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The day the Poet Laureate came to UCOP

 

On Monday, March 28, UCOP staff paid rapt attention to a sound not often heard at work: poetry.

In honor of Cesar Chavez Day, the U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera made a special visit to UCOP to read poetry, discuss the struggles of migrant farmworkers and talk about how he found his voice – not just as a poet but as a person.

Herrera was warmly introduced by President Napolitano, who recalled that after meeting him, he gave her the “homework” of writing a poem, which she then surprised the audience by reading. Titled “Emphasis,” it considers the ways in which we choose to see each other: “I could look at you and only perceive the differences, clothed in harsh, convenient labels. What joins us, however, deserves more study and attention. Seven billion people share the earth, each with a mind, a consciousness, a soul. The emphasis should be on what matters most. On these three things.”

It was an apt introduction to the life work of both Chavez and Herrera: putting equal emphasis on all human lives. As a reminder of the importance of that work, a slideshow at the event featured photos from all stages of Chavez’s life, at protests and with famous supporters such as Robert F. Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, as well as discriminatory signs of the era such as “No dogs, Negroes or Mexicans.” To address such ugliness, Herrera takes the high road in his poetry: “We are the wall that breaks down the wall.”

Becoming U.S. Poet Laureate is the capstone in a long and impressive career for Herrera. He has also served as the Poet Laureate of California, taught at UC Riverside, been a performance artist and activist, and written 30 books of poetry and prose. So it’s hard to believe that he started out as a shy boy afraid to speak at school because he knew no English. A turning point came when his kind third grade teacher persuaded him to sing a song and then told him, “You have a beautiful voice.” By the end of the year, he was singing gospel in front of the entire school. “She put me on the road,” he said fondly of the 95-year-old he still stays in touch with.

Slowly Herrera learned to use that beautiful voice, but the fear and shame caused by discrimination did not make it easy. Asked “What are you?” by his eighth grade teacher, he felt unable to say that he was Mexican and answered “Hawaiian.” But his life was transformed by the civil rights movement and Chavez’s work, which dovetailed with the courage he had always admired in his farmworker parents. He credits his mother with “lighting the fire” by instilling both family pride and love of story with her tales about past generations, while his father added the necessary “fuel” with his stalwart optimism in the face of difficulty.

“I didn’t want to tremble anymore, I didn’t want to lie,” said Herrera about the decision to speak out at last. “I had to put myself in the place I didn’t want to be.”

Speaking of the protests that Chavez and others such as Dolores Huerta led, Herrera recalled that the farmworkers would walk all the way to Sacramento to make their voices heard, because “they wanted a whole new beautiful life that they’d worked so hard for and were never given.” Citing inspiration as “the most important ingredient,” he said that, “I wanted my voice to be part of their voices.”

Herrera then gave the audience a stunning sample of his voice, reading parts of the poem “We are the wall that breaks down the wall.” Written in a rhythmic mix of English and Spanish, the poem echoes the voices of farmworkers sharing food and community even in the midst of backbreaking work, as well as the invitation by Chavez to join the struggle for a better life. Beautiful images such as a “stone black bowl, the shape of two hands open to the sky” alternate with poignant questions about the meaning and value of each human life: “Who knows us? Many years have passed, who knows us? Do we know ourselves?”

The hypnotic rhythms of Herrera’s poem inspired the audience, who enthusiastically answered his invitation for a call and response of key lines, making the poem and the struggle theirs, too. As the poem explained, “When you are the border, you no longer see it. You can cross freely. And if you do, all you have left is your humanity. Because you have left everything else behind.”

“That was wonderful,” said Angela Hom of ITS as the event ended. “We should have poetry every day at the office.”

A sentiment that the poet laureate would no doubt agree with, just as he agreed with a statement from President Napolitano’s introduction: “All of us are poets in our own way.”

 

 


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