CORVALLIS, Ore. – Juan Felipe Herrera, a social activist and the first Mexican American to hold the position of United States Poet Laureate, will be the featured speaker on Saturday, June 11, at the 147th commencement ceremony of Oregon State University.
The son of migrant farmers in California, Herrera is the author of 30 books, including collections of poetry, prose, short stories, young adult novels and children’s books, and in 2015 was named as the nation’s 21st poet laureate.
Herrera has said he learned to love poetry by singing about the Mexican Revolution with his mother, a migrant farm worker. He later became a leader in the Chicano civil rights movement and a passionate writer about social issues. Herrera, an activist for migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth, is also a performance artist whose work has crossed genres into opera and dance theatre.
When announcing Herrera as poet laureate, Librarian of Congress James H. Billinton said that his poems “contain Whitman-esque multitudes that champion voice, traditions and histories, as well as cultural perspective” to help illuminate the larger American identity.
“We’re honored to have an inspirational writer, artist and social leader of the stature of Juan Felipe Herrera to speak to our 2016 graduates,” said OSU President Edward J. Ray.
“His life’s work is one of recognizing social problems, breaking down boundaries and bridging cultural divides, both through art and actions. He reminds us of the challenges we face as a society, of the richness and diversity of our history, and inspires us to confront habits and impediments to fundamental human decency that are found in higher education and throughout our society.”
Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has spoken of the significance Herrera had in connecting poetry with a younger generation.
“Herrera is the first U.S. laureate whose work has emerged from the new oral traditions that have been transforming American poetry over the past quarter-century,” Gioia said. “He can write traditional poems for the page, but many of his poems are designed primarily for spoken delivery. His work is performative and communal. In this sense, Herrera speaks powerfully to younger poets and audiences.”
Herrera has written extensively about topics related to children, such as the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican girl. He also developed an anti-bullying poetry project in California while serving as the poet laureate of that state from 2012-14. In 2014, he released the nonfiction work “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes,” which showcases 20 Hispanic and Latino American men and women who have made outstanding contributions to arts, politics, science, humanitarianism, and athletics.
Herrera was educated at UCLA, Stanford University and the University of Iowa. He has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the University of California at Berkeley, the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.