40 Years of Activist Poetry
Juan Felipe Herrera
“I didn’t start out to be a poet. Because I had been silenced, I started out to be a speaker.”
Juan Felipe Herrera is an artist with an activist’s mentality. He crafts his poetry, which recalls the beat of the street, into both the speech of a movement and later the speech of slow and steady social change. For over four decades Herrera has been publishing poetry – a verse influenced in style by the theater and Mexicano music and in content by the social context of his people. Herrera said, “As a Chicano and person of color, it is part of my poetics to respond to and transform and transcend the negative, narrow and easy explanations, summations and projections of who we are” (Go to the written interview of Herrera, interviewed by Lisa Alvarado).
Some critics have noticed Herrera’s artful rhetoric for social change. Maria Antonio Oliver-Roter, in a review of Herrera’ “travelogue”, Mayan Drifter, comments on how Herrera and his fellow “post-movimiento” writers use even their self-proclaimed title “… ‘Chicano’ as an act of commitment to the struggle for social justice…” (Purpura 381)But other critics are so entranced by the beauty of Herrera’s art they fail to see Herrera’s high obligations. In a glowing review of Herrera’s new books of poetry, Half the World in Light and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, Stephen Burt of the New York Times writes that Herrera, “…is no mere recorder of social conditions. Herrera is, instead … a[n] unpredictable poet, whose work commands attention for its style alone” (Go to this Review).
All of this is true; but Herrera is also not merely a recorder of social conditions who is also a stylistic master. Herrera strives, through his poetry, to either affect change or appreciate those who do. And though Herrera’s newer poetry, which has become less incendiary and more academic, has traveled a long way from his earlier and traditionally ‘movimiento’ rhetoric, he still promises never to lose what he calls an “activist perspective” (Alvarado). This essay will place Herrera’s poetry within the context of his life and the larger Chicano movement and will show Herrera to be not just an artful recorder, but also someone who appreciates activism and seeks to be an activist in his own poetry.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s life journey that led to the publication of one of his earliest poems, Mission Street Manifesto, was one of struggle, achievement, and pride. Born in 1948 Herrera and his parents worked in the fields of the San Joaquin valley, living in “small towns, ranches and worker fields” (biography). In 1967, after his family settled down near San Diego, Herrera graduated from high school and in 1972 he graduated from UCLA with a degree in Social Anthropology. During his college years Herrera, “… became an activist … and a poet interested in experimental poetry and theatre…” (biography). In 1980, a year before he first preformed Misssion Street Manifesto, Herrera earned a masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford University (Go To Herrera's CV).
Though he was involved in academics, Herrera was still caught up in the pride of the movimiento during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Among other things Herrera petitioned his chancellor for more Chicano studies classes and he attended some of the Chicano movement’s anti-Vietnam protest rallies, the Chicano Moratorium of L.A (187 reasons). These rallies provided the very experiences, which Herrera drew from to write Mission Street Manifesto.
In Herrera’s book of poetry 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border Mission Street Manifesto appears in a section entitled, “Photo-Poem of the Chicano Moratorium 1980/L.A.: Circa 1980-83” (187 Reasons 273-80). (P.S. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border is a good book, I bought it, and would recommend it.) Reed Johnson, writing for the L.A. Times on the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War’s 40-year anniversary, described the original event which started out peacefully but ultimately resulted in the death of some of the most influential people of the movement as, “among the most significant in modern Mexican American history” (Go to the article about the Chicano Moratorium).
But the rally Herrera describes is the 10-year anniversary of the original, a 1980 commemoration and also a political rally for worker’s rights and a protest of the conflict in El Salvador (187 reasons). In all likelihood, Herrera, a true, but young, veterano of the movement had attended both rallies, the first as a sophomore in college at UCLA and the 1980 commemoration as a recent graduate of Stanford (CV).
Mission Street Manifesto Analysis
Street Manifesto is not a finely crafted argument for any of Herrera’s many political causes, and in that sense it is not activist. However, a close reading will reveal the value and excitement Herrera finds in actively striving for social change. First, Herrera captures the power of the rally scene by constructing a very theatrical but also conversational poem, in which the speaker mimics the rap-speak of the street and the chanting, heard at rallies. The entire poem is contained within one stanza, with the line breaks consistently appearing after about every 15 syllables. At first glance this might create the illusion of blank verse, requiring a long chant-like performance. In fact, though the poem as a whole has no consistent formal meter, certain verses and phrases do.
These small metered sections seem natural to conversation and augment the chant-like but also conversational nature of the poem, as in the iambic form of “our handsome jaws of tender truth” (14) and “that has the eyes that gnaws / the chains” (3-4). Additionally, Herrera alludes to the musicality associated with chants and rap when he uses poetic devices such as internal rhyme, “the right to decay the triple K” (26) and alliteration “the sorrow of the silent skull” (18). And like true verbal speech, which is not written, this poem has no punctuation and no capitalization. In parts of the poem, the lack of punctuation makes it unclear how the phrase should be understood, like when the speaker observes, “the funky dog of sun and moon pull / out the diamonds” (10-11). It is as though many voices were shouting in a crowd and all of them were running together to form one crazy voice.
But the most obvious, and most prevalent structural device the speaker uses to mimic the energy of chant is repetition and anaphora. In his review Burt notices, generally, Herrera’s masterfully use of anaphora, “No poet alive uses anaphora better; none relies on it more” (Burt 1). Though this poem does not contain the kind of classic anaphora Herrera uses in other poems, the device is similar. For example, the phrase, “rise sisters rise brother and spill the song and sing the blood” is repeated four times throughout the poem and sort of demarcates different sections.
This phrase, with its iambic form and the potent verb “rise”, sounds like a fragment of something that might actually have been a rallying cry on the streets of East L.A. A closer look at the poem reveals that certain sections contain heavily repeated words and groups of words, especially the aforementioned word, “rise” as well as “libre” and “go”, as in“ go / whirling go singing go shining” (12-13), “go chanting libre chanting libre chanting libre go chanting libre go libre” (21), and “and rise and rise libre libre and rise and rise and rise libre and rise” (29). These two most used and repeated action words, “go” and “rise”, nicely complement the Spanish adjective “libre” or free.
Together this anaphoric diction conveys both the energy and purpose of the protestors, action and freedom.Herrera does not merely record the wild scene of the demonstrators and their cries but he allows the speaker to embody the crowd’s emotions and in doing so glorifies their efforts. The poem begins with the speaker throwing off oppression and madness, when the speaker proclaims, “Blow out the jiving smoke the plastic mix the huddling straw of the / dying mind and rise sisters…” (1-2). This phrase, repeated again at the very end of the poem, is an action of defiance in throwing off the oppressor. Here the protestors are vigorously fighting for their own cause. The protestors are joyful with the imagery of music – they “make the riff jump the jazz ignite” (5), they “swing out the breathing drums the tumbling flutes” (17) and they dance the “shing-a-ling the funky dog of sun and moon” (10).Yet there is more than just happiness in the emotional rally, there is also excitement in the potential for real change. Towards the end of the poem the speaker discovers that the cry of the crowd is a vision of a better future, “the will of the worker now the / destiny of the children libre” (22-23). These same workers, fighting for justice, are able to “blow out” the “the patrolling gods the corporate / saints the plutonium clouds” (24-25), discover their “right to decay the triple K the burning cross…” (26), and “stop the neutron man the nuclear dream…” (27). Though the strongly worded, and slightly satirical diction implies Herrera’s strong political opinions, for example, “well-groomed empire” (28) and the “territorial rape / game” (26-27) there is no need for an explanation of each political issue – the point is simply that through collective action they can succeed! Ultimately the speaker proclaims the ability of the protestors to “rise” up and “blow out” not only the physical oppressors but also the oppressors of the mind. Read in this way, the “forever” refrain of the final lines (32-34) is a testament to the movimiento of Herrera’s youth which, through its groundbreaking rallies, “forever” got rid of the passivity of the “dying mind” and sparked real social change. As a veterano looking back only 10 years, Herrera appreciates and glorifies the power of activism on the collective mindset of a people.
Before you delve into Herrera's later biography, slide through some of his critically acclaimed works of fiction, poetry, plays, children's literature, and artwork:
Juan Felipe Herrera on his own life, on the lives of his Chicano writer friends, and the History of the Chicano movement, in 2005. Its long but there are some really interesting stories:
187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, which was published in 1994, is much more removed from the movimiento period than Mission Street Manifesto, which Herrera first preformed only seven years after the movement’s traditional end in 1974. In between the writing of these two poems, Herrera immersed himself quite fully in academia (Alvarado). He obtained another post-graduate degree, a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa and then served as Associate Professor at the University of Southern Illinois while continuing to publish (CV 1). When 187 Reasons first appeared in print Herrera was serving as a Professor in the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department at California State University Fresno (CV 1). Despite this distance in time, and perhaps mental state, Herrera is still able to maintain an “activist perspective” in this much newer poem.
Juan Felipe Herrera now teaches at the University of California, Riverside. This is a video written and preformed in one of his classes in 2008:
187 Reasons Analysis
This is a clip of Herrera reading from 187 Reasons and other poems at the Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles, November 2007. Notice the theatrical style of performance.
Unlike Mission Street Manifesto, 187 Reasons does not have direct references to the experiences of a veterano or the great rallies of the movimiento but it is an argument for social change very relevant to Herrera’s contemporary time and place. Herrera notes, “Rather than amovimiento, since '74, we have streams, fugues, variations, implosions, counter-currents all at the same time” (Alvarado). This poem is one of these fugues, it is an academic protest that articulates what Burt writes is “…anger over California’s Proposition 187, designed to keep illegal immigrants out” (Burt 1).
187 Reasons is very much an argument. Almost every single line has, if not at first apparent, a subtle or deeper political message. For example the first line, “Because Lou Dobbs has been misusing the subjunctive again” (1), at first seems like silly joke directed at the anti-immigration journalist Lou Dobbs. But Dobbs, who works for CNN should clearly not be “misusing” any grammatical constructs. Herrera, a professor of English, pointing out this grammatical failure could be making a political statement about how far a Chicano migrant worker can come or about the ignorance of those who push for harsh immigration legislation. Similarly, even the imagery of “Because you can’t shrink-wrap enchiladas”, has a political message – the reader sees Mexican culture, represented by the enchilada, resisting assimilation by corporate America. And some lines are blatantly political and get straight to the point, “Because its Indian land stolen from our mothers” (12).
In doing so Herrera satirizes the uneducated person’s diction “shoulda” and notes the obvious, and silly, impossibility of deporting so many. But this exact sort of xenophobia is the reason the proposal was written, and so the joke is very politically charged. Indeed, the reality of the time shows that people actually do want to keep Mexicans, which obviously does not “…come from ‘Mexicantos’” (122), out of the country. So this poem, though funny, is making a very political statement – it alerts the reader to a very real ignorance and hatred of Mexican immigrants and it mocks this ignorance. Herrera isn’t taking to the streets, he isn’t calling for people to rise up and rally in Sacramento but he does try to effect a change of mind and alert people, in a very active way, to the wrongs being done to Chicanos.
Ultimately 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border is a very enjoyable, yet socially aware poem.Even its title implies a deeper, political meaning, its words, though funny, hint at a deeper purpose. The movimiento still exists, albeit in a different form and Herrera’s poetry exists with it. It seems that Herrera did not lie when he promised to always keep an “activist perspective”. In a poem written 20 years after the end of the movimiento, published in a book 10 years after that, this veterano is still fighting for the Chicano causes – he remains forever an activist
Juan Felipe Herrera in Action
Juan Felipe Herrera has been teaching since he graduated from college in 1972. Here is a clip of him being interview on his classroom techniques at UC Riverside:
Juan Felipe Herrera has written plays. Here are several scenes from his play (2004).
This is an original Juan Felipe Herrera piece of artwork, from his website:
Alvarado, Lisa. “Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera.” La Bloga. LaBloga.blogspot.com. Interview by Lisa Alvarado. 21 Feb. 2008. Web. 3 Mar. 2011
Burt, Stephen. "'Punk Half Panther'." NYTimes.com. New York Times, 10 Aug 2008 Web. 5 Mar 2011.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl, Parts I & II.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets. 1984. Web. 5 March 2011.
Herrera, Juan Felipe. 187 reasons mexicanos can't cross the border: undocuments, 1971-2007. City Lights Publishers, 2007. Print.
Herrera, Juan Felipe. “biography.” Juan Felipe Herrera: Poet Photographer Teatrista Playwright Artist. Juanfelipe.org. Web. 5 Mar 2011.
Herrera, Juan Felipe. “CV: Juan Felipe Herrera.” Juan Felipe Herrera, Department of Creative Writing. University of California, Riverside. Web. 4 Mar 2011.
Johnson, Reed. “Remembering the Chicano Moratorium.” LATimes.com. Los Angeles Times, 27 Aug 2010. Web. 5 Mar 2011.
Purpura, Lia. "[Untitled: Review of Border Crosser With a Lamborgini Dream]." Antioch Review 58.3 (2000): 380-81. Web. 5 Mar 2011.
Sources for pictures: