Episode 8: Juan Felipe Herrera and Margarita Luna Robles

Poet Margarita Luna Robles performs in Fresno in 1990. (Screen shot)

Editor’s Note: This is Episode 8 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features Juan Felipe Herrera and Margarita Luna Robles, recorded in November 1990 at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in Fresno. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Marisa Mata in Spring 2017. Marisa grew up in Fresno and she knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 7 years old. She’s a junior studying Linguistics and Creative Writing at Fresno State. She reads and writes every day to continuously learn and improve her work. Some of Marisa’s favorite authors include Toni Morrison, Anne Lamott, and John Hales. She writes for the Fresno State Alumni Association, and she plans to write books and become a literature and writing professor.

By Marisa Mata
For the Fresno Poets archive project

Margarita says to let go of bad thoughts and negative energy; she wants to invite the spirits to join us for Dia de los Muertos—and only the good kind. I’m skeptical, curled up on my bed watching a nearly 30-year-old tape of a poetry reading.

Would the energy from that night, which occurred before I was even born, be able to find me now? I’m not sure how summoning spirits works, so I let go of all the anger and frustration I’ve been carrying throughout the day in fear of bringing out a poltergeist.

Margarita says, “You can think of a certain spirit that you would like to join you tonight. Or you can even think of someone who is living, and they will feel positive energy coming their way.”

And I think of you, Granny.

I looked down and pulled at the hem of my sweater. The few times I went to church had always been with you, but without you there I wasn’t sure where to look or what to do. We weren’t there to say the prayers that you and I used to, but to share memories of you, to pray for you and your passing.

I thought about being at your house and seeing a novella on the television, hearing Spanish coming from the radio or flowing from your mouth as you talked on the phone. I thought about how I’d never see or hear those things again. I felt sad, but I didn’t cry. Because nothing felt real. How could I be at your funeral service when I had just seen you a couple weeks ago?

Margarita dances around, arms raised, hands clapping. Santana plays on the speakers in the background. The audience joins in. They clap and dance and shout out. The room is electric. It’s unlike any reading I’ve been to before.

Margarita and her husband, Juan Felipe Herrera, our U.S. poet laureate emeritus, take turns reading poems. It’s Juan Felipe’s turn. He says, “Let us gather in a flourishing way…”

Danielle Steele. Her books are the ones that stand out to me when I pass through the aisle at Target. Granny, you were always reading something of hers. I must get my love of reading from you. I wonder if you ever wrote any stories of your own, or if you would have, had you lived longer. I’m not sure where I get my love of writing from.

At times I try to imagine what you would say about my writing: That it’s good, but I shouldn’t be exposing family secrets. That you love it. That you never would have thought such small moments would stick with me for so long. But I don’t really know what you would say. And I don’t even know if you would be excited that I’m writing or if you would think it’s a waste of time. I don’t think I got to know you well enough.

There’s a video playing on the screen behind Juan Felipe, and he reads about what he saw on his trip through Mexico, the native people there, the Lacandon mayas.

I tried to remember. I was trying to write about you, Granny, but I couldn’t. I tried to picture your smile, the clothes you wore, the color of your hair. But everything was blurry. I tried to hear your voice, your laugh. But every time I thought I found it, it was really your sister’s or your daughter’s.

Margarita walks back up to the stage and reads poems about her grandfather and brother, both who have passed away. I get the chills as she reads the one about her brother. I grab another blanket, but get the chills again. Now I can remember—

You were sitting on the swing in your backyard. The sun was in your face and you were laughing, wearing the light blue top and white pants that you often did. Your light brown hair looked blonde in some spots.

I sat at the small table in your kitchen, staring at the chicken nuggets in front of me. An hour ago, my parents told me they were separating. You sat beside me. You said you would be okay as long as I was.

You called me “mija.” It was winter and we talked about the possibility of it snowing as you made breakfast. And after you pulled the biscuits out of the oven, we ate every single one. Just you and me, Granny.

I try to concentrate on what Margarita is saying, but I get this feeling that I need to go to your grave as soon as I can; that there’s so much I need to tell you—since the separation, my relationship with my mother has been really bad, and I haven’t really talked to her in over a year now; I’ve been struggling with my identity, I don’t feel connected to my Mexican heritage, I often feel like the only Mexican thing about me is my name, and I wish that weren’t the case; Hillary Clinton ran for president again and should’ve won, I thought of you when I voted for her because I know you wanted her to win back in 2008; I’m scared about the future—and I realize that I’m crying. But I don’t feel sad, exactly; I feel as if I’m carrying someone else’s sadness.

I know you’re with me. I can feel you wishing things had been different for me and that the world were a better place.

I wipe my tears and hope you know that I’ll be okay. Over the years I’ve learned that I’m very strong, and although I’m going through a rough patch and the world seems to be in a dark place, I still have hope. I know things will be better one day.

Margarita says, “Before we go, I would like to thank the spirits for joining us and help send them off again.”

You asked me to help you with your socks and then went back to sleep. The sunlight from the window made you look especially pale. Your breathing was shallow. And I noticed you were missing some of your hair. You were awake when it was time for me to leave. We hugged and said goodbye, like we always did. And I didn’t think much of it because I thought I would see you soon, like I always did.

Santana plays again. Margarita dances. Juan Felipe joins her. They clap, raise their arms, sway side to side, but something is different about them. Something about the audience seems changed, too. It’s almost as if everyone is in some sort of state of recovery.

The tape is over, my screen turns to three minutes of black and I say, “Thank you. Thank you for being here with me tonight, Granny.”

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