Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

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.

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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 aroma pulling his head toward the lip of the cup. A short story published a decade later brings this conceit to fruition. “The Great Gardens of Lamberto Diaz” begins with these words:A person did not come to these gardens . . . to admire them or simply to breathe them in. No. One was breathed in by them, and something more. In this place a person was drawn up as if to the breast of the gardens, as if one were a child again, and being drawn up was all that mattered and meant everything.

Often in his interviews Ríos speaks of “situational physics,” of “emotional science.” Readers are asked in reading Ríos not simply to revise their suppositions about natural law but to relocate themselves, to reconsider their relationship to all that is tangible. People must reconfirm their presence on the planet, and then reconfirm this presence to one another; the process must begin by listening to language.

Ríos is bilingual, and from the beginning he has called on the idioms and syntax of both English and Spanish in his work. He has also concerned himself with what he calls “a third language,” a language that our bodies speak to one another with or without our conscious knowledge—the wink, the nod, the small and still smaller gesture. The reader encounters this type of language even in such early poems as “Nani,” in which a small boy speaks English, his grandmother, only Spanish. She serves him lunch each week, and the old woman and the boy discover a shared understanding, bringing them closer than words ever could.

Ríos has placed increasing importance on such means of bridging the gulfs that divide people. In the title poem of Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses, aged Teodoro Luna and his equally aged wife know an intimacy that the young are denied—a glance from one to the other, an eyebrow raised that turns a public event into a private experience between them. Kissing is the single act that most occupies Ríos’s attention. It illustrates both the enormity of human desire and the inability of people to express themselves in commensurate proportions. It stands for all that divides people and all that might bring them together. Ríos is often at his best when he is exploring how people turn public events into private experience and what they must dare in order to show themselves to the world. Certainly this is the case in several of the stories in Pig Cookies. Lazaro, the small boy in the title story, is so consumed with love for a neighbor girl that his very being is shaken, his baker’s hands overcome. To put this love of her into words is a much different matter, as the story’s ending reminds us: “The most difficult act in the world, he thought with his stomach, was this first saying of hello. This first daring to call, without permission, Desire by its first name.”

In 1999 Ríos published a memoir, Capirotada, named for a Mexican bread pudding made, as Ríos notes, from “a mysterious mixture of prunes, peanuts, white bread, raisins, quesadilla cheese, butter, cinnamon and cloves . . . and things people will not tell you,” like his life; it won the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award. In 2002 he published The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, in which poems honed from fable, parable, and family legend use the “intense and supple imagination of childhood to find and preserve history beyond facts”; this collection was a finalist for the National Book Award. In addition to winning these honors, Ríos is the recipient of the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Walt Whitman Award, the Western States Book Award for Fiction, and six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction. In 2002, he won the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award, the group’s highest distinction for authors whose work has defined and influenced the literature and study of the West.

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