Happiness was a contagious condition at UC Riverside’s Unity Poem Fiesta. Taking place on Oct. 9, the event sprawled over the grounds outside the Arts Building. Basking in the warm sunlight — but not too warm — students and faculty came together to celebrate the theme of unity: the idea of a common humanity that encompasses everything from our saddest memories to our brightest moments.
When the clock struck noon, the main event took place. Children from nearby elementary schools walked together to the Arts Building steps, and proceeded to recite lines of poetry from “The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World.” This anthology of poems, over 200 pages, was a project that Herrera initiated two years ago, where all lines were contributions from anyone. Thus, the central theme of unity was carried out by inviting poems from backgrounds of all kinds, including those who sometimes find it difficult to express their own voice. Bringing together different people to help become a megaphone for the voiceless, Herrera was able to express that with unity, there could be “less violence, more togetherness and harmony — and all the things we feel in our lives that we wish we had more of.”
The fiesta was led by Juan Felipe Herrera, the poet laureate of California and professor at UC Riverside. Herrera possessed the qualities of a best friend, as one could see him shaking hands with every individual he met. Thriving with the energy and excitement of a child holding a puppy, he constantly put a smile on anyone’s face with his rapid-fire speech, fast-paced movements and down-to-earth demeanor. He was lightning — blink, and you’d miss him.
Taco stands with plenty of tasty desserts, along with free water and lemonade for all accompanied the fiesta. It didn’t matter if you were a member of the project crowd or if you were a simple passerby. Everything there was open to the public.
The choir of children stayed on the steps of the amphitheater for half an hour, spreading Herrera’s love of all people to everyone. Many of the lines referred to terrible tragedies that took place last year, including the Boston marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook massacre and the hurricane that decimated the Philippines. If humanity is the language of poetry, then the children personified that idea.
After the children took their bows and left, the second choir took their place up on stage, which is when things got more creative. The second choir consisted of students from local high schools and students and faculty of UC Riverside. Having led the children’s choir at an even and serious pace, Herrera — equipped as always with his humor and charm — went off-script for the fiesta’s second reading. The second choir believed that they would commit to a simple call-and-response technique of public reading, where Herrera would read one stanza at a time, and the choir would mimic his words. He had done this with the children’s choir, but with the second choir he greatly improvised by repeating and skipping different lines, or sometimes even saying anything off the top of his head.
This was the heart of the fiesta. Herrera, trusting the older choir’s ability to respond and listen, acted in spontaneity and ad-libbed for the audience. This level of controlled chaos was the type of humanity that Herrera lived day in and day out — the type of humanity that loved dancing to your own beat without a second thought, thinking not of judgment but only of making others truly happy through your own acts of joy. When Herrera caught the attention of a conga band sitting next to the choir on stage, he got them to start an infectious beat before dancing up and down the steps. This was followed with a lively call-and-response jingle between him and the choir, where they mimicked his randomized English and Spanish lyrics. They weren’t perfect, but they possessed the same mindset as Herrera; so long as they lived in the moment with their own unifying joy, they cared not for the estranged glances from random onlookers.
No matter what the emotion, the fiesta taught everyone that we are all a vital part of humanity through sharing our emotions with friends and loved ones. The attendees and Herrera displayed how they love everybody’s voice by uniting all in a poetry reading focused on unity itself.