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Juan Felipe Herrera: “Vision Tropical” in San Francisco’s Mission District

From: CEA Critic
Volume 75, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 129-141 | 10.1353/cea.2013.0014

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During the late 1970s, the term tropicalization held aesthetic and political significance in the San Francisco region, representing a means to define new alliances in Latino/communities. One of the first uses of the term occurs in the poetry collection Tropicalization (1976) by Victor Hernandez Cruz. Cruz characterizes tropicalization as an innovative expression of identity characterized by transcultural complexity. For Juan Felipe Herrera and other artists, a tropical vision presented experience as unfixed and in transformation, community as a set of shifting relations, and culture as multi-vocal, poetical, and political. The term continued to be used in the subsequent decade, and the overall movement embraced truly dynamic combinations of music and literature as well as community and politics. It is in this wide-ranging context that Herrera, who became Poet Laureate of California in 2012, must be situated before critiquing his poetry.

Historically excluded from the formation of an American cultural aesthetic, Chicano/a artists during the 1960s confronted exclusionary practices with collective or community-based practices. Herrera was part of a second wave of these writers and artists, and he joined those who turned away from the vehement political stance of earlier movement literature. More specifically, whereas much Chicano/a literature of 1980s continued to affirm cultural origins—often through the autobiography of self and location—Herrera’s poetry departed from these rhetorical aims in order to explore new mappings of a broader Latino experience, especially in terms of evolving social and cultural perspectives in California. Herrera’s writings have thereby tested the limits and changed the expectations of what is Latino/a poetry and what it does.

While no one location can capture the scope of Herrera’s literary mappings, San Francisco’s Mission District so reoccurs in his poetry that we may view the neighborhood—and the wider region of the Bay Area—as an urban landscape that generated Herrera’s experimentation with Latino/a experience. Herrera has explored in this milieu what it means to live among a diverse and heterogeneous population that was becoming increasingly transnational, a cultural formation that came to exceed the ethnocentric nationalism of earlier Chicano/a literature. Human experience, Herrera has argued in and about his poetry, is deeply social, and Herrera’s most challenging writings—many of them autobiographical—create a persona cutting across personal and interpersonal gestures of self and community.

Herrera’s contributions to the tropicalization of American literature in the 1980s present a critical perspective on ethnic identity and experience during a period of change and social transformation in California. Social and cultural displacement figures prominently in the lives of many of his subjects, and, consequently, Herrera’s poetry explores life unconfined by a single culture and defined by a multiplicity of contexts and conditions that suggest possibilities for change and transformation. Herrera engages these conditions with formal experimentation, an aesthetic practice of inter-weaving different linguistic, national, and cultural traditions in ways that require comparative, border-crossing interpretive strategies. By engaging Herrera’s poetry through an intertextual analysis, we can broaden our understanding of ethnic experience beyond domestic national boundaries and appreciate an intercultural dimension of American ethnic art.

The Tropicalization of Chicano/a Poetry, 1978–1985

Although the turn to spatial configurations in Latino literature contributed to an expanded canon of American urban literature, how this literature also changed the imaginative landscape of California is an important starting point in critiquing Herrera’s poetry. Latino cultural expression may be seen in response to the dominant narrative of a mono-cultural West as well as the trajectory of an East-West nexus. Border discourse, for example, reconstructs an alternative history and myth of the West, a point of view, Jose David Saldívar notes, of the “American imaginary . . . [that] continues to hold to the great discontinuity between the American frontier and la frontera” (xiv). As such, Latino literature in the West is concerned not only with cultural identity and social power but also with the reconciliation of various cultures.

As a backdrop to Herrera, the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s may be characterized by a formable émigré presence. Due to the wars in the Central America, exiles and émigrés relocated to the...



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