Alberto Ríos is an Arizona based author of ten poetry collections and three short story collections. He has won the Walt Whitman Award, the Western States Book Award and has twice been nominated for the National Book Award.
IN HIS OWN WORDS:
The literary works I read depicting Chicanos before 1970 or so were minimal, they were non-existent. We were not in books and because of that we didn’t read the books, we didn’t look for ourselves in books, it was a vicious cycle. Growing up along the United States Mexico border in Nogales, reading was not the first priority. It was about getting on a bike and looking for adventures.
I first thought of the act of writing by not thinking about writing but what writing is–an act of the imagination. Writing is a tool, the way to do it, but it is not the thing itself. I had a wonderful teacher in second grade. I used to day dream and she would call my parents to school. They came of course.
My parents said did he do something wrong? No, but he has a problem. He’s been daydreaming. Daydreaming? Yes, daydreaming! So you’ll take care of this? Yes. We’ll take care of it. We got in the car and I expected my parents to start yelling at me, but nothing. To their credit my parents never said a word about my “problem.” It took me into adulthood to understand that they understand that “thinking” and “imagining” was a not a problem.
I think storytelling is part of the Latino culture, just in general. I come from a family of storytellers. That’s how I remember so many of my family members including the ones I never knew. I remember a lot of family members though they were dead before I was born, that’s the power of storytelling.
I grew up on Rodriguez street in Nogales, Arizona. Behind the Catholic church What I remember was that it was calm. It was a congress of friendship. There was respect. There was of course the line, that’s what we called it. Not the border, not the fence, but the line. It was a marker but not a barricade the way it is today. Growing up in Nogales allowed me to see the small town, a small town, better. Something was going on everywhere and I just had to see it.
Spanish. Its an issue for Chicanos everyday.. It’s a big and a small problem. Its big in that there is such a politic surrounding it and that is unfortunate. It helps you to understand the world better. When I was first growing up, your first language was Spanish. My father and his family speaking Spanish. And it was also the language of all my friends. But when we go into our first grade classroom they said. You cannot speak Spanish.
And we all said, of course we can. Seguro que sí. Just listen! And the teacher said that is not what I mean. You are NOT to speak Spanish here and if you do you will be swatted. So we got swats for Speaking Spanish in the first grade. It was terrible psychologically as well as physically. We learned more than English. Our parents told us that you got swatted for being bad. And our teacher told us that we would be swatted for speaking Spanish. So we learned our first math lesson: Spanish, then, must be bad. So then you realize that if Spanish is bad and your parents are speaking Spanish, they, then, must be bad.
But language… is like putting on a pair of binoculars to see something very far away, suddenly brought up close. Two words, like two lenses, you see it better as a result and to understand it better, more completely
For me beginning to explore the Chicano experience came from the age old adage, write what you know. And I knew Nogales and I knew no one else did. So I started writing about Nogales., what I knew. And that became increasingly interesting to me. The added idea that it was a border, it was a way of thinking of things. A way of thinking of things in multiple ways and trying to capture that. Sometime a word in Spanish would capture it. So as I started to write about Nogales. Nogales was a place of mystery but not to me. When I sat down to write what I knew. It was old to me but new to others.
For me the writing process: I never know where the story is going. I start with a first line. It’s like a Rorschach test, what does that first line make me think of? And sometimes it is quite a leap. And I just keep going. Of course we have poems to tell and stories to write. I try to stay open and pursue directions I can’t predict.
BOOKS BY ALBERT RÍOS:
The Dangerous Shirt Copper Canyon Press, 2009
The Theater of Night Copper Canyon Press, 2006
The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body Copper Canyon Press, 2002
The Curtain of Trees University of New Mexico Press, 1999
The Pig Cookies Chronicle Books, 1995
Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses W.W. Norton & Co., 1990
The Warrington Poems Pyracantha Press, 1989
The Lime Orchard Woman The Sheep Meadow Press, 1988
Five Indiscretions The Sheep Meadow Press, 1985
The Iguana Killer University of New Mexico Press, 1984
Whispering to Fool the Wind The Sheep Meadow Press, 1982
Sleeping on Fists Dooryard Press, 1981
Elk Heads on the Wall Mango Publications, 1979