At the reading this evening by U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, the Presidential election did not come up once. The name of the candidate (who I won’t name) who called Mexicans “rapists” did not get stated once by anyone (not even in the often dangerous Q&A). Herrera stuck to his art: poetry, call and response with the audience, commentary on growing up the child of migrant workers from Mexico, who were illegal, and who endured so he could endure.
He read from many of his books but mostly from his vast collection of poetry, recollections, and ancedotes, ’187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border.’ He read the title poem, of course, but not all 187 reasons. He gave us the radio version and stuck to some of the most enduring lines like “Because Richie Valens is alive in West Liberty, Iowa” and “Because the CIA needs us in the Third World State of mind.”
I have known of Herrera for years but because poetry in America and the world is so vast, you cannot absord all the work of all the poets. It was great to finally meet Herrera and watch him deliver his mixture of reading, sermon, solo, and tribute, most of the time, to those who paved the way for him.
In these times, he is a breath of fresh air not receiving enough “air time” perhaps. The candidate whose name we cannot mention is the antithesis of Herrera. Herrera is humble and gracious in his artistic service to the Americas. It is an honor to carry the word from coast to coast like it is scripture or “salsa” he has made in his own kitchen. As I heard Herrera read, and spoke to him later, he, I am sure, and artists like him are the future. He is the ‘Nuevo Mundo’ that is to come soon and which is, to a certain extent, already here whether some admit it or not.
Most impressive though was the centrality of people and equality in his words. This is his artistic manifesto. The lives of ordinary citizens, known, and unknown. Rodney King. Jorge Argueta. People of the Americas who are the best of what we are but who barely get our attention in today’s absurd world dominated by social media, echo chambers, and mindless politics. Herrera reminds us what we should be fighting for and why and he does it without telling us what to do but just by paying attention to the details of our days most of us miss.