Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of migrant farm workers in California, grew up speaking Spanish and became ashamed to speak at school in English. So he shut down.
He eventually found his voice through joining choirs in middle school and high school.
The Library of Congress announced it has appointed Herrera as the nation’s 21st poet laureate for 2015 through 2016.
Herrera, 66, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, is set to become the nation’s first Latino poet laureate since the position was created in 1936.
Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez told in a statement that she is “tickled” by the “beautiful” news.
Herrera said he is humbled and overwhelmed to receive the appointment.
“Yes, I am the first Latino poet laureate in the United States, but I’m also here for everyone and from everyone. My voice is made by everyone’s voices,” Herrera said. He also wants to encourage more young Latino students to write and read and benefit from the Library of Congress’ resources.
“So I want to assist with closing the gap of knowing about and hearing about our Latino communities in terms of literature, in terms of writing. And I want our young Latinos and Latinas to write their hearts out and express their hearts out and let us all listen to each other,” he said.
Some of the works Herrera said he most enjoyed writing were captured in “Half the World in Light,” a book of poems lauded for his experimentation and for documenting his Chicano experience in America.
Herrera was born in 1948 in Fowler, California. His family of migrant workers moved often, at times living in tents and trailers along roads. His father learned English by paying fellow workers pennies to teach him each new word.
Herrera graduated from UCLA, earned graduate degrees at Stanford and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and built a career in teaching.
From 2012 to 2015, Herrera served as poet laureate of California. In March, he retired from teaching creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and is now a visiting professor in ethnic studies at the University of Washington.
The laureate position involves crafting poetry projects and broadening the audience for poetry.