November 25, 2020

Juan Felipe Herrera: A Poet in Movement

By Cord Brooks A SEISMIC SHIFT reverberated in the American poetry scene when Juan Felipe Herrera was selected poet laureate of California in 2012, but even more so when he was the first Chicano to be appointed US Poet Laureate from 2015–’17. Indeed, Chicano literature has continued to garner respectability since its fiery renaissance over 50 years ago when some academic circles smirked at its literary pretensions. This literature can no longer be considered a joke, a passing fad, or what some considered then a mere byproduct of cultural nationalist pamphleteerism. It has earned a rightful place on the center stage both nationally and internationally. A lengthy list of prominent Chicano writers has redefined what the American experience has been in the broadest and most diverse ways, including Luis Alberto Urrea, Rudolfo Anaya, John Rechy, Sandra Cisneros, Reyna Grande, Ana Castillo, Miguel Méndez, whose impact is in part evident through numerous nominations and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the PEN America Literary Award, and others, though the Nobel Prize continues to be elusive.
Juan Felipe Herrera, a leading voice of working-class and migrant parents, exemplifies this booming movement to capture with prodigious authenticity the petite histoires of people of Mexican descent in the United States. Elected to the highest distinction as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2011, Herrera now stands at the apex of his long career of stylistic experimentations, epic introspections, and constant innovations, thanks in great part to his deep sense of versatility and immediacy. He has not stood still, bringing into play elements of activism from the Chicano Movement as a performer, poet, novelist, writer of children’s books, teacher, cartoonist, photographer, chronicler, scriptwriter, and muralist — all integral parts of his writings that cross the genre spectrum. He has produced at least 35 books, starting with his innovative indigenist and Spanglish classic Rebozos of Love//We Have Woven//Sudor de Pueblos/ On Our Back (1974) and most recently with Every Day We Get More Illegal (2020). Sandwiched between those years are various landmark works, including Akrílica (1989), a fresh rendition of postmodern vanguard poetry, and 187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: An Emergency Poem (1995), a clever spoof on the controversial Proposition 187 in 1994 that attempted to prevent immigrants from receiving non-emergency health care and public education. His trajectory encompasses every major vanguard trend and style since the 1960s, ranging from the Beat Generation to poetry as calligrams, from cultural nationalism to Spanglish, and from a militancy for social justice to surrealistic constructions.
Herrera’s Every Day We Get More Illegal lays out markers of an incessant path of movement — “seekers wanderers” in search of self-discovery. Organized into six sections, each titled “Address Book for the Firefly on the Road North” and numbered 1–6, including a subsection called “Interruptions” within section 2, and a final segment titled “Come with Me,” the book offers a collection of 32 free-flowing fragments that somehow complement each other as echoes, depicting or suggesting the migration of largely anonymous beings waiting to cross the border while seeking a sense of self-worth. Their meditative, hushed voices form an unsuspecting epic of thoughts and sentiments, impressions and images, reflections and even short-circuited dialogues. Much of this occurs either in the dark, in the realm of virtual anonymity, or as invisible acts by invisible people. The aggregate of poems comes together under the category of an appeal (“don’t push the button”), a warning or an invocation as obscure bodies travel north, seeking some kind of self-realization and economic agency. A sense of smallness — highlighting the migrants’ supposed insignificance — prevails through most of the poems, yet there is also a sense of subdued celebration in the act of witnessing their lives.
These free-wheeling poetic fragments or snapshots (often referred to as “notes,” as when he writes “these are notes for your nourishment”) sometimes unfold in a style of stream of consciousness, capturing the intra-historical or quotidian moments of human existence. Most poems (e.g., “You Just Don’t Talk About It” and “in lost languages we will whisper / their unwritten wishes — ”) address in quiet ways the poetic voices’ relegation to the margins, inviting the reader to take part in understanding their predicament. Our guide is the tiny firefly from the section titles that offers the implicit mass of characters a guiding light in the dark to witness their own movement. Besides the omnipresent firefly, there are other motifs of lightness and darkness: “noon light,” “blackish light,” “time-stone light,” “light twirlers,” and “yellow light.” In this regard, Herrera composes perspectives of awareness and potential rebirth, ultimately creating an internal testimonial of hope (“dawned-eye freedom”) and a spiritual motivation to be able to continue going north. In between the various sections, we find interspersed flashes of philosophy — from such figures as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, John Milton, Ko Un, Matsuo Basho, Octavio Paz — or words of common sense: “Your consciousness / is ever expanding / onto infinity” and “all we desire is peace bread water clothes work a thatched roof — & humanity — most of all.” Herrera wants us to consider attaining real and concrete methods of achieving unity for the scattered souls who move under the radar and in the shadows.
Little by little, the reader ends up piecing together multiple fragments that depict a sizable working-class community consisting of truck drivers, poultry woman workers, tobacco leaf rollers, packing house laborers, etc., who “touch the earth — for you.” This is when the objectified become subjects of action and consequence. In a key moment of realization, the speaker in the poem “Enuf” now recognizes how he has gone back and forth in the process of assimilation, concluding: “used to think I was not American enuf / now it is the other way around.” At one point in a disjointed dialogue, a protestor who is accused of being a paid protestor claims that he is there strictly of his own free will. At this point in the collection, the issue of being illegal is confronted in the poem “Interview w/a Border Machine,” where the Indian woman Xóchitl Tzompantli dialogues with a stubborn and persistent wall that claims to define the woman’s condition, but to whom she retorts with confidence: “i give you / meaning.” The marrow of the collection comes into full view in the title poem “Every Day We Get More Illegal” in which a chorus of people (“spirit exiles”) emerges from the shadows to find work and a sense of self. The message is clear: such people struggle to defy illegality as a human condition, and despite their many efforts, illegality hangs over them like Damocles’s sword. Illegality is seen then as an aberration, an anomaly that dehumanizes and can ultimately kill: the poem “Border Fever 105.7 Degrees” cites two cases of children who died in detention camps under the custody of Customs and Border Protection officials. In one instance, a border guard tell the children: “why do you cry / those are not screams you hear across this cage / it is      a symphony.”
What began in Herrera’s Every Day We Get More Illegal as a quiet portrayal of witnessing the effects and experiences of migrating north, soon becomes an edgy yet soulful expression that shows the spectrum of suffering and marginalization of those who are undocumented. But this social environment of quiet distress is not always direct and obvious. Rather, it is usually sublime, encoded, even provocatively subtle. The author uses a method of syllogism through a series of interpretive associations by having the reader deduce, extrapolate, decipher, and decode the situations represented. He does not dictate a facile ideology, but rather, appeals to the readers’ good sense of humanity by providing a profound insight into defenseless people trying to get somewhere and attain something. The ultimate warning is: If we don’t reconcile such inequities, “we” (meaning all of us) are contributing to “illegality,” and only the tiny firefly can free us of such trappings. In sum, this collection is timely, even necessary, to shatter the walls of demagoguery and cruelty against those who are most vulnerable. While Herrera’s Every Day We Get More Illegal induces a steady dose of social commitment, it is accomplished by winning over the reader through mild suggestion instead of outright incitement for immediate action. Consequently, that should come later by those who discover their own free will via their own ethical conclusions.
Francisco A. Lomelí is a Professor Emeritus from the Chicana/o Studies and Spanish and Portuguese Departments at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has written extensively on Chicana/o and Latin American literatures with a particular emphasis on literary history, theory of the novel, Southwestern culture and Spanglish.
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