Most of Juan Felipe Herrera’s many books evoke at once the hardships that Mexican-Americans have undergone and the exhilarating space for self-reinvention that a New World art offers. The child of migrant workers and now a professor at the University of California, Riverside, Herrera began to publish and perform verse in the late 1960s and early ’70s, amid the Chicano cultural ferment of Los Angeles and San Diego; he has been, and should be, admired for his portrayals of Chicano life. Yet he is no mere recorder of social conditions. Herrera is, instead, a sometimes hermetic, wildly inventive, always unpredictable poet, whose work commands attention for its style alone.
If there is one earlier writer Herrera resembles, that writer is Allen Ginsberg, whose volatile temperament he shares. In a poem dedicated to Ginsberg (and to “Oloberto & Magritta”) Herrera calls himself a “Punk Half Panther”: his slangy enthusiasms make him at home among “Toyota gangsta’ / monsters, surf of new world colony definitions / & quasars & culture prostars going blam.” Like the young Ginsberg, Herrera is at once an idiosyncratic visionary and antiestablishment advocate; like Ginsberg, Herrera manifests glee in extremes, in paeans and in jeremiads.
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