Chancellor's Friday Letters

Laurels for Our Poet

Laurels for Our Poet

March 23, 2012

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday we learned with great pride that Professor of Creative Writing, Juan Felipe Herrera, was named by Governor Brown as California’s Poet Laureate.

Laureate is an interesting word, with the generally accepted meaning of being worthy of the greatest honor or distinction, being associated with glory or signifying eminence.  There are Nobel Laureates among others, and the root of the word (the Latin for “laurel,” as in “to crown with”) is also part of something dear to all of us at UCR…the baccalaureate.

No one is more worthy than Juan Felipe Herrera, both for this distinctive honor and for the task at hand as the California Poet Laureate.

The expectation as Poet Laureate is to advocate for the art of poetry across the state for the next two years, to inspire an emerging generation of literary artists, and to educate all Californians about the many poets and authors who have influenced our great state through creative literary expression.

I was humbled when I first met Juan in 2008.  Soon after arriving as chancellor, I asked him to provide the keynote address to those gathered for my inauguration, and he gracefully accepted.

He spoke then – as he has so many times before and since – in a manner that informs and inspires all who listen to (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GssQoeUkzTU) or read (http://inauguration.ucr.edu/remarks/hererraremarks.html) his words.  Some excerpts:

“I did not start out to be a speaker, or a writer or much less, a poet or professor… Quite the contrary, my beginnings were at the margins of society, where promise-stuff is elusive and rarely reaches fruition – in the fields of California, as a campesino child of farm workers.

“All I truly owned were simple, humble things – my father Felipe’s tellings – how in 1899 he jumped a train from Chihuahua, Mexico, at the age of 14, straight to Denver, Colorado, where he would later work tending cattle, farming crops and setting railroads.

“And I had my mother Lucha’s reminiscences of her journey with her eight siblings and mother, a few years after the Mexican Revolution – crossing into El Paso, Texas, then, after World War II, to San Francisco to work as a ‘salad girl’ at the St. Francis Hotel.

“That is all I possessed.”

The door of promise opened, Professor Herrera said, when he enrolled at UCLA where he earned a baccalaureate. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford University and a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“[At UCR] to truly live the promise we must fearlessly love the promise – the people,” said Professor Herrera at my inauguration.  “This is the heart of it all: Love for our families who have struggled in the past. Love for our coming generations so they shall rise above suffering.  This kind of love must be something like [former Chancellor] Tomás Rivera’s motives for writing his poetry: a creation without boundaries, a living voice of freedom in a world of walls.

“In a time of walls, UCR is such a boundless and powerful poem. I see it in my students, I see it in what they do.

“UCR is verse by our students written in many alphabets of breath, cultural meters and social stanzas, lines that amble and rhyme stories of humble homes and hard work familias, narratives jeweled with radical landscapes and multi-colored registers.”

Juan Felipe Herrera.  Professor, University of California, Riverside.  Poet laureate, the State of California.

Good for him.  Good for us.  Good for California.

Felicidades, mi amigo.

With pride,


Tim White, Chancellor

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