Juan Felipe Herrera becomes first Latino to be named US poet laureate by Library of Congress
A writer of Latino descent was named US poet laureate on Wednesday — a first for the country’s booming Hispanic community.
Juan Felipe Herrera, a Californian of Mexican descent, got the prestigious nod from the Library of Congress, America’s oldest and the world’s biggest.
Herrera, 66, is the 21st writer to receive the title from the library but the first clearly linked to the Hispanic community in the United States.
The designation means that for the next 12 months, with backing from the library, Herrera will be in charge of promoting poetry in the United States.
“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,” Herrera said.
In announcing the honor, Librarian of Congress James Billington compared Herrera’s work to “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.
“His poems engage in a serious sense of play — in language and in image — that I feel gives them enduring power,” Billington said.
“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.”
Born in central California in the town of Fowler, Herrera was the son of migrant farm workers, moving around often and living in tents and trailers along the highway.
But he managed to graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1972 with a degree in social anthropology. He later earned a masters in the same field from Stanford University.
Herrera’s initial work was influenced by his experiences with migrant fruit- and vegetable-pickers. Later he shifted to a style of verse meant above all to be read aloud, one in which the sound of his words and phrases took on a central role. He has said he is influenced by Allen Ginsberg.
Previous poets laureate included Robert Frost, Natasha Trethewey and Stanley Kunitz.
Herrera was already poet laureate of California in 2012 and used the position to launch a program to combat bullying in schools.
Watch Herrera recite “Five Directions To My House” as part of a project for the Academy of American Poets below.