On Poetry and Heritage

This is a guest post from Andi Teran. Andi is a native of El Paso, Texas. Her nonfiction has been published by Vanity Fair, Monocle, and the Paris Review Daily. She currently resides in Los Angeles. Ana of California is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @andi_teran.

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Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t pay enough attention to who is named our United States poet laureate year after year. Though my own writing is born out of poetry—and I would argue that most creativity stems from the poetry of impassioned thoughts or ideas—I’ve never kept up with our nation’s official poets. All of that changed with this year’s appointee, Juan Felipe Herrera. The son of California migrant workers, Herrera is the 21st laureate and first Mexican American to be named to the position. He’s prolific at the age of 66, a graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, an esteemed professor, and an author of over twenty books. He’s also an advocate of the power of writing where cultural diversity is concerned.

As a first-time novelist, it was important that the main character of my book, Ana of California, reflect my cultural background. The story follows a season in the life of Ana Cortez, a teenage Mexican American orphan who takes a job working alongside migrant workers on a farm in Northern California. Her life has been one of struggle and she clings to her heritage as a source of strength. Though her story is much different from my own, when I set out to write the book, I knew I wanted to infuse Ana’s history with similar situations I grew up with living on the border of Texas and Mexico. I also wanted to reverse the dearth of Latina protagonists in modern literature.

“The times now seem to be evolving with voices of color,” Herrera recently told the Washington Post. “All voices are important, and yet it seems that people of color have a lot to say, particularly if you look through the poetry of young people — a lot of questions and a lot of concerns about immigration and security issues, you name it, big questions. All this is swirling in the air.” Aside from Herrera emphasizing the need for more Latino and Latina voices to be heard, he intends to use his new role as poet laureate to create a program with the Library of Congress called Casa de Colores, or House of Colors, which endeavors to spread the gospel of poetry to include people from all cultural backgrounds. There are so many unheard voices from so many diverse backgrounds swirling in the air, and now, more than ever, is the time for these voices to swarm.

I grew up in a mixed race family. This means I am two halves—one half Mexican, the other not—neither one dominant. Throughout my life, people have commented that I’m not “traditionally Mexican,” whatever that statement means. I was raised in the deserts of El Paso, Texas, on the border of Juarez, Mexico, and I spent my youth knowing both sides of the bridge. This is normal to those of us who live there. My childhood was spent in my grandma’s small kitchen. She told stories as she cooked traditional meals, the sounds and smells of Mexico drifting in and around the stove, forever into our hearts. The grandkids always spoke English—as she preferred—even when the kitchen was full of boisterous Spanish spoken over bowls of menudo while the Dallas Cowboys game echoed from another room.

The food and language may be different, but the time I spent with my grandma is no different from most other people. Still, I find it odd that I rarely, if ever, see a reflection of my cultural background portrayed in modern American literature, film, television, and media. I remember fighting back tears the first time I watched the now defunct comedy television series Ugly Betty. There was a scene set in a modest kitchen in Queens where the title character’s Mexican father cooked a simple dinner for his children. I sat on my couch feeling connected to that family, that kitchen, and that meal.

Strangely enough, I was living in New York City at the time and working at a fashion magazine much like Betty from the show. It feels silly to admit I cried during a comedy series but I knew this fictional girl and her world with all of my senses, as it was a direct reflection of my own. That moment catalyzed something in me that has taken years to put into action, namely to write characters and stories drawn from my own life and background. As Juan Felipe Herrera puts it, it’s important to write and express our hearts out in order to “let us all listen to each other.” How else are we to chronicle modern life if we don’t promote more racial, sexual, and cultural diversity in our artistic mediums? How can we listen to each other if we don’t allow ourselves to speak?

My time living in New York made me reflect on my childhood in El Paso. The border is a strange place. It’s neither American nor Mexican but both on both sides. I often wrestled with my history while living in New York, having run so far away from home that the desert and its familial stories began to fade in the wake of my grandma’s death. I made it home in time to hold her hand one last time but soon had to fly back to my city job and my city life so far removed from everything that made me. I missed her funeral entirely and spent that day walking aimlessly around Greenwich Village hoping to catch the scent of burnt tortillas wafting on the nonexistent breeze.

Interestingly, Juan Felipe Herrera’s mother, grandmother, and sister all entered the United States from Juarez, Mexico, crossing through El Paso on their way to California. His mother is one of his inspirations and he speaks about how his gift of poetry came directly from her. “Something would move her, and then she would just break into a poem that she remembered from her childhood,” he said of his mother. He goes on to talk about how she crossed the border carrying “those early rhymes and songs and poems” from her native land, all of which would come to influence his own work.

My influences eventually brought me back home. I left New York, headed back to El Paso, and continued on to California the very same year Juan Felipe Herrera was named California’s poet laureate. Somewhere along the way, I heard my grandma’s familiar voice again, snippets of her ghost stories returning with the Santa Ana winds. Some of them found their way into Ana of California, often through the voice of Ana as she navigated her way through her own story, making sense of her own identity.

It’s one thing to remember where we come from and tap into it; it’s quite another to find a way to express the power that history holds over us. I bet if we all shared our heritage stories and listened to those of others, we’d find that we’re not so different from one another. Differences are primarily in the details.

As I imagined Ana, I listened while she shared her journey page after page. I began to understand her as she understood herself and her place in the world. Though her struggles were not my own, they came from inside of me—from an imagination stitched together by a union of cultures and traditions I’m proud to call my own. Finding those voices inside of you and listening to them is honoring your heritage, a notion I believe Herrera captured beautifully at the end of his poem, “Half-Mexican.”

“—All this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being Time
Light
How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your life-long project, that is You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half Mexican, then the half against itself.”

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