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Juan Felipe Herrera

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera Visits Santa Clara

By Erin Fox

On April 4, U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visited Santa Clara to meet with students and faculty and host a free presentation titled, “Immigration, Migration & the Alien Thing.” The event was open to the public and put on in conjunction with Santa Clara Community Action Program’s annual Immigration Week.

“This is an opportunity for us to celebrate how the arts, particularly poetry, serve to not only uplift spirits but to give articulation to those desires for social justice for the inclusion of those who are on the margins of society,” President Michael Engh, S.J. said in his opening remarks at the sold out event.

Herrera is the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate and the first Chicano/Mexican American to receive the national honor. Last month, he was appointed for a second term.

Debbie Tahmassebi, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke briefly before co-host Alma Garcia, director of the Latin American Studies Program, introduced the guest of honor. Herrera took the stage and began to speak about his first visit to Santa Clara in the 1960s, where he struck up a friendship with Dr. Francisco Jiménez, who would read and type his poems for him.

“It’s a pleasure to be back,” said Herrera. “Francisco Jiménez is one of my great mentors who helped me out at the very beginning when I was writing poems.”

For the presentation portion of the evening, Herrera read a total of nine poems, both in English and Spanish. The themes revolved around community and compassion, as well as migrant and indigenous rights. He engaged the audience with some call-and-response poems, one of which was titled “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.” He performed his readings actively, at times dancing across the stage to bring his words to life.

Jiménez led the question and answer session that followed Herrera’s readings. Herrera discussed the influence of his mother and former teachers, who he said impacted his writing. He also reminisced about the day he was asked to be the Poet Laureate by the head of the Library of Congress, Dr. James Billington, revealing that he initially thought the offer was a joke.

When asked why he writes in bilingual form, he gave an honest response that received laughs from the audience: “Because I’m bilingual,” he said.

Herrera’s advice for college students who aspire to be writers was also simple and to the point.

“Begin at one, or at zero, and then move on little by little,” he said. “If our grandparents could make it to the U.S. on absolutely nothing, then we can write. They were pioneers, now we can be pioneers, with our words.”

Prior to the formal event in Mayer Theatre that evening, Dr. Kirk Glaser, a senior lecturer in the English Department, led an hour-long workshop in which Herrera met with 10 students who were recommended by the creative writing faculty. The focus of the workshop involved creative exercises and collaboration among the students.

“It was more than getting together and writing together,” said Shelley Valdez, a sophomore English major that attended the workshop. “His intention was to bring us together and create a small sense of community between writers. He told us to consider ourselves poets and writers as part of the next generation of people who can change the world.”

Workshop attendees were not limited to English majors. First-year student Beau Scott who studies political science and philosophy also received an invitation from Glasser after being named the winner of last month’s Bronco Slam & Jam event.

“(Herrera) didn’t say anything about how we could improve our poems,” said Scott. “He didn’t criticize them, just encouraged us to keep writing, to never give up and see where it takes you.”

Sarita Tamayo-Moraga, a senior lecturer in the Religious Studies Department was also in attendance for Herrera’s presentation, which left an impression on her.

“I was very moved by his unflinching gaze at suffering and his ability to write poetry about it,” said Tamayo-Moraga. “Within our university’s focus on social justice and action, it’s vital for students to see a model of something that we can fight for and maintain a face of hope.”

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