Former Professor Becomes First Latino U.S. Poet Laureate
by Tom Uribes
Juan Felipe Herrera became the first Latino to earn the nation’s highest poetry honor when it was announced in June he would be the United States’ 21st poet laureate.
Herrera, who was named the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2015-16 by the Librarian of the United States Congress, is a former Fresno State professor from Fowler. He completed a two-year term as California poet laureate in 2014 before being named U.S. poet laureate.
Herrera is the second former Fresno State professor to be honored with the discinction, following the late Philip Levine, who served as the 18th U.S. poet laureate in 2011-12.
“It’s just been incredible,” Herrera says. “This journey is quite a leap.
“I want to take everything I have in me, weave it, merge it with the beauty that is in the Library of Congress, all the resources, the guidance of the staff and departments, and launch it with the heart-shaped dreams of the people. It is a miracle of many of us coming together.”
His term began Sept. 15 when he presented a reading of his work at the Library of Congress National Book Festival. President and Mrs. Obama served as honorary co-chairs.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington says he sees the work of an American original in Herrera’s poems that “champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
Herrera, 66, the son of migrant farm workers, was a professor in Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Studies Department from 1990 to 2004, serving as department chair his final two years before accepting a position at the University of California, Riverside, from which he retired in May. He resides in Fresno.
Says Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro, “His success demonstrates that big dreams can be achieved when we make higher education accessible to talented students from all communities. I know the extended Fresno State community throughout the world is enjoying this journey with @Cilantroman.”
@Cilantroman is Herrera’s Twitter handle and a reference to his use of symbols and metaphors to bring his work to life.
The University is working to schedule an appearance with Herrera on campus in the fall.
Victor Torres, Chicano studies professor, says many of Herrera’s former students will come back and honor their teacher.
“His poetry is like his personality: colorful and thoughtful,” says Virginia Madrid-Salazar, a 1995 mass communications and journalism graduate who is now studying law. “I recall how fascinating he made any interaction. Later, I often read his books to my own kids when they were growing up.”