Juan Felipe Herrera has been named the 21st Poet Laureate. The recently retired creative writing professor from the University of California, Riverside is the first Hispanic poet to be appointed to the position.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who made the announcement on Wednesday, described Professor Herrera's poetry as "the work of an American original."
"His poems engage in a serious sense of play – in language and in image – that I feel gives them enduring power," Mr. Billington wrote in a statement. "I see how they champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity."
Herrera's "cultural perspective" has been growing steadily more visible in contemporary mainstream literature. Born to migrant farm workers in Fowler, Calif., in 1948, he spent most of his childhood moving around the state from small town to small town, living in tents and trailers.
"This is a mega-honor for me, for my family and my parents who came up north before and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – the honor is bigger than me," said Herrera in a Library of Congress press release. "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."
Herrera graduated in 1971 from the University of California, Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in social anthropology, and went on to earn a master's in the same field from Stanford University. While at UCLA, he became involved in the Chicano civil rights movement and experimental theater.
In 1990, he earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. By that time, he had already written four small press books. He has published more than a dozen poetry collections since then, as well as several children's books. Much of his work centers around Chicano culture.
"He is not consciously ambassadorial," says Stephen Burt, professor of English at Harvard University, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He doesn't stop to explain things so people who aren't Latino will understand them; he just does what he does. And trusts, correctly I think, that the language and the emotional trajectories of the characters or the bits of narratives in the poems will fascinate you enough that if you're interested and you don't get the references, then you can go look them up."
Herrera's appointment is particularly significant at a time when border politics and Latino assimilation into mainstream American culture are receiving widespread attention.
"We're being recognized in a very powerful and important way," Luis J. Rodriguez, current poet laureate of Los Angeles, told the LA Times. "Juan Felipe, poet laureate of the United States – this is symbolic of how important our literature, our stories are."