Tuesday, September 15, 2015

There Are At Least 187 Reasons to Read Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicans Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 is meant to be political and personal, provocative and soothing, historical and imaginative. Covering 36 years of Herrera’s creative work, this book is as much a hybrid of genres, languages, and styles as it is a blend of Mexican-American cultures and identities. It asks the question of what it means to be Mexican as it also asks what it means to be American. The physical and cultural borders of ethnic identity explored in this work offer multiple representations of individual and collective Mexican-American identities. In particular, the selected poems can be a wonderful tool for helping provide a historical context for older students as they examine current immigration issues in the media.

The title of Herrera’s work is a response to California’s Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 but was later struck down by the Courts. The law sought to deny unauthorized immigrants social services, health care and public education. (Of note, unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act). The title poem uses Herrera’s characteristic anaphora and litany to illustrate the often arbitrary and illogical reasons used to prevent Mexicans from entering the U.S. both physically and culturally with the irony being that they are a part of American culture and identity already. Herrera relies on this irony as well as humor, wit, and historical context to make his statements as the ending excerpted from his “187 Reasons” demonstrates:

          Because we won’t nationalize a State of Immigration Paranoia
          Because the depression of the 30s was our fault
          Because “xenophobia” is a politically correct term
          Because we shoulda learn from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
          Because we shoulda listened to the Federal Immigration Laws of 1917, ’21, ’24, and ’30
          Because we lack a Nordic/Teutonic approach
          Because Executive Order 9066 of 1942 shudda had us too
          Because Operation Wetback took care of us in the ‘50s
          Because Operation Clean Sweep picked up the loose ends in the ‘70s
          Because one more operation will finish us off anyway
          Because you can’t deport 12 million migrantes in a Greyhound bus
          Because we got his this about walking out of everything
          Because we have a heart that sings rancheras and feet that polka

In other sections, Herrera delves into the lived experiences of individual Mexicans and Mexican Americans. In one poem, “Senorita X: Song for the Yellow-Robed Girl in Juarez,” he commemorates the mothers who have not given up seeking answers to the deaths of their daughters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Though the homicide rate has decreased, at the height of cartel violence in 2010, the city averaged 8.5 killings per day. The killers remain unidentified. Many of the victims worked in low wage factory positions or were students. The poem is as much elegy to them as it is a type of historical documentation that humanizes tragedy and seeks to understand loss. Though it starts abstractly “Yellow-robed girl/Yellow-book schoolgirl/ Yellow horn-rimmed glasses gazing girl,” the poem moves to naming some of the individuals lost as seen in the lines “Who’s the killer Brenda Bernice Delgado?/Who’s the killer Alma Chavira?” This movement invites the reader to see the women not as statistics of violence, but as individuals. The poem rescues their lives from anonymity while highlighting the horrific acts of violence that ended them. Using such a poem with older students encourages them to look deeper into the individual lives rather than headlines.

While there are poems of witness, history, and ethnic identity, there are also narratives, photographs, journal entries, and prose poems that comprise this hybrid collection. In this layered body of work, Herrera is able to transgress multiple boundaries: the urban, youthful, and modern with the agricultural and folkloric traditions. At its best, it makes a reader question the borders of Mexican, American, and Mexican-American identities, highlighting similarities and differences, fair and unfair divisions among them, much of which is related to immigration laws and policies. As the current Poet Laureate, this book is simply one of his finest.

Additional Resources

About Juan Felipe Herrera:
About Applications for the Classroom:
  • September is Hispanic Heritage Month and reading Herrera’s poetry is a perfect way to celebrate. If you are using with this book with older students, we suggest selecting one or two poems such as “187 Reasons,” “Senorita X,” or “Mexican Differences Mexican Similarities.” This poem would also pair well with our lesson on Cesar Chavez.
  • If you teach younger students, Herrera has written several children’s books that introduce students to migrant farmworker experience as well as to writing. Read our previous blog post reviewing some of his works for younger readers.
  •  One of Herrera’s influences was the poet Allen Ginsburg who is known for his long, list-making poems and was also the son of an immigrant. Ask students to write a list-making poem of identity as they define in their own words. Have students make personal and collective, historical and current connections in their poem like Herrera.
Want to learn more about building a diverse library?

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