Our US Poet Laureate and Hispanic Heritage - National Council of Teachers of English
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Our US Poet Laureate and Hispanic Heritage

The following post was written by NCTE member and College Section Chair R. Joseph Rodriguez.

In the United States, from September 15 through October 15, we observe National Hispanic Heritage Month. This period marks the celebration of diverse cultures, histories, and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from various lands with changing frontiers and borderlands across time and space: Spain, México, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Our English language arts classrooms are filled with opportunities to advance the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans from the literary, performance, and visual arts to scientific research. The continental Américas, as a hemispheric whole, is rich with generations of heritages interconnected with Latino life and thought.

One recent achievement and influence connected to the power of world languages and poetry is Juan Felipe Herrera, an accomplished poet and professor. Author of 28 books ranging from poetry to novels and children’s collections, Herrera recently published a book titled Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, which showcases the lives of inspirational Latino and Latina Americans.

In June 2015, Herrera was named the 21st Poet Laureate in Poetry at the Library of Congress for 2015–2016.

A few days ago, on September 16, Herrera presented his inaugural reading at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. “When we say poetry, it’s really the vision of all voices,” Herrera explained. “It’s freedom. . . . When you use your own voice, freely, then we’re all united.”

Herrera’s new poem titled “Imagine What You Could Do” and the recording from the event capture his earliest memories of speaking Spanish and struggling to learn and speak English while a student in elementary school. The poem vibrates with energy, resilience, and the vision to become a US poet laureate. The final stanza reads:

If I stood up
wearing a robe
in front of my familia and many more
on the high steps
of the Library of Congress
in Washington, D.C., and read
out loud and signed
my poetry book
like this—
‘poet laureate of the United States of
Imagine what you could do.

As teachers, we can understand these feelings within our students, within ourselves, and given voice in poetry. We can encourage our students and colleagues to reach their highest potential, too.

Herrera’s third-grade teacher, Leyla Sampson, encouraged the young Herrera as an emerging reader, singer, and writer in her classroom in the 1950s. Early on, Herrera exhibited a fondness for words and languages. He recalls singing “Three Blind Mice” as Ms. Sampson listened intently. Her assessment confirmed his resilience: “You have a beautiful voice.” (Here, assessment is used in the sense of the Latin word assidere, which means “to sit beside.”)

On Herrera’s inaugural reading night, guess who sat in the audience? Ms. Sampson! Indeed, the attentive listener, sitting patiently before her student again, was Leyla Sampson, who is now ninety-four years old.

Herrera, who is sixty-six years old, shared with Ms. Sampson and his audience, “It was your words that made it all happen for me.”

Today, the poetry reading and writing public is invited to submit an original poem to Herrera’s project named La Casa de Colores. The selected submissions will form a giant epic poem that will span Herrera’s laureateship.

In a statement, Herrera explains, “La Casa de Colores, ‘the House of Colors,’ is a house for all voices. In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination. And we will stand together in times of struggle and joy.”

You, your students, and colleagues are invited to participate through 2016. During Hispanic Heritage Month (through October 15), the theme is “Family Words and Story Poems.” The theme will vary in the months to come during Herrera’s tenure. Submit your poem to contribute to the epic poem.

In keeping with this month’s La Casa de Colores theme about family and language, NCTE members are pioneers and advocates in literacy education for children, families, and teachers. Various position statements advanced by NCTE members support public education, family literacies for all, secondary school completion, migrant and immigrant schoolchildren and their families, and diverse books for all readers:

The La Casa de Colores project and Herrera’s poetry confirm that we are all interconnected across human cultures, heritages, and languages. As literacy teachers and thinkers, we can invite our students and colleagues to the table of poetry and enrich our lives across hemispheres, borderlands, and oceans as we make meaning together.

Resources on Hispanic Heritage

Various institutions are interconnected to advance Hispanic-origin contributions in the United States. The following resources are recommended to enrich our teaching and learning:

Library of Congress
National Museum of Hispanic Cultural Center
National Museum of Mexican Art
Smithsonian Latino Center
White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

R. Joseph Rodríguez teaches in the Department of English at the University of Texas at El Paso. Catch him virtually on Twitter @escribescribe, or send him a message at rjrodriguez6@utep.edu.