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02/13/2014 | Created by Darla Martin Tucker

When award-winning author and poet Juan Felipe Herrera began researching his book on courageous Hispanic Americans, he was mystified by the lack of available resources.

California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Distinguished Lecture speaker

“I learned a lot writing this book. There were few materials available, can you believe it,” said Herrera. “I had to piece their story bit by bit from various sources. In some cases, I called and interviewed people like Judy Baca, muralist, and the son of Ignacio Lozano, pioneer in Spanish Language newspaper, ‘La Opinión.’”

Herrera’s forthcoming book, “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes,” and the stories of the 20 high achieving individuals it describes will form the crux of his talk on Tues., Feb. 18 as part of the La Sierra University Distinguished Lecture series. The presentation will take place during La Sierra’s student assembly at the La Sierra University Church beginning at 11 a.m. The church is located at 4937 Sierra Vista Ave., Riverside. The Distinguished Lecture will also be live streamed at

“Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes” is intended for young readers and will publish this August through Dial Books. Internationally recognized artist Raúl Colón created the book’s art. It is the latest of 30 some books Herrera has published in poetry, spoken word, novels for young adults, and collections for children. And it is the continuation of a lifelong effort, through the written and spoken word, visual and performing arts to inspire communities and audiences of all ages toward achieving “well-being, good-heartedness, collective action and creative positive arts power for the benefit of all,” he says.

A much-acclaimed poet, Herrera’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, the Latino International Award, and many others. In 2012 California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Herrera as California Poet Laureate, a two-year post that involves advocacy for the art of poetry and creative literary expression, public readings, and the undertaking of a significant cultural project.

Herrera’s laureate project, “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World,” or Unity Project encourages peace and harmony in schools and proactive inter-community projects” and includes all Californians, he says.

Herrera also sits on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poetry and serves a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

Herrera was born in Fowler, Calif. the son of farm workers. During the late 1960s he became involved with the emerging spoken word and street teatro Civil Rights movement. As a singer, actor, poet and coordinator Herrera participated in teatro performances at schools, prisons, farm worker camps and college campuses. Since that time he has formed multi-genre performance troupes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Humbolt and Riverside. Most recently he organized the Riverside Jubilee Singers, a troupe of spoken word young poets and singers.

As a community arts leadership builder, his multi-faceted work in the cultural, performance and visual arts includes lyrics for a Latino musical for children in 2004 based on his book, “The Upside Down Boy.” The production premiered in New York City.

Herrera was drawn to poetry and performance by “the very deep need to speak, and follow the examples of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez,” Herrera said. He also derived inspiration from the experimental theatre groups on the East Coast and in San Francisco, and from the El Teatro Campesino, farm workers’ theater groups that sprang up in the San Joaquín Valley and first formed through dramatic performances in union halls and on flatbed trucks to demonstrate the predicament of farm workers.

The Distinguished Lecture Series, conceived by La Sierra University Provost Steve Pawluk, is coordinated by the university’s Intellectual Life Committee. The series is intended to impress upon students the idea that higher education is not just for personal gain, but to also help them become leaders who will use their learning for the greater good, stated Pawluk.

The Distinguished Lecture Series debuted in 2012 with a presentation by John Bul Dau, a former Sudanese refugee whose story of escape from horrific civil conflict and efforts to aid his fellow South Sudanese is featured in the award-winning documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us.” Last year’s lecture was given by South African human rights activist and educator Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner and renowned activist Desmond Tutu.