Juan Felipe Herrera Discusses Border Walls And Poetry
His latest collection, Notes of the Assemblage, explores the Mexican-American identity as well as the themes of connection and erasure in society.
With students at the high school, he shared insights about personal expression and his experience as the child of migrant farmworkers. “It was a lot of movement, a lot of new landscapes, a lot of stories, family stories and observations and meditations,” he said.
KPBS Fronteras Reporter Jean Guerrero spoke with Herrera about President Donald Trump’s border wall, the power of language and art in general.
Q. Your poetry is so much about breaking borders, about overcoming them with language, with memory, and I was wondering what you thought about Trump already taking steps to build the border wall that he’s talked about so much. I’m sure it has a lot of symbolism for you, can you talk to me a little bit about that?
A: It’s a terrible crime to border people off. People are starving, people are suffering, people are trying to keep their children alive and themselves alive and their families alive back home, where there’s violence and poverty as well. So, to stop them and build a wall to prevent them from crossing and treat them as animals and put them in cages to sleep on the floor with a light thin wool blanket and water, that is not right, that is just not right no matter what ideology you have, no matter what point of view you have. You have to pull back and open your heart and see these are human beings like you. You also have moved and you also have families that have migrated in the past. Your ancestors have done the same, so let us not pretend we’re only on one side looking at another side. We’re all involved and it’s a time of world migration, it’s a time of war and that is not good. Many people, all they have is a handful of rubble, they don’t even have food or bread or water. All they have is just handfuls of rubble and they’re running for their lives as well, so it’s time to find positive solutions, collaborative solutions and embracing each other and holding onto each other. Providing sanctuary for each other. That’s what I feel, that’s my experience.
Q. And what role do you think your poetry or art in general can play in terms of helping people get at the truth in a world where we’re increasingly bombarded with contradictory information?
A: We have to speak the news of our heart, we have to present the news of our heart and the news of our expansive vision. Human beings have a beautiful gift and it's called expansiveness, vision, open knowledge and a deep ability to embrace others openly. So we have to express ourselves very publicly, we have to write very publicly and show who we are very publicly. We have buildings filled with billboards of items that are being sold and we are bombarded on the media and commercials with selling products and buying products every 15, 10 minutes, for 5 minutes we get, who knows, 10 or 15 commercials and we need presence. The people need presence, to be present in the public eye. Their stories to be present in the public spheres, in the media, on the buildings, on billboards, in schools, on the streets, in community centers, in hospitals, in doctors offices, we need to be out there so our humanity can be recognized and we can be recognized, not hidden and pushed back into invisibility.
Q. What does it mean to you to be the nation’s first Latino poet laureate in a period of so much divisiveness?
A: It means a lot to me, you know, I’m here to promote literature, I’m here to promote poetry, I’m here to promote people’s expressive selves, I’m here to promote creativity and most of all I’m here to listen and to meet people and to support them, all ages, all communities, all colors and cultures and embrace them as much as possible by letting them know that they have a beautiful voice and they are very worthy human beings. That’s my main mission. So that’s what I’m here for, but I’m also here for assisting people and letting them know they can generate their own news, their own sense of who they are, their own sense of what’s going on. We need to do that because we’re not in a vacuum. The more we present who we are the less we are presented with who we should be, the more we present who we are authentically, our culture, our immigrant experience, women’s experience, vision, children of color, people of color, transgender, all of us of all countries and creeds. The more we present ourselves, the less there is, the less we will be told how we should present ourselves and that’s very important. We need to be human beings, humanity number one.
Q. As a poet who seeks to get at the truth with words, I’m curious about your thoughts on one word in in particular. When referring to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally, journalists at least at NPR and KPBS have refrained from using words like illegals or aliens, but our President has chosen to use those words. What do you think about those words and what they mean?
A: Well I’m not going to comment on the president at all. I can tell you that when we talk about human beings as objects, like aliens, especially the word alien, it’s like from outer space or something. It’s like a bizarre imagined thing. A bizarre imagined thing. Would you like to be called alien? A bizarre fantasy thing? I don’t think so. It reduces a human being to something dehumanized. So that has to go. Illegal is the same thing. Illegal and illegal, that’s a legalistic language, that’s court language, that’s judicial language. That does not apply to a person’s identity. Ask that person how they identify themselves, they’re not gonna say I’m an illegal alien. So let us respect who people are. Let us respect ourselves. That has to go. In my experience, since I was a child, I’ve seen all this happen, day in and day out with my students and with human beings. Our relationship with Mexico has to radically change and Latin America and the world.
Q. What role did the San Diego-Tijuana region play in your life, and what role do you think it plays in the country's life?
A: I think a lot of good things about the San Diego-Tijuana region, it allowed me to strengthen my Spanish, it gave my family a cultural expansiveness and a holistic experience. When you're Mexicano and a first-generation family in the United States, you're separated, there's a big gap between who you are and who you were and what you're all about. So you need a society to give you that feedback of your own cultural experience and your own language and your own way of living and your own imagination and desire. So being next to Tijuana is being in Mexico, of course. Being a borderland society, it provides a more cultural expansiveness and enrichment for people on the U.S. side.
Q. And lastly, do you foresee your poetry changing at all in terms of what we’re seeing politically? Or perhaps is it already changing?
A: Well everything is always changing, nothing needs to be pushed into changing. It’s an organic – we live in an organic flow of feedback and response. At the same time, yes a lot of the poets and artists right now, oh you know we’re at work! We’re at work. We’re rubbing our hands like this and we’re at work. They’re writing songs, performances, murals, painting, a lot of poetry, a lot of spoken word. That’s right. Why is that? Because we’re human beings and we respond to what takes place in our lives, in our environment, in our society, in our cities, in our homes, in our lives. So that’s what we do. And artists, that’s even more what we do. We love to respond. That’s why we do art. We love to observe, that’s why we do art. But everybody is an artist, also. So let us promote the artist in all of us and respond. There’s not only one way. You don’t have to follow my way. I don’t even know if I have a way. I want freedom. Remember that word? Freedom? That needs to be our guiding light. So let us respond so we can be free even more, every day. And yes, poets are writing a big old stack of poetry as we speak.