Both in fact and in spirit, Alberto Ríos (REE-ohs) is a native of the Southwest. He was born to a Mexican father, Alberto Alvaro Ríos, a justice of the peace, and an English mother, Agnes Fogg Ríos, a nurse. Early in his life he was nicknamed Tito, a diminutive of Albertito, that is, “Little Albert.” The nickname referred to his small physical frame and differentiated him from his father. In 1975 the future author earned a bachelor of arts degree, with a major in psychology, from the University of Arizona. He then entered the university’s law school, only to find that poetry rather than the law was to be his calling. After one year of legal training he switched to the graduate program in creative writing, taking a master of fine arts degree in 1979. He joined the faculty of Arizona State University in 1982 and became Regents’ Professor of English there in 1994. He maintains an active schedule of writing, teaching, readings, and lecturing.
Ríos grew up on the Mexican American border, and the work that first brought him widespread attention, Whispering to Fool the Wind, addressed most of all the splay of his roots. This volume won for Ríos the prestigious Walt Whitman Award from the National Academy of American Poets in 1981. His first collection of short fiction, The Iguana Killer, winner of the Western States Book Award for fiction some two years later, dealt with similar concerns. Taken together, these works identified Ríos as a first-generation American artist chronicling an ethnic experience that had too long gone unexplored in American letters. After their publication, Ríos was warmly praised and widely anthologized, often embraced for this subject matter.
Ríos’s work extended beyond the provincial with the publication of the collection of poems Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses and his second short-fiction collection, Pig Cookies, and Other Stories. These works still spoke of a culture in transition, but they also displayed an evolving artistic vision, one having as much to do with the human condition as it has to do with an ethnic experience per se. Ríos’s writing began to manifest something beyond the tangible. A man spits on the pavement in order to rid himself of an intolerable thought. A priest’s soul leaves his body, with animal-like instinct. A fat man’s body is proof of a weight within him having nothing to do with scales or the flesh. A number of critics noted Ríos’s ability to make the commonplace seem strange—as well as his capacity to make the familiar seem magical—and aligned him in this regard with the Latin Magical Realists, such as Gabriel García Márquez.
Ríos’s vision is important in its own right, however. In an early short story, “The Birthday of Mrs. Pineda,” a character brings a cup of coffee to his face only to discover the...
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