Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler by Juan Felipe Herrera

Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler 
Juan Felipe Herrera
May 2002
Tucson, AZ
The University of Arizona Press
191 pages
$19.95
ISBN: 9780816522156
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What does it mean to be American? As a writer on the margins? Juan Felipe Herrera’s Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler explores the question of writing in the embodied nation of an ethnic identity. Herrera illuminates the complexities and cargas of growing up Chicano in star-spangled soil and living to write about it in one’s own terms. Juan Felipe Herrera, former California and current U.S. Poet Laureate, has been a prolific writer, whose work spans at least four decades. In many ways, he is one of Chican@ / Latin@ literature’s seminal voices. This book seeks to give the reader and writer (especially the fledgling eagle-writer) a glimpse into the formative and explorative experiences that have shaped and endowed Herrera’s survival, introspection, and prominence in the field.

Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler is a formative poetic biography that pushes narrative poetry in myriad directions and shapes. Chronology is exploded and personal history is portrayed through an array of vignettes and a diversity of voices. In this work, readers come across a series of journal entries known as "June Journals," perhaps a play on words reminiscent of deceased popular poet June Jordan; intimate letters titled "Undelivered Letters to Victor," seemingly reflective correspondences to Herrera’s writer compa, Victor Martinez; litanies, and even a short play, to name a few.

The diction in this work is accessible on a word-by-word basis in most of the pieces. But it is when Herrera pairs seemingly unrelated terms, especially with the list and litany pieces, that the writing gets funky. Take the poem, “Foodstuffs They Never Told Us About,” which is comprised of a list of oddly paired words that serve to comment on broad social conditions, “Burnt tortillas . . . / . . . Fleshy border crosses . . . /. . . Plutonium mustache oil . . . / Cuban correctness crepe . . .” (33). What exactly are “fleshy border crosses?” One can only imagine and make an informed guess that this cruciform reference alludes to the bodies of the deceased that die attempting to cross the border into America. In the piece, “In Case You’re Still Wondering About Racism,” Herrera makes use of the litany to illuminate the auspices of a faux post-racial America, “. . . Consider the clown voice you make at socials . . . /. . . Consider diabetes as a credit card . . . /. . . Consider an Indian with Coca-Cola vertebrae . . . / . . . Consider the gardener’s personal mileage chart . . . /. . . Consider the stock phrase “we are all human beings . . .” (88).

Perhaps the most resonant pieces in this work are the intimate and scathing “Undelivered Letters to Victor.” Here is where Herrera shines as master communicator and poetic verdad asker. “Battles, missions, random intersections, chaos, time and culture booster, explosions; I want writing to contain all this because we contain all this—is this closer to what you mean by saying we are Americanos?” The nature of such a thought, of such an inquiry, opens the field of Chican@ / Latin@ literature toward something truly inclusive in the face of the marginalized positionality forced by western (non-ethnic “American”) literature. Herrera demands inclusion while still embodying a personal-and-social ethnic identity.

For Herrera, Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler is a means to wedge identity politics, criticizing both the problematics of narrow-minded nationalism and the domineering isolation forced by imperial homogeneity, this, as a means to beckon literary emancipation not at the margins, but from the center of the literary field.

Freddy Gutierrez
Nomadic Press
Gutierrez is a poet and youth advocate. He builds bridges across great divides.