December 5, 2014

from A CONVERSATION WITH JUAN FELIPE HERRERA

Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera was named California’s poet laureate in 2012. He holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Herrera is the author of numerous poetry volumes, including Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971–2007; Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream; and numerous children’s books, including The Upside Down Boy, which was adapted into a musical in New York City; Laughing Out Loud, I Fly, winner of a Pura Belpré Honor; and Cinnamon Girl, winner of the Américas Award. He was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives and tours with the poet Margarita Luna Robles. (website)

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Note: The following is excerpted from a 24-page interview.

GREEN: Do you think growing up there drew you into being an artist, or do you think you had it in your blood to start with?

HERRERA: I had it in my blood to start with, and also meeting Alurista, because he was a step ahead—more than one step ahead of me. He was definitely a big step ahead of me.

GREEN: I think I heard a story about you meeting him when he asked you for a piece of paper?

HERRERA: That’s true, that’s true. That was on 11th Street. I was in 7th grade, he was in 9th grade, and he lived an arm’s reach from my screen window in this apartment building. He lived in a row of cottages with his aunt and his uncle. And he knocked on my door because he hadn’t gone to the school yet; he must have known about the school but he didn’t know where it was or how to get there. So someone is knocking, and I open the door and there is this young guy, and he says, “Oh, uh, do you have any paper?” I don’t know how he spotted me—how did he know to knock on my door? And how did he know I went to that school? He must have figured something out. So I said, “Oh yeah, I got paper”—you know, blue-lined paper—and I gave him a whole batch. And that was it. We didn’t talk. I wasn’t much of a talker. And he says, “Do you know how to get there?” “Yeah, I know how to get there. I’ll pick you up. I’ll be here on Monday.” And he went back to his cottage right across from my window.

But he would be the guy that, as you know, would later go through anthropology books and find out about this place—this origin story of the Aztecs and their migration to what is now Mexico City from the north country and he figured out this term called Aztlán, the northern region where the Aztecs dwelled and then left to trek 300 years to end up in what is now the Mexican capitol and found it as their place as prophesized by their ancestors. So he decided to call the Southwest, our Southwest, that place, Aztlán, and he put it together—the indigenous origin-point of the Chicano. Alurista was an innovator and a deep thinker with big ideas and interests in symbol Mesamerican systems early on, so that literally by 1969 he already was working through the books and interested in a new poetics, a new ethno-poetics. And he found these symbols, concepts, and stories, very quickly, Aztec ones and Mayan ones, and then he incorporated them into these things called Chicano poems. And he was such a good public speaker already; he had been a public speaker already in elementary school, so by the time 1966 rolled around, he was ready to go. So he started writing this, and in 1968 in Denver, Colorado, Corky Gonzalez called for the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. So Alurista went to that and Luiz Valdez of the Chicano Farm Workers’ Theater, El Teatro Campesino, also went. I believe they both collaborated on this notion of Aztlán.

So that’s where he took the Aztlán concept. But we were buddying around since he was a 9th grader and I was a 7th grader. So that was what kind of kick-started me into going in that direction, the Chicano literary direction. And I really enjoyed it, and it took me on this strong current of many journeys. I enjoy the Mesoamerican and Chicano and Aztec and Mayan concepts and stories and histories and the whole larger scheme, colonization and the questions of culture and power and knowledge. I ended up majoring in anthropology and I just love learning about our peoples and all peoples. This was a great friendship and it began when I was thirteen years old.

GREEN: That’s amazing.

HERRERA: It was a great friendship and it was a poetry friendship. And then it kept on, and then we both went our ways. He continued and I continued. And I used to live in his house when I got out of UCLA, went back to San Diego. I don’t know what was crossing my mind—I mean, I could have continued or moved up to San Francisco where my mother was staying, where my mother lived, but no, I stuck it out and I went back to San Diego, living on 50 dollars a month at best, not going anywhere but working for the community in the arts.

GREEN: Is that the place that was an old water tank?

HERRERA: [laughs] Yeah. There were these big round talcum powder boxes—the old school round powder boxes with a little lid and a little powder puff and you would powder your face—but they were that shape, like a giant aspirin. There were two of those right there off of Park Boulevard entering Balboa Park that were just full of stolen bikes. Whatever bikes that were stolen and taken to the police, they would throw in there and they’d be auctioned off or given away. And then the community artists that were bubbling up said, “Wait a minute, let’s stop this whole thing—stolen bikes? I mean, come on. We need a gallery; we need workshop space for our community.” So eventually in the very early ’70s, the Chicano artists of Logan Heights occupied both of those water tanks.

GREEN: When you say occupy, do you mean sat-in?

HERRERA: Kind of taken, sat-in and taken—you know, “This is ours …”

GREEN: And the police said, “Fine,” and moved on?

HERRERA: [laughs] That’s what they said; they had to say that. Yeah, they put chains on them and locks—I mean, the Chicanos—

GREEN: Were you part of that?

HERRERA: I came in after things were in place in 1972.

GREEN: And taught writing?

HERRERA: I came actually when they were still occupying those spaces. And there were beautiful gallery shows, amazing. Yeah, I did photography, I did Aztec dance, and then eventually I became the director of the place, which was interesting because I had no idea how to do that. But I’ve always been excellent at throwing myself at things that I’m totally scared about. [both laugh]

So that’s how that worked. But you know, what was beautiful in all this is how it felt; I was in this world that was vibrant, that had a lot of flavor, a lot of excitement, with my voice and the voices of my friends and the instruments and the guitars and the paintbrushes and the smells of paint and turpentine and talking among ourselves and having conversations and creating these images that no one, not even the painters, had ever seen before. And all of the sudden we were on this ship that we made ourselves, and that was the beauty of it, and that we were now taking it over to the community, in our ragtag world in our ragtag outfits in the ragtag fences in ragtag houses and ragtag community centers and ragtag occupied water tanks. There was something really, really beautiful about it. It was like reversing the whole thing; it was staking out our world and doing it, actually accomplishing it. And of course within that world there were these beautiful influences coming in and out: music, Latin America, revolution, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the women’s movement—all those movements were all crisscrossing at the same time. And then what was going on in the community, in Logan Heights, where I had landed with my familia in ’56—all this was taking place on its own, involving many of the artists, too, the takeover of the park and the Neighborhood House—

GREEN: Chicano Park, you mean?

HERRERA: Chicano Park and the free clinic at the Neighborhood House, turned it into Chicano Clinic. And great people were involved like Laura Rodriguez, who stood in front of one of the bulldozers that was coming in to turn over the earth to prepare the land, a small plot of land at the bottom of the bridge to Coronado at the heart of Logan Heights. She stood in front of one of those bulldozers because she believed in turning that land into a park, and not a parking lot. She was 60 years old. She was on her way to the store to buy groceries and she saw this and said, “No, this is not right, I want to join this.” She said, “What are all these students and people talking about here?” It was a big commotion. And then she joined that and became a major figure and voice at that moment and decades to come. That occupied building is now the Laura Rodriguez Pediatric Clinic, part of the first Family Health Centers in San Diego County, a model for many more in the area.

GREEN: Do you think the Chicano movement was successful?

HERRERA: Many incredible social transformations took place. You know, the Chicano thing has turned into the Mexicano thing. There are more groups now. There are more currents now, let me put it that way. “Persona Mexicana” is a phrase that I think is used quite a bit—you know, “What do you call yourself?” “Oh, I’m a Persona Mexicana.” It’s not like, “Hey, I’m a hardcore Chicano, viva la raza, or I’m a Hispanic,” even though that’s also used—Hispanic, Latino, Mexicano, Mexican American, Persona Mexicana. But the Persona Mexicana is most common.

GREEN: And what does that mean?

HERRERA: Persona Mexicana means you speak Spanish, you’re from Mexico, you’re here to establish your family and to get an education and to get a good job and to work very hard. And that you are still Mexican.

GREEN: Is there a sense of assimilating into American culture?

HERRERA: Assimilation never really happened. It is more like a transformation. There are multiple ethnic, situational and national identities in flux, the border has dissolved. Middle class Mexicanos from Juarez going into El Paso and buying up the big houses, enrolling at UTEP, the Mexican working class laborer ending up in Napa, wine country, the Oaxacaqueño families in Watsonville working strawberries, or in Tillamook County, Oregon, working flower nurseries or here in Inlandia working inside casinos or in San Francisco, chefs of Sicilian fare at Café Sport, or in poetry slams, riffing poems with mariachi notes—all Latinas and Latinos. The Cinnamon Tsunami.

GREEN: So is there a risk of Chicano arts, as a movement, fading back?

HERRERA: If it stays the same, there’s a risk of fading back. But it’s also been transforming. You have Judy Baca from L.A. doing digital murals, for example. You have Mario Torero from San Diego who has an established gallery who worked very hard to get there, and Victor Ochoa from San Diego also has a gallery, worked very hard to get there. Yolanda López, still in the Bay Area, an amazing artist, worked very hard to get where she’s at. But things have changed; the murals have changed, been washed over, graffitied over, painted over, faded away, and the new art continues and different artists are here. In some cases they’re the generations of the previous artists. In many cases they’re just brand new self-invented artists doing amazing, beautiful work. So there’s not a monolithic group and it’s not a monolithic tradition. I think the original Chicano movement, if we can call it that—maybe I would say from ’64 through ’74, its peak—that has already taken place. It was already beautiful, and it can’t last forever. Surrealism didn’t last forever. Those artists had their time—1964 is a cool year because that’s the beginning of the United Farm Workers Movement. McFarland was one of the early strikes and perhaps the first major move by the United Farm Workers Union and the Filipino Workers Union coming together.

GREEN: Did your parents participate at all, or were they past being farm workers?

HERRERA: My parents were like the Tomás Rivera farm workers he writes about. Tomás Rivera writes about—who, as you know, was the first Chicano chancellor in this case of UC Riverside and the great pioneering novelist of And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, experimental novel, which came out in the early ’70s, and also an amazing poet. So he says in his interview with Juan Bruce-Novoa in a book called Inquiry by Interview, which is a collection of interviews of Chicano writers, one of the early books of its kind, and in that Tomás Rivera says, “I focused on the farm workers of the ’40s, because those were the years, the decade, when we were unprotected.” There were no protections, no policies, no laws; farm workers could be chewed up and spit out.

GREEN: And that was your parents?

HERRERA: Those were my parents. So that by the late ’50s and ’60s we were living downtown. We were no longer out in my dad’s little trailer that he made or his army truck. My father was born in 1882 and my mother was born in 1907, so my mother was born before the Mexican revolution and my father already had been around; he was in his early twenties by the time Pancho Villa started rockin’ the world. By the time the ’50s came they had already been working quite a bit. And my mother had worked also in San Francisco as a—she called herself a “salad girl”; she worked in the kitchen in the Saint Frances Hotel in Union Square in San Francisco, which is really cool. I can imagine those years, imagine the ’40s—it’s not the best job in the world for sure, but I can imagine strutting out of the Saint Frances Hotel, getting that cool fresh San Francisco air in Union Square, having a nice little meal, and then going to a small apartment. I mean, she wasn’t living the life of the elite, but she was in San Francisco; that’s got to be cool. Hard life, though.

GREEN: Every time I read your work or hear you talk about the past, there’s this sort of magical sense of culture and community and the simplicity that we’ve lost …

HERRERA: [laughs] I think it’s because, as they said in some folks songs, I pine for it; I pine for those moments. They were really good. Yet there were big problems.

GREEN: Did you like growing up as a kid, being migrant?

HERRERA: I liked growing up on the move. It was good.

GREEN: I heard you talk about, or read you write about, sleeping under the stars in that connection—

HERRERA: Yeah, in my children’s book Calling the Doves I mention that. It was utter simplicity, and it was extreme closeness with my mother and father, in particular my mother, because she was just such a great storyteller, and she spent all her time since day one with a tattered—which I still have—album of family photographs from the 1800s. And she liked photography, so we always took photos and added photos into it, from the little brownie camera my Uncle Roberto Quintana gave her—who I also talk about a lot, because he was a great pioneer. He was one of the radio theater pioneers of El Paso-Juárez which was kind of like the hot bed of Latino radio theater and performance in the ’30s, and it had a lot of people in that group that became international stars, like Tin-Tan and El Charrio Avitia. So I’ve always been moved by him. My other uncle …

from Rattle #44, Summer 2014