The time of painful impossibilities

A reading by U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

It’s been a tough year, this last year, as you know: So many of our brothers and sisters, facing incredible horrors across the world and also here in the U.S. So let us send them our love and let us send them our healing thoughts and feelings. So many things have happened, and we’re going so fast sometimes that we forget to take a moment to wish the best to everybody, to treat each other with love. When we write poetry, let us write for them, and as a matter of fact, let us live for them. That’s even better.


I’ve been thinking of my father. You know, he was born in 1882. When I was born, he was 66. And he would tell the story of coming to the United States, from Chihuahua, the land of Pancho Villa, in the late 1800s. To El Norte, the north country, at the age of 14, when he hopped a train — you know he got his degree at 14, from milking goats — coming north, to Colorado. You know the life, right, the life of the big sky and the bigger earth. You work hard, and if you’re a child and right out there in those lands, in northern Mexico, in those years, it’s kind of impossible for us to imagine.

The train from Chihuahua is one straight shot to Denver. He got off that train, and it was pretty cold. He used to say, “It was so cold, when I spit down on the ground, it was little tiny cubes of ice, Juanito,” and that’s how he began. He learned English by buying a word for a penny. And of course he only earned — how many pennies a day? That was his school, out in the fields of Colorado, buying words for a penny. Como se dice eso: How do you say that in Ingles? ¿Como se dice leche en Ingles? Melk. Melk. Milk. It sounds hilarious, but that’s our life: Word by word, penny by penny.

My father found a car buried on a hill, and he told my mother, Lucia: “Look at that car.” “What about it? It’s buried, what do you want to look at that for? It’s rusty. You can’t even see the steering wheel.” “I’m gonna raise it up, raise it all the way up, and I’m gonna squash it down, and I’m gonna build a house on top of it, Lucia, so we can travel, so I can pull it with my Army truck, and we’re gonna have a Winnebago. A Mexicano Winnebago.” And that’s the house I lived in.

It sounds funny, but I lived in a one-room house that my father built on top of a beat-up old car that he found buried on a hill. That one room was an entertainment center, that one room was a bedroom, that one room was a kitchen, that one room was a guest room, it was a playground, it was a storytelling center, it was a performance artist auditorium. That’s how I saw it as a child. I didn’t see it in any other way. My father came here in 1904, and he bought words for a penny, and he learned English, and he became a pioneer. He taught me in so many ways that he was that, a pioneer, and I had to battle to find that. I had to battle through all the negative portrayals of Mexicanos, and I had to battle them inside my own being.

Now, in California people are getting thrown in buses and hauled into detention centers. In this one case, the bus couldn’t even make it to the detention center, because people didn’t want that bus to be in their city. This poem is called “Borderbus,” and I wanted to see if I could bring up the voices of the two women in that bus. I knew there were women in that bus, because during that time, there were a lot of children coming to the United States from Central America, by themselves. Unimaginable journeys, as you know. Another incredible, impossible thing, and these are the times we’re living in now. The times of the impossible, which are possible. These are painful impossibilities.

Two young girls in a holding area, where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Arizona.
Ross D. Franklin/AP


A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is gonna get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras I just know a few words

You better figure it out hermana the guard is right there
See the bus driver

Tantos días y ni sabíamos para donde íbamos
So many days and we didn’t even know where we were headed

I know where we’re going
Where we always go
To some detention center to some fingerprinting hall or cube
Some warehouse warehouse after warehouse

Pero ya nos investigaron ya cruzamos ya nos cacharon
Los federales del bordo qué más quieren
But they already questioned us we already crossed over they
already grabbed us the Border Patrol what more do they want

We are on the bus now
that is all

A dónde vamos te digo salí desde Honduras
No hemos comido nada y dónde vamos a dormir
Where are we going I am telling you I came from Honduras
We haven’t eaten anything and where are we going to sleep

I don’t want to talk about it just tell them
That you came from nowhere
I came from nowhere
And we crossed the border from nowhere
And now you and me and everybody else here is
On a bus to nowhere you got it?

Pero por eso nos venimos para salir de la nada
But that’s why we came to leave all that nothing behind

When the bus stops there will be more nothing
We’re here hermana

Y esas gentes quiénes son
no quieren que siga el camión
No quieren que sigamos
Están bloqueando el bus
A dónde vamos ahora
Those people there who are they
they don’t want the bus to keep going
they don’t want us to keep going
now they are blocking the bus
so where do we go


He tardado 47 días para llegar acá no fue fácil hermana
45 días desde Honduras con los coyotes los que se — bueno
ya sabes lo que les hicieron a las chicas allí mero en frente
de nosotros pero qué íbamos a hacer y los trenes los trenes
cómo diré hermana cientos de
nosotros como gallinas como topos en jaulas y verduras
pudriendóse en los trenes de miles me oyes de miles y se resbalaban
de los techos y los desiertos de Arizona de Tejas sed y hambre
sed y hambre dos cosas sed y hambre día tras día hermana
y ahora aquí en este camión y quién sabe a dónde
vamos hermana fíjate vengo desde Brownsville dónde nos amarraron
y ahora en California pero todavía no entramos y todavía el bordo
está por delante
It took me 47 days to get here it wasn’t easy hermana
45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones that — well
you know what they did to las chicas
right there in front of us so what were we supposed
to do and the trains the trains how can I tell you hermana hundreds
of us like chickens like gophers in cages and vegetables
rotting on trains of thousands you hear me of thousands and they slid
from the rooftops and the deserts of Arizona and Texas thirst and hunger
thirst and hunger two things thirst and hunger day after day hermana
and now here on this bus of who-knows-where we are going
hermana listen I come from Brownsville where they tied us up
and now in California but still we’re not inside and still the border
lies ahead of us

I told you to speak in English even un poquito
the guard is going to think we are doing something
people are screaming outside
they want to push the bus back

Pero para dónde le damos hermana
por eso me vine
le quebraron las piernas a mi padre
las pandillas mataron a mi hijo
solo quiero que estemos juntos
tantos años hermana
But where do we go hermana
that’s why I came here
they broke my father’s legs
gangs killed my son
I just want us to be together
so many years hermana
pulled apart


Mi madre me dijo que lo más importante
es la libertad la bondad y la buenas acciones
con el prójimo
My mother told me that the most important thing
is freedom kindness and doing good
for others

What are you talking about?
I told you to be quiet

La libertad viene desde muy adentro
allí reside todo el dolor de todo el mundo
el momento en que purguemos ese dolor de nuestras entrañas
seremos libres y en ese momento tenemos que
llenarnos de todo el dolor de todos los seres
para liberarlos a ellos mismos
Freedom comes from deep inside
all the pain of the world lives there
the second we cleanse that pain from our guts
we shall be free and in that moment we have to
fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings
to free them — all of them

The guard is coming well
now what maybe they’ll take us
to another detention center we’ll eat we’ll have a floor
a blanket toilets water and each other
for a while

No somos nada y venimos de la nada
pero esa nada lo es todo si la nutres de amor
por eso venceremos
We are nothing and we come from nothing
but that nothing is everything, if you feed it with love
that is why we will triumph

We are everything hermana
Because we come from everything

Copyright © 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera.
Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.