The PLOTUS as anthropologist: Juan Felipe Herrera recalls his time with the Lacandón Mayas

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The poet offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation. (Photo: Don Share)

On February 29 this year, I made the trip to Fresno to interview U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The results of that occasion, as well as the phone calls that followed (not to mention a trip to Oakland to hear him talk at the University of California headquarters on Cesar Chavez Day), were published this month in a Stanford Magazine article here

There have been many articles on the popular PLOTUS who is the Chicano son of migrant workers. But to my knowledge, none have included much about his background as an anthropologist, the focus of his Stanford master’s degree… until now. An excerpt:

With the help of an educational opportunity program, he went to UCLA; as a 21-year-old anthropology major, he heard about a nearly extinct ethnic group in southeastern Chiapas. Although the remote community was known to a few anthropologists and archaeologists, no Chicano had been there, Herrera says.  “I immediately had an awakening—‘I have to go.’ It was a deep, soulful response to do something for 250 Lacandón Mayas, who are part of who I am.”

Chicano studies and cultural centers were new at the time, Herrera notes. He wanted to “do something original”—with interviews, photographs, artifacts—“to bring about some kind of awareness in the United States.” At the same time, he was trying to find “a new way of doing political theater and a new way of doing poetry.” He thought, “Wait a minute. Let me get back to my cultural roots and see what poetry is like there.”

mayandrifterWith funding from UCLA’s Mexican American Center, he set off to the Mexican lowlands with a classmate, an experienced videographer. They packed old Army fatigues, machetes, mosquito nets, anti-viper first aid kits, Vietnam tropical combat boots, plenty of 16mm Ilford film and top-notch camera equipment. “It was a great idea, a timely idea, a perfect idea. Conceptually, a triple A-plus. Did we know how to go about it? C-minus,” he says.

In Mexico, “we hired a Harrison Ford kind of guy—a piloto,” says Herrera. It was straight out of a 1940s film: a man in khakis and a crumpled shirt writing with a half-pencil on a tiny desk, in a dark office that had his name in black letters on the door’s frosted-glass window. He agreed to make the trip for 100,000 pesos.

The Cessna landed in the rain forest and tore off a wheel. The piloto patched it back together, and then the small plane disappeared into the sky, as Herrera watched. He found himself in the jungle, among little huts and local elders who were willing to talk. He listened to their stories of “eco-piracy”—slash-and-burn farming, deforestation by loggers and “chicleros,” who stripped the forests to make Chiclets gum from the sap of the chicle trees. They told him of the destruction of the wildlife and the rape of the local women.

“The situation was immense, immeasurable,” Herrera recalls. Until his visit, “No one had really gotten on the ground and said, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Bananas. I’d like to share a tortilla with you.’” Later, he wrote: “To read about their ‘way of life’ and spew Chicano ‘azteca’ poetry jive was blasphemy, and to assign the oppressed Maya the honorable position of ancestors was a cultural crime—if I did not take action.”

He continued his studies in social anthropology when he came to Stanford in 1977, though the lure of poetry and performance was already beginning to exert a powerful counterpull. Stanford Libraries now has the poet’s archives, which include the documentation for his life-changing trip to Chiapas—reel-to-reel tapes, audiocassettes of interviews and about 45 minutes of the rush prints of the film.

Read the whole thing here


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