BY Jennifer L. Berghom

EDINBURG – U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and Texas-based author and publisher Bryce Milligan stressed the importance literature has in promoting social justice and encouraged students to use their literary voices to uplift their communities and speak out against injustice.

The authors spoke to students and educators at the Big Read panel titled, “Literature and Social Justice,” Thursday, March 2, during The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) at the UTRGV Performing Arts Complex Auditorium on the Edinburg Campus. Their visit was made possible through the National Endowment of the Arts’ (NEA) Big Read program.

Herrera, who was appointed the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States in 2015 as the first Mexican American to hold the position, and was reappointed in 2016, recounted how his mother dreamed of being a dancer, but was discouraged to do so because it was considered an inappropriate profession for a woman. He also said she encouraged him to express himself through his writing.

Between reading passages from his books of poetry, Herrera urged students to challenge and express themselves through their writing. Herrera also solicited participation from the crowd to perform some of his poetry.

“It all begins with you,” he said. “It all begins with what you observe.”

He challenged students to push through self-doubt and fear to create their work.

“Our communities need you — writers, students, thinkers, to do the opposite, to free ourselves so we can all be free,” he said.

Milligan discussed the history of the use of the arts and humanities to drive social change and shared how reading literature from a variety of cultures while growing up in Dallas humanized him and made him aware of cultures other than his own.

“It is the responsibility of writers to express their vision of reality as it was, as it is and as it can be,” Milligan said. “In a time when we see the political leaders of this nation becoming constricted and, seemingly paranoid, being fearful of other cultures, writers have a responsibility to themselves to their own communities and to their readers to be the opposite, to be expansive, inclusive, experimental. I would argue that now is the time to break the rules, to broaden our horizons to envision, describe, and even to demand liberty and justice for all.”

UTRGV is one of 77 communities nationwide participating in the NEA Big Read from September 2016 to June 2017. This is the fourth successfully funded NEA Big Read grant written by Dr. Steven Schneider, UTRGV professor of creative writing. The NEA Big Read is presented in partnership with UTRGV and the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library. The book chosen for this year’s endeavor is “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez.

A program of the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA Big Read broadens the understanding of the world, communities, and the public through the joy of sharing a good book.

Managed by Arts Midwest, this initiative offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book.

FESTIBA continues Friday, March 3 with Librarians and Educators Day and Jardín del Arte Community Festival. For more information and a schedule of events, visit