This poet laureate will make your brain work. Plus 4 other facts about his life and work.

Who'd have thought the son of two migrant workers could rise to the pinnacle of poetry honor?

The United States Library of Congress has appointed Juan Felipe Herrera national poet laureate. And, wow, he is extraordinary.


Juan Felipe Herrera. Image by Slowking4/Wikimedia Commons.

As a child, Herrera lived a nomadic life out of tents and trailers on farm roads throughout California. His folks, both migrant farmworkers from Mexico, moved with the seasons of agriculture for the often hazardous and thankless work in the fields.

Herrera and his father. Image via University of California Riverside/YouTube.

Despite steep social and economic odds, Herrera has achieved the top of his art on a mountain of original talent, unshakeable work ethic, and passion. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Herrera was selected as poet laureate because his poems “champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity."

Here are five great things to know about the nation's premier wordsmith:

1. He WILL make your brain work.

Herrera's writing is riddled with cultural references and mind-scrambling metaphors, but the images he conjures can launch even the least versed of his audience into a state of wonder.

Image via Poets.org/YouTube.

2. His poems are meant to be heard.

Many of Herrera's poems were written for spoken delivery. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he spoke of his humble beginnings with spoken word:

"I used to stand on the corner in San Diego with poems sticking out of my hip pocket, asking people if there was a place where I could read poems. The audience is half of the poem."

In this video, Herrera reads excerpts from a few of his poems, beginning with "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross The Border," a call-and-response piece that involves the audience in an affirmation of each line of the story.

3. He's down with the kids.

Herrera's contemporaries are pretty excited about his knack for connecting young people to poetry. And with the rising popularity of spoken word among American youth, his appointment comes at a great time.

Herrera with a bilingual class in 1984. GIFs via Rick Tejada-Flores/YouTube.

Robert Casper of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress is stoked about Herrera:

"He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring. ... He's the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it's something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we're in."

4. He's an icon of recognition for a growing community.

Herrera is the first Latino — Chicano (Mexican-American), to be specific — to ever receive this honor. Latinos, who represent 17% of the U.S. population, are an important part of the country's cultural tapestry.

Image by Voces de la Frontera/Flickr.

As much of Herrera's writing focuses on working-class Latino experiences, a lot of people are very excited to see their heritage recognized in a culturally significant way.

5. He cares about the world and all its people.

In an interview with Washington Post, Ron Charles asks Herrera about a line from his book "Senegal Taxi" that goes, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" to which he replied:

“Waking up is the biggest thing. I'm a political poet — let us say a human poet, a poet that's concerned with the plight of people who suffer. If words can be of assistance, then that's what I'm going to use."

And if that's not reason enough to love him, check out this video playlist of readings and interviews with Herrera. It won't take long to make you a fan. Then you can send him a congratulatory tweet to what has to be one of the best handles in the Twittersphere: @cilantroman.

Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves
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It can be expensive to have a pet. It's possible to spend between $250 to $700 a year on food for a dog and around $120-$500 on food for a cat. But of course, most of us don't think twice about the expense: having a pet is worth it because of the company animals provide.

But for some, this expense is hard to keep up, no matter how much you adore your fur baby. And that's why Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves decided to help.

Kenneth had seen a man scraping together change in a store to buy pet food, so he offered to buy the man some extra pet food. Still, later that night he couldn't stop thinking about the experience — he worried the man wasn't just struggling to pay for pet food, but food for himself, too.

So he went home and told his wife — and immediately, they both knew they needed to do something. So, in December 2020, they converted a farm stand into a take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can Pet Food pantry.

"A lot of people would have watched that man count out change to buy pet food. Some may have helped him out like my husband did," Jill says. "A few may have thought about it afterward. But, only someone like Kenny would turn that experience into what we have today."

"If it weren't for his generous spirit and his penchant for a plan, the pantry would never have been born," she adds.

A man with sunglasses hands a box of cat food to a woman smiling Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

At first, the couple started the pet food pantry with a couple hundred dollars of pet food they bought themselves. And to make sure people knew about the pantry, they set up a Facebook page for the pantry, then went to other Facebook groups, such as a "Buy Nothing group," and shared what they were doing.

"When we started, we weren't even sure people would use us," Jill says. "At best, we were hoping to be able to provide enough to help people get through the holidays."

But, thanks to their page and word of mouth, news spread about what they were doing, and the donations of more pet food started flooding in, too. Before long, they were coming home to stacks of food — and within a couple of months, the pantry was full.

Yellow post-it note with handwritten note that reads: "Hi, I read your story on Facebook. Here is a small donation to help. I have a 3-year-old yellow lab who I adore. I hope this helps someone in need. Merry Christmas. Meredith" Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

"The pounds of food we have gone through is well, well, well into the thousands," Jill says. "The orders from our Amazon Wish List alone include several hundred pounds of dry food, a couple of hundred cases of canned food, and thousands of treats and toys. But, that does not even take into account the hundreds of drop-offs, online orders, and monetary donations we have received."

They also got many 'Thank you notes' from the people they helped.

"I would like to thank you for helping us feed our fur babies," one note read. "My husband and I recently lost our jobs, and my husband [will] hopefully [find] a new one. We are just waiting for a call."

Another read: "I just need to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I haven't worked in over a month with a two-year-old at home. Dad brings in about $300/week. From the pandemic to Christmas, it has been tough. But with the help of beautiful people like you, my fur baby can now eat a little bit longer, and my heart is happy."

Jill says that she thinks the fact that the pet pantry is a farm stand helps people feel better.

A woman holding a small black dog and looking at the camera is greeted by Jill Gonsalves Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

"When we first started this, someone who visited us mentioned how it made them feel good to be able to browse without feeling like they were being watched," she says. "So, it's been important to us to maintain that integrity."

Jill and Kenneth aren't sure how many people they've helped so far, but they know that their pet food pantry is doing what they hoped it would. "The pet owners who visit us, much like donations, come in ebbs and flows," Jill says. "We have some regulars who have been with us since the beginning. We also have some people that come a few times, and we never see again."

"Our hope is that they used us while they were in a tough spot, but they don't need us anymore. In a funny way, the greatest thing would be if no one needed us anymore."


Today, the Acushnet Pet Pantry is still going strong, but its stock is running low. If you want to help out, visit their Facebook page for updates and to find ways to donate.
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

This article originally appeared on 12.03.19


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