Powerful Latino poet chosen as U.S. poet laureate

“Our time has come! Our time has come!” This is a cry often heard among Latinos to note the significant rise of Latino political influence in the country. More Latinos are voting and both major parties are falling over themselves to get the “Latino vote.” 

In 2012, Latinos, for the first time, elected a U.S. President. Their votes proved to be the difference in the reelection of Barack Obama, especially in key swing states such as Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. 

It is not just increased political influence that is noticeable among Latinos but also increased cultural influence. Some call this cultural influence in America Latinization. It comes in the form of food, music, dance, films, television and radio, religion, sports, and language. On June 9, further evidence of Latino cultural influence came in the announcement by the Library of Congress that the new poet laureate of the United States is Chicano, or Mexican-American, poet Juan Felipe Herrera from Fresno, Calif. Herrera is the recent poet laureate of California. He becomes the first Latino to be named poet laureate of the United States. He richly deserves it and so too do Latinos. 

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Poetry has always been a powerful form of Chicano literature especially coming out of the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The Chicano Movement was the largest and most widespread civil rights and empowerment movement by Mexican Americans in the country. It laid the foundation for today’s Latino political power and opened up new opportunities not only for Chicanos but other Latinos as well. The movement witnessed a flowering of poetry and other forms of literary expression that, along with art, represented what was referred to as the “Chicano Renaissance.” Poetry especially was a powerful expression and one that complemented the political movement.  It could be written within a short time and recited at rallies and assemblies and published in myriad movement newspapers and new literary journals. One of the key and leading poets and, in fact, considered the poet laureate of the movement was Alurista (Alberto Urista) from San Diego whose powerful poetry, characterized by indigenous references and its bilingualism, influenced many other poets, both men and women. Herrera was one of these. 

Herrera, like Alurista and other poets, saw no distinction between art and politics. They understood that all art, even the most abstract, is political because it is contextualized in history and in a particular political culture. Movement poets correctly recognized this and placed their art at the behest of the movement. This did not contaminate it, but, to the contrary, empowered it. Herrera is part of this legacy and while his poetry has evolved so that it has gone beyond movement topics and references, it still possesses that fundamental connection with the political and especially the issue of social justice.  Poetry for Herrera is meant to liberate and to free the mind from those who would control and deny Chicano/Latino voices. Herrera’s voice is one of freedom and empowerment.  He richly deserves to be poet laureate of the United States and his selection marks the rise of Latino cultural influence in the country. Our time has come! 

This story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: Poet's honor spotlights Latinos .

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