Living Outside the Box
Raul Herrera Living Outside the Box
By Melodae Morris
“I’ve always been outside of the box,” he says.
“It was one of the best decisions of my life,” says Raul Herrera, 24, about moving to Omaha. “I love it out here.”
Herrera was on the speech and debate team at East Los Angeles Community College and competed in tournaments in 2014. He says he was awarded the overall speaker award for community colleges in California.
After winning the award, he says, “I’m pretty good at this.”
He had been writing poetry since he was 13, and that gave him a path.
However, his coaches said that he needed to transfer to a four-year college to finish his two years of competition eligibility. They put him in contact with UNO Forensics Director, Abbie Syrek and Assistant Director Cameron Logsdon.
His coaches told him that he would find UNO unique.
“I’ve always traveled because of the spoken word,” Herrera says.
According to the Poetry Foundation, spoken word is intended for performance having roots in oral traditions with elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater and more.
So, he was up for finding uniqueness at UNO that would fit with his outside-the-box thinking and ideas about performance.
In October, Herrera garnered oral interpretation and dramatic interpretation first-place wins at a forensics tournament in Kansas. His program in oral interpretation speaks to the topic of child soldiers. He says that the U.S. has refugee programs in other countries dealing with the plight of these young people in Middle East and Africa. But when it comes to the U.S. border and the children who are used for drug trafficking, he says “they criminalize it here.”
His dramatic interpretation of comedian Pete Johansson’s “Pain Management” deals with a young person’s relationship with mom, he says.
Herrera says he can’t help thinking about his own relationship with his family and especially his mother.
“They thought it was the greatest thing for me to do,” he says about moving across the country to go to school at UNO.
“They knew that I needed to leave,” he says, to pursue his talent.
He says his family wanted him to get an education, although, he says, “they don’t like me to be so far away.”
Last January, Herrera was picked to perform in Washington, D.C., at the Democracy in Color event at the Democratic Party Chair Candidates Forum. He was known for his work with Get Lit, an organization that uses poetry to increase literacy. Get Lit then sent a video of one of Herrera’s performances to the Latino digital network MiTu. This led to Herrera being chosen to perform his poetry “Earthquakes” (link to the performance) that he wrote that when he was 18.
Then last summer, Herrera saw his name projected in lights on the side of an old firehouse, now theater, in Culver City, California. “Dante” (link to watch the play) written by Herrera, was opened to the public, friends and family. This came through his involvement in The Actor’s Gang, run by actor Tim Robbins.
“It is a type of Commedia dell’ Arte,” Herrera says.
The Actor’s Gang teaches joy, sadness, fear and anger through performance, Herrera says, and “any emotion can be broken down into that.”
Dante is a collection of poems with an ending, he says. It was adapted as a story by, Diane Luby Lane, executive director and founder of Get Lit Words Ignite.
I got to see people perform my words,” he says. “It was such a cool thing.”
Herrera says he needs to express himself.
He says: “I like writing plays. I want to represent Latinos in the world. I don’t think there are enough TV and screen writers.
Herrera says he has always followed his passions, not because it was a career choice, but “because it was what I needed to do.”
From “Cool Guy” to “Poet Guy”
In high school he says, he was a “big varsity jock” competing four years in track and cross country. As a freshman, he was a 4.0 student.
“I was the cool guy,” he says.
He started writing and performing poetry in Alhambra High School. It was then, he says, he became the “poet guy.”
“It gave me a perspective to not care about aesthetics so much,” he says.
Growing up in California was not always easy for Herrera.
He says he was a sophomore in 2008 when the market crashed. His family lost its house and had to move to a smaller home with nine people in one room. Suddenly, his life had changed.
“I didn’t care about anything until I found poetry,” he says. “I got mad in a healthy way.”
Herrera says being able to reflect on his life helped him process what was going on. He stayed in school so he could stay in poetry.
After getting involved with “Get Lit” he went to the White House in 2011 for an Evening of Art and Poetry. While the Get Lit group watched the event from a separate area than President Obama was in, he says he met other people who also talked about their feelings. He says he could wholly relate to them.
When he graduated from high school, he got a scholarship for writing a short story, and that was his ticket to community college. His last year of forensics competition there, he says he ended at the top of his game with awards. It was surreal.
“They said my name. It felt like five seconds. I am looking down, and then, I heard everyone cheering,” Herrera says.
“It was a picture-perfect movie moment, with two columns of people,” he says. He walked to the front to get his award.
Speaking from the Heart
However, his first year in UNO forensics was not quite what he expected, he says. In his first tournament he didn’t get into the finals. Four-year college competition is in a different league beyond what community college competition was. And, with the load of school work, competition and working 30 hours a week as a server and bartender for Applebee’s, times got tough.
“I was getting bitter and jaded,” he says.
That was the tournament that caused him to change and to remind himself, “Don’t forget you have to speak from your heart,” he says.
Herrera cut his work at Applebee’s down to two days a week. He spends more time at home staying focused on academics. Last year at a national mock tournament showcase he got second place. That was affirmation, he says, that he was on the right track. It takes endurance.
“You never reach the top of the mountain until you get there,” Herrera says.
Bigger picture though, he wants to do art and “leave a mark.”
His advice to young performers is that the best performers don’t perform.
He says: “They want to see the person. The human connection. If you’re performing, you’re not getting anything out of it.”
Teaching and Giving Back
This summer, Herrera says, The Actor’s Gang is planning to present “Dante” again. He’ll do the re-writes on what he says will be a bigger production through a $30,000 grant they hope to receive so they can pay the actors more.
Writer, poet, worker and student, Herrera says, “I think it is cool to serve people in so many ways: bartender, server, teammate and friend.”
A long way from his boyhood home, he misses his family, friends and Tommy Burger, where the best burgers are found, he says.
He plans to head back to California after graduation in May, and he says he may go to California State University, Long Beach to get his Master’s degree.
“I love teaching and I am trying to discover my academic side,” he says.
In his spare time, he taught a poetry class for Millard South High School last year. He also taught at a private speech and debate academy in California and numerous workshops and conferences across the country.
“People have told me that students responded to me,” he says.
He says he would like to teach in elementary and high school because that is where the need is.
“The poetry from elementary students are the most tragic,” he says.
Prior to starting his journey at UNO, Herrera says his mother gave him words of encouragement that he can’t forget.
“’Do it for me,’” he says quoting his mother. “’Once a day, look yourself in the mirror and pat yourself on the back.’”
“I’ve yet to do that,” he says.
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