In our lives, we will run across people who have made lasting impacts.
Teachers often top the list.
I can think of a few teachers who have influenced my life.
One of them is Juan Felipe Herrera.
I thought about him recently after I spoke to Jack Hernandez, director of the Bakersfield College Norman Levan Center for the Humanities and philosophy emeritus faculty. Hernandez informed me that Herrera, the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015-16 (and the first Latino to hold that title), will be speaking 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, at the Indoor Theater, the Simonsen Performing Arts Center at BC.
Herrera’s presentation is titled “Surveillance, Violence, Creativity and Compassion.” Hernandez said Herrera, who also served as the California State Poet Laureate from 2012-2014, will discuss the power of poetry in the lives of people and communities.
I’m excited about him visiting my hometown.
If there is anyone who can talk about poetry in a life-changing, meaningful way, it is Juan Felipe (as he preferred to be called by his students).
Juan Felipe was one of my Chicano studies professors at California State University Fresno, where I earned dual bachelor’s degrees, one in Chicano studies and the other in journalism. And even though I was his student more than 20 years ago, I have never forgotten him.
As a Chicano literature professor, respected San Joaquin Valley poet and published author, Juan Felipe taught me to think and write creatively, reflect on my life and put it down in writing, and embrace my identity as a Chicana poet.
Today, many know me as a journalist or historian. Few know my poetic side.
But I still have poetry collections from my classes with Juan Felipe as proof. And every now and then, I pull them out of my personal archives and remember.
I dedicated one of my manuscripts to Juan Felipe, “who stirred a different writing style for me,” I wrote. “Before I only reported. Now I feel writing.”
Understand, though, that Juan Felipe taught us more than just poetry.
He taught us to unearth our past, embrace the good, wrestle with the bad, question our present and contemplate our future.
And in this process, Juan Felipe, who’s also a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth, directed us to reach into our experiences of happiness, pain, aspirations, roadblocks, disappointments, love, strength, hopes, and dreams and put it all in prose or other artistic means.
Earlier in the year, prior to taking his Chicano creative writing class, I had lost my grandmother, Juanita, to cancer. She was a second mother to me, and I was still grieving over her loss. So, whenever I drove 100 miles back home on the weekends while in college, one of the first things I would do was visit her at the cemetery. I’d talk to her about life and cry.
As a student in Juan Felipe’s class, I learned to channel my emotions of sadness, grief and loss into poetry.
Here are some excerpts from my work, “Abulieta y Su Cemetery.”
Take care of my abuelita
I miss her presence
Her tortillas warming on
The comal, the grinding of chile,
The roll of masa
The smell of abuelita
Life is good and I am fine
But you already know
Taste my joys
Soak my sorrows
Fly through the trees
Te extrano (I miss you)
Another time, Juan Felipe, with his signature hat and smile, walked into class in his usual jovial, rhythmic saunter — a reminder to enjoy the present and let go of that fast-paced, stress-filled march — and instructed us to meet him outside the building.
We students looked at each other with this confused look but, of course, we followed our professor.
He led us to an area where he had a pile of sheetrock. Today’s assignment, he said, was to get into different groups, break up the sheetrock however we saw fit, then recreate it into our own works of art. Afterward, we were given art supplies and went for it. We spent a few class sessions working on this project. In one class session, Juan Felipe encouraged us to write about the experience and what went through our minds during the process, of course, in poetic form.
I called my work “Sculpture Maze.” Here are three verses:
I see people in this sculpture
Trying to be free
I see plants in this sculpture
Trying to grow
Hard to let go of yesterday
Not easy living in the future
But you have to
It can bring promises
It can breathe life
In another exercise, Juan Felipe had our class participate in a march in downtown Fresno on behalf of farm workers and reflect on it through poetry.
He always found a way to make us think, feel and write.
In one of my last conversations with Juan Felipe as an undergrad, he shared encouraging words with me: Remember the power of poetry, he said, and keep writing.
Over the years, I kept writing though in other forms. However, I still found value in poetry.
Also, I have remained a quiet fan of his, watching him move on to other colleges, continue to publish collections of poetry and other writings, lead important community causes and of course, inspire more students.
I look forward to seeing him again when he visits BC on March 29. I’d like to thank him for helping me find the poet in myself and for teaching me to become a better person in the process.