Former Fresno State professor Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed California poet laureate by Gov. Brown. The state Senate must confirm the governor’s appointment before Herrera can begin a two-year term.
He is the second former Fresno State professor to earn a high literary honor in the past year. Phillip Levine, professor emeritus of English, is poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Library of Congress in August.
Two Fresno State alumni are past state poets laureate – Greg Pape (Montana) and Lawson Iwada (Oregon).
Herrera, 63, was chair of Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Department from 1990 to 2004 before going to the University of California, Riverside where he is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing.
He has published more than two-dozen volumes of poetry, prose, plays, children’s books and young-adult novels. Herrera has won more than 50 awards, fellowships and honorable mentions. His most recent books, “Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box” (Harper Collins-Joanna Colter Books) and “Downtown Boy” (Scholastic Press) won major national awards.
“This is a great honor for me and my family,” said Herrera. “I want to thank all those who have inspired me at Fresno State, UC-Riverside, the beautiful valleys and deserts of San Joaquín and Coachella and Salinas and Imperial, where I have visited many schools, families and farmworkers, like my parents.”
To the state’s 13 million Latinos, Herrera issues this challenge: “38 million Californians strong; each one a poem. ¡Viva California poetica! Now’s the time.”
Fresno State President John D. Welty said, “Professor Herrera’s appointment as poet laureate of California and his distinction as the first Latino in that post is both recognition of his accomplishments and inspiration for Latino writers everywhere.”
“We’re proud that professors of the quality of Juan Felipe Herrera and Phil Levine have taught and inspired so many thousands of Fresno State students about the importance of literary expression,” added Welty.
Dr. Victor Torres, current chair of Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Studies department, said he is extremely proud of and happy for Herrera, who worked with him, was a mentor and whom Torres succeeded.
“Juan Felipe deserves all the accolades that come his way,” Torres said. “He was the department’s most popular professor because of his uncanny ability to nurture and expose the creativity within his students – creativity the students themselves did not think they possessed.”
The son of migrant workers from Mexico, Herrera was reared in Fowler. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, a master’s from Stanford University, both in social anthropology, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa where he also was a teaching assistant fellow at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (1988-90).
He was elected to the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors in 2011, was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2010 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry in 2009.
At Fresno State, he was the primary storyteller in the literacy-promoting Los Niños Holiday Festival for the Chicano Alumni Association. Manuel Olgin, past president of the Fresno State Chicano Alumni chapter, remembers: “The children loved him as he skillfully and graphically read and acted his books. He always promoted reading in a fun way and in a cultural context that related to both children and adults.”
During his tenure on campus, his bilingual opus “Featherless/Desplumado” won Best Books of 2004 recognition by Criticas magazine and also an Independent Publishers Book Award. The story encourages children to strive for their dreams.
Herrera’s first children’s book, “Calling the Doves,” won the prestigious Ezra Jack Keats Award, and another book, “The Upside Down Boy,” was made into a musical for young audiences.
His partner Margarita Robles, who is a poet and performance artist, also taught at Fresno State.
Dr. Luz Gonzalez, dean of the College of Social Sciences that houses the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies, said, “We consider Juan Felipe to be one of the most brilliant poets, writers and teachers of our time. “
At Fresno State, she added, “He developed a strong following of students hungry for Chicano/Latino literature and theater. Professor Herrera taught from the heart and in doing so, he earned the respect and admiration of his students and colleagues.”
Alex Espinoza, an assistant professor of English, said, “As the first Chicano poet laureate of the state, his appointment legitimizes our collective experiences and shows that our stories have the capacity to be not just Chicano/a stories, but California stories through and through.”
Those stories, Espinoza added, “have the capacity to transcend borders and speak to the shared immigrant roots binding our state together.”
If confirmed by the state Senate, Herrera would serve a two-year term as poet laureate and receive a $5,000 annual stipend, provided by the California Arts Council.