During many earlier interviews with the media, U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera told the story of a teacher who shaped his poetry career. But he had never been able to thank her for the effect she had on his life.

Herrera at Central Elementary School in Escondido, California (Courtesy photo)

His story now has a new ending. Minutes before he spoke to ShareAmerica, his third-grade teacher, Lelya Sampson, now 94, called him. “I’d been hunting for her for decades,” Herrera said.

The son of migrant farm workers from Mexico, Herrera spoke very little English as a boy, and in fact, remained nearly silent at his California school in the 1950s, until Mrs. Sampson asked him to sing a song in English — alone in front of the class.

Afterward, the teacher told Herrera he had a beautiful voice. Her praise inspired him; he understood it to refer to more than just his singing ability. She “charted the road for me as a writer and as a performer,” he said.

An activist for immigrants, and all humankind

Herrera’s voice turned political when he attended the University of California at Los Angeles through a program for low-income and minority students. His college experience coincided with the aftermath of the civil rights era of the 1960s, at a time when immigrant communities began emphasizing pride in their cultural histories, and he became an activist for immigrants.

Many of his poems and stories draw on his Mexican-American background. “To me,” Herrera said, “political means fully painting your human landscape: your stories, your language, the way you see the world. It also means speaking about the various barriers that still exist.”

“If you look at Juan’s poetry,” said Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine, “what you’ll find is just what you’ll hear every day in most parts of the nation, which is a combination of English and another language — in his case Spanish.”

Share gave the example of “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way,” which floats freely between Spanish and English.

“It combines the kind of talk you might hear among agricultural workers and turns it into poetry. He brings an acknowledgement of all the different kinds of languages and cultures that are tied together into one nation.”

Audio courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Poem is from Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera © 2008 Juan Felipe Herrera. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press