically on issues concerning the Latino community. In addition to being the poet laureate, he is currently a visiting professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.  

Herrera then took the stage, equipped with his enormous messenger bag and bright blue hat. He thanked the college, explaining that he was inspired by the students and the “beautiful college.” The audience broke out in laughter as he mentioned the “two deer that appeared this morning. They wanted to come to the reading but they didn’t have their tickets.” He began by explaining that “acknowledgement is the key...acknowledging each other is a major step, perhaps the most important, the most critical and difficult step, and yet the most natural step.” Herrera, arguably one of the most influential Latino voices in the country, expressed his appreciation, “I love what you’re doing at this conference and I love that you have a Catholic Institute for Lasallian social action, and I love the fact that you’re very interested in justice and activist change in our communities.”  

Herrera explained when he returns home after traveling across the United States he “comes back filled with inspiration, because what you’re doing here is very inspiring and I want to put it on big murals throughout the nation so everyone can see you, see your faces, and see you in action...with everyone you’re working with.”  

#PLOTUSHerrera then spoke about his own experiences with migrants and immigrants; “I thought of my parents in a very painful manner...I began to think about them as victims.” However, he realized as he grew up, “It’s beautiful to be migrants, because migrants are trailblazers and pioneers.” When Herrera came to this realization he was spurred to write, “We can tell the stories of our family and write them, and give them a second voice, a voice that lives forever.” He approached his writing with vivacity, passion, and single-minded focus, explaining, “the only thing I could hold onto was the idea of writing and reciting poems.” When Herrera attended UC Los Angeles he “didn’t want to do the midterms so I turned in poetry.”  

Herrera encouraged the audience to make their voices heard, “We are competing with a very powerful media industry...I suggest you become high def, very intense, broadcasters.”

He spoke in detail about the need to compete with industry-driven media, focused solely on selling products rather than telling important stories. He said, “You must become migrants, you must migrate the voices of the people.”

Herrera has taken his own message to heart, working tirelessly to spread the stories of his community. He has published more than a dozen poetry collections, all of which advocate for the disenfranchised.  

Upon request, Herrera read lines from his poem “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” winner of the PEN West Poetry Award. The lines varied from provocative “because the CIA practices better with brown targets,” distressing “because our 500-year penance was not long enough,” to playful “because you use bomb-smelling dogs we use chorizo-scented cucarachas.”  

Near the end of his speech Herrera reflected on the words “immigrant,” “migrant,” and “borders.” He said that Mexican immigrants are “really following family networks and trails...somewhere along the line we became illegal aliens, and we don’t accept that.” 

Herrera concluded his speech by pulling out his harmonica and a few of his books. He played two songs on the instrument, intermixed with readings of his poems “Song out Here” and “Almost Living, Almost Dying.”