Alberto Ríos Essay - Critical Essays


Alberto Ríos’s verse is lauded for its distinctive use of magical realism, lyrical language, and childhood memories to illustrate American Southwest culture and life on the Mexico-United States border. His work draws heavily on the oral tradition of storytelling passed down through his family and often reflects his Chicano background; as a result, many of his poems relate narratives about his family and friends, often from a child’s perspective. Ríos is known for his lush descriptions and his ability to ground readers in everyday reality while transporting them to magical and surreal spaces.

Ríos examines spiritual and religious issues, mortality, and the effects of violence. His central themes include the intimate bonds of family, the cultural dynamics of the American Southwest, and the role of spaces, particularly borders (literal and metaphorical) in forming identity.

Whispering to Fool the Wind

With the publication of Whispering to Fool the Wind, Ríos established himself as an innovative voice in contemporary poetry. Although the volume echoes narrative voices and themes seen in his earlier works (Elk Heads on the Wall and Sleeping on Fists), in this collection, Ríos perfects his approach to storytelling, with its space and time intricacies, through the compact structure of verse.

Drawing on his Chicano heritage and his childhood memories, Ríos creates characters such as nani (grandmother), abuelo (grandfather), various aunts and uncles (in particular Uncle Humberto), childhood companions, and a man named Carlos, who is representative of the poet’s ancestors and their triumphs and tragedies. Their voices, as they relate experiences, heartbreaks, and joys, serve to create a world at once real and magical.

In “True Story of Pins,” Uncle Humberto spends his days chasing and collecting butterflies. He goes to his cousin Graciela’s sewing shop to search for pins to display his collection, but she will not give him any. Graciela always has pins, even in impoverished times; she denies his request because butterflies are a joyful childhood memory for her, and she feels collecting and displaying them is cruel. Uncle Humberto, angry, dies from rage. The poet relates this story in a frank manner, providing accurate details, yet never imposing a meaning on readers. Ríos presents a surreal experience, transforming the character of Uncle Humberto into a haunting figure.

The majority of poems in Whispering to Fool the Wind are narrated through the imagination and the distinctive language of a child. This enables Ríos to infuse playful humor into poems such as “Madre Sophia,” a colorful vignette illustrating an early experience, while highlighting an element of Chicano culture. Ríos, as a child growing up in Nogales, relates the time when his mother took him to see a gypsy fortune-teller. The naivety and impressionable nature of a child surfaces as he views the gypsy’s enormous breasts, likened to baseballs swinging toward him. The gypsy eventually tells Ríos “The future will make you tall.” This simplistic look into the child’s future is both literal and nonliteral; Ríos will physically be tall and he will prove to be a great success, adding stature to his family.

Lighthearted, often comedic moments are leavened by the poet’s ability to create poems that connect back even further to the often tragic experiences of his ancestors. “Carlos,” perhaps Whispering to Fool the Wind’s most poignant and haunting poem, considers how the ghostlike Carlos embodies Ríos’s ancestors and their struggles, at...

(The entire section is 1505 words.)