The early life of Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948), the U.S. Poet Laureate emeritus, was shaped by the farmworker’s cycle of seasonal work. His poetry, rich in Mexican pop culture, distills a unique music. He is the author of Akrilica (1989), Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999), and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (2007), among other books. In this dialogue with Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor at Amherst College and the editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which took place in Los Angeles, California on April 19, 2023, he reflects on his formative experiences as a poet defined by an itinerant childhood.
Ilan Stavans: Take me back to your farmworker’s childhood in the San Joaquín and Salinas valleys.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Look at this photograph, Ilan. It is in Escondido, California. I’m standing up, with a staff in my hand, in front of the milpa, a corn stalk I planted with my father. This is one of my deepest memories: the ranchos of my boyhood. I grew up in an utterly different world from the one I live in now. My father was born in 1882, my mother in 1904. My world was made of pre-revolution tales such as the Venustiano Carranza orphanage, where my mother was left to survive in extreme poverty. I treasure my parents’ songs and stories. My father had had a previous family, meaning I had half-brothers and half-sisters. But I only met up with them in 2010, when they were in their eighties and nighties, that is, another generation. The oldest was born in 1912 or so.
As I think back, it was my father who needed to move. It was an urge and an inspiration. He left his own family at age 14, jumped a train and headed to Denver, Colorado. I’m an only child, so the three of us were together: father, mother, and son. We lived on Lincoln Road in Escondido, a dusty road, in an open area, say a couple of acres, where you found trailers, pickup trucks, mostly brambles and briars. And people, of course: friends, neighbors, ranchers. We lived on pennies, welfare, and whatever monies my mother could acquire at the pawn shops, trading her thin gold ring. It was all very fragile, transient—and beautiful and quiet. We would stay put, planting corn, until it was time for my parents to find new work, which meant we moved out, ready to start again elsewhere. But while we were in one place, I felt a communion with it, and its farm animals, open spaces, the land itself—and of all things, its ants that I bombarded with kerosene; they were my fiery toys. And, to make things fair, the red ants chewed up my feet.
That is how a mejicano family lived, or at least this mejicano family—in a makeshift trailer, crooked, built on top of an axle ripped out of a car. That was home. I’ve incorporated it into my children’s books. It was pulled by a giant 1940s army truck, our vehicle across the California landscape. For work, my father drove a tractor. He worked with his hands and machines. And one day, while we were laboring the land, the green van of the Border Patrol arrived. They knocked on the door of my friends’ house, all children my age—Carmen, Eddy, and María Luisa. One by one, they walked out of their home and into the van. They left the rancho. Previously Mr. García, their father, had wanted to sell their house to my father for $2,000. “You can have it, and the land as well, but please give us $2,000.” Needless to say, it’s the last thing we would have: $2,000! We were lucky if we had $20, but never $200, let alone $2,000. That is another lasting memory: the green van taking off with my friends, with their parents. It was the age of segregation. On that dusty road, I stood and watched the van disappear.
IS: The connection to the land you describe makes me think of the settlers in 17th-century America. I am fascinated by how they described their landscape.
JFH: You’ve paid tribute to them in your book The People’s Tongue. It is an incredible, historically deep, insightful anthology. It makes me want to run and forge a new poetry, a true all-encompassing, unabashed, language mural—heart-sharpened and nerve-inked.
IS: Talking about your boyhood language, did you mix Spanish and English with your parents, your friends, your neighbors? At what moment did you feel words, regardless of their provenance?
JFH: A crucial question. My mother was the superb natural teacher. And she loved teaching me. She also loved adivinanzas, cuentos, canciones. She loved language in general. My mother wasn’t allowed to go to school, since my abuela was estricta. Those earlier generations, our grandparents and great grandparents, were pretty stern. If you were caught stealing a candy, just a candy, with a friend who lured you, it was over for you. The excuse didn’t matter: “It wasn’t my fault. I was drawn into it because I just wanted a piece of candy.” Nada: “From now on, you won’t go to school.” That was my mother’s punishment. But she didn’t give up; on the contrary, she learned to read and write by herself. It was she who taught me the Spanish alphabet using a late-1800s primer: a drawing of a chinela, a slipper, to learn words with the sound “ch,” like charro, chico, churro, etc. That is how I was formally introduced to el español and its letters. I remember walking with her in downtown Escondido and she would enunciate the letters: ah, ah, beh, beh, seh, seh…, in other words, a, b, c. Then she would tell me a cuento. Or she would sing a canción. The sidewalk was my open-air school.
The first day I went to Central Elementary, my father drove me in his giant pickup army truck. “You see the building right there?” he said. That’s your school. Step out and find your way.” I did what he said: I opened the giant door, looked down a dark empty hall, and realized I had to choose and find my way. I opened the nearest door. I came into a classroom. I saw a huddle of students kneeling next to a teacher, who was sitting in her chair. “Come here!” she said. “You’re late.” She spanked me as I tried to say something, but I didn’t know what, since it was all garbled up, part Spanish, part English. Yes, I remember being punished by my first teacher. Then, when it was time for the pledge of allegiance, I raised my hand to figure out what a pledge was. I was in a strange world, becoming stranger by the second.
Central Elementary was only one of a number of elementary schools I attended. “You’re in the wrong school,” I remember the principal of Burbank Elementary in Barrio Logan Heights, in San Diego telling me once. “You don’t live in this area.” But I did, except we had just moved to Crosby and National Streets. The change of scenery was at once refreshing and disrupting. I had to make due, adapting quickly to transitions. This is what the life of the migrant worker is about: a sequence of episodes, the feeling of being rootless. Only on the surface, though, because actually we had roots. Not to be tied to a place has its benefits, offering you freedom. Yes, Spanglish frees me, since Spanish is located in one part of my brain and English in another.
IS: Does Spanglish therefore symbolize freedom for you?
JFH: You will like this, Ilan. My mother’s stories were always about Mexico, about the journey her family made from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. For me, that corridor is where Spanglish springs from. One of the family members was Tío Roberto, a post-Mexican Revolution radio artist who, in his mid-twenties, teamed up with Germán Valdés. In a few words, Spanglish, community speech, borderlands verse is always freedom, social response, a daring creative and communicative reality.
IS: Do you mean Tin Tan, when you say Germán Valdés?
JFH: None other than Tin Tan el revoltoso, the border warrior, el pacheuco fronterizo.
IS: One of the first performers from the U.S.-Mexico border to use Spanglish in his acts. ¡Ya llegó su pachucada! In his early career, Tin Tan dressed as a pachuco.
JFH: He did, indeed. My Tío Roberto gave Germán Valdés the nickname of Tin Tan. You’ve written about Cantinflas.
IS: You said it right, Tin Tan was the border warrior. You won’t believe it: I’m about to finish a book-length meditation on him. I have watched his hundred-plus movies, a staple of the golden age of Mexican cinema, though, in all honesty, not aesthetically pleasing. He worked with director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. I have been in touch with his daughter, Rosalía Valdés. It is Tin Tan’s miscellaneous language, his penchant for improvisation, that nurtured the early days of Spanglish. To be honest, I’m not surprised you, Juan Felipe, are linked to Germán Valdés. You share a stance in life: the indefatigable conviction that borders, especially artistic borders, are made to be dismantled.
JFH: Yes sir! The ’30s and ’40s were creatively explosive: a time for auditions for the new radio stations in Júarez, XEJ and XEP. All the youth took their guitars, songs and singing groups to audition, to see if they could land a gig in the station’s programming. This included Eva and Cuca Aguirre, Miguel Aceves Mejía, and Francisco “Charro” Avitia. They were all teenagers. They ended up performing in that corrido: Mexico City, Ciudad Juárez, San Antonio.
Anyway, English—rigid English—entered my sphere in school. Spanish, in contrast, appears melodic to me. It feels elastic, since the language moves through tenses. In Carlos Fuentes’s novella Aura, the future kicks in by exploring the past. Many years later, at Stanford, where I met poet Francisco Alarcón, I read Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. As you know, Ilan, the Spanish title is Rayuela. Times, places, plots—everything in it is interchangeable. With Alarcón, I also read the Brazilian maestro Jorge Amado, and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who I think is one of your favorites.
IS: Yes, he is.
JFH: Pessoa is fabulous. There are many Pessoas in Pessoa. Does his name mean “person” in Portuguese? In my Stanford years, it was through them that I discovered the music of poetry. They used the language freely. I immediately thought of a Black third-grade teacher I had years before, Mrs. Lelya Sampson. She played gospel music. I was amazed but also frightened. One day, Mrs. Sampson said, “Juan, come up to the front of class.” I was terrified. Expressing myself in public was difficult. “I want you to sing a song for the class. Don’t worry, I’m right next to you.” And I did: I sang the most popular song in the world, “Three Blind Mice.” Mrs. Sampson turned to me, announcing, “Well, you have a beautiful voice.” And, lo and behold, I had question I had to solve for the next three decades—a quantum nanoparticle hitting me forever: “What is a voice? My voice? What is beautiful? Is it possible that I have a beautiful voice? What shall I do, now?” I could entertain people with my voice, maybe. In fact, she subsequently made me sing a solo for the school assembly. That happened in Lowell Elementary. And you know, Ilan, when it was announced that I would be the Poet Laureate of the United States, my 85-year-old teacher, Mrs. Sampson, now 102, phoned to congratulate me. But it was I who needed to thank her, since she found the poet in me. The gospel she had taught us, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” was still in me. And, fittingly, all my subsequent poetry goes back to that moment. On the phone, I said, “Mrs. Sampson, why did you call me up to the front of class?” Her answer was straightforward: “Because I noticed you liked music.”
Let me invoke another teacher, Mr. Warner, who I had in eighth grade. “Students,” Mr. Warner said once, “I want you to write a report while spicing up your vocabulary.” I was inspired because my mother used to buy Reader’s Digest. Remember a section called “Word Power”? One of the words in the section was donnybrook, meaning a scrimmage. Okay, I told myself, I have one sharp word. What else? Quiescent—maybe a bit funky but useful nonetheless. You see, Ilan, I started liking word power. And somewhat difficult English words. All of a sudden, I had a little thing going that kind of pushes you forward, maybe even up. That thing is called magic. Or else, it is called poetry. You make it with simple words but only after recognizing that words are different, that they belong to spheres. All it takes is to make a sentence that feels personal, unique: instead of saying “María went to school,” you say “To school María journeyed.” Or “It was María a la escuela.”
From then on, I started to enjoy the architecture of sentences. I could see the connection with the adivinazas my mother told. This exercise made me discover translation, that is, the connection between languages. That is a cebolla, meaning an onion. Same thing but not really. And soon enough, you realize you’re telling stories, all in response to the nomadic life. Those stories made me rub my hands together, because I couldn’t wait to do more word games, which is easy for me for some reason. I enjoyed putting pieces together into something bigger, particularly if it involves palabras, words. You see, every sentence, every poem has a life, it has its own wonder.
IS: Are farmworkers today different?
JFH: I came of age during the Chicano Movement, in the sixties. Becoming a Chicano poet for me happened when, in the early sixties, I bumped into Alurista. We knew each other from high school and became neighbors on 11th and D Street, in downtown San Diego. Eventually, we wrote poetry together. Together we read Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Nietzsche and others. In other words, we shared an intellectual apprenticeship, learning how to be Chicanos by exposing ourselves to great thinkers from abroad. To be a Chicano was to contest the social and cultural realties we faced as a people. For us, it meant using poetry to call attention to our own background, the racism we experienced, the need for a reality we could make and push into the future. And in my case, it was infused by the farmworker’s days I carried in my heart.
I don’t know if that spirit, Chicanismo, is still alive. I’m not sure poetry comes alive in MFA workshops. On the contrary, it is watered down, churned into material everybody votes on. That isn’t what we were doing in the sixties. Ours was a trial by fire. We had pressure to assimilate, but we resisted it, looking to strike some balance. The workshop poem is elegant, accessible, meticulously crafted. But does it have Spanglish? Our own style was forged on the road, in the crunch that is open-road life.
IS: What do you retain of that farmworker boy in Escondido?
JFH: Maybe I will offer you another facet of my father. When I close my eyes and see the milpa, I feel his warmth next to me, and his strength. Unlike my mother, he wasn’t a fountain of words. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him. He spoke through silences, stories at times and chistes. Perhaps it was a way to cope with the constant moving. We would plant corn together not uttering a sound. Yet there was much that traveled from him to me and back. I was telling you before about my passion to find logic in sentences. If you look at them closely, Ilan, they might not seem very orderly, although, believe me, they are. Language to me is like Legos: words are blocks with which you build buildings. But those blocks are sometimes made of silences, too, like the ones I learned from my father. Like the ones that follow the thawing winds, and give the buried flowers a dream, like Robert Frost says in one of his early poems.
Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. His latest books are The People’s Tongue: America and the English Language and The Mexican Dreidel.
Juan Felipe Herrera was born on the farm-working road in 1948. His mother Lucha was born in 1904 before the Mexican Revolution and migrated to El Paso, Texas in 1918. His father was born in in 1882 and jumped a train at fifteen years of age to find hard labor work in Denver, Colorado. It was a farmworker family.
Juan, an only child, with his parents, lived in a makeshift trailer pulled by an old Army truck. During his childhood, Juan traveled through agricultural fields, mountains, and little ranches where his parents found work. After they settled in San Diego, California, Juan finished middle and high school where he excelled in art, choir and English lit — and won a full scholarship to UCLA where he majored in Social Anthropology.
He took interest in traveling to various zones of Mexico to meet indigenous groups and listen and record their stories — the Totonac in Veracruz, Lacandón Maya in the vestiges of the rainforest, and the Huichol peoples in the Sierra Nayar of Nayarit, Mexico. Those materials are housed in the Chicanx and Latin American Archives at Stanford University, where he majored in Social Anthropology and received his MA in the early 80s. His interest in literature and poetry continued.
He was offered a grad assistant fellowship at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he received his MFA in Poetry. Since then he has taught at various Universities—Cal State-Fresno, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and University of California-Riverside. He has over 30 creative writing books published in various genres including children’s books, poetry, non-fiction and hybrid material with cartoons for middle grades. His emphasis has been to speak for the benefit of those who suffer, migrant children and families, and LGBTQ+ students being harassed in schools, and to honor the lives of people of color massacred in various environments. His focus is one of serving humanity.
For these accomplishments, fifty years of serving the public, he has won many awards including NEA fellowships, Guggenheim Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award, UCLA Chancellor’s Medal, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Robert Kirsch, LA Times Lifetime Achievement Award, UC-Riverside – LA Review of Books Lifetime Achievement Award, Latino Hall of Fame, and the recent Robert Frost Lifetime Achievement Medal.
His poetry was engraved on a plaque enclosed on the NASA “Lucy,” un-crewed, robotic, interplanetary spacecraft sent into space for solar research and inquiry into the “Trojan” set of three asteroids in the Fall of 2022. His poem,”Sunriders,” speaks about a better Earth, a world without division and hate, rather, one of kindness for all of humanity. He lives in Fresno with his wife, poet Margarita Robles, and family. The Juan Felipe Herrera Elementary School was inaugurated in August 2022.