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Alberto Ríos 1952-

(Full name Alberto Alvaro Ríos) American poet, short story writer, and memoirist.

Ríos is recognized as an important and influential American poet, whose verse often explores the dynamics of life on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. Drawing on the oral storytelling tradition of his...

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Alberto Ríos 1952-

(Full name Alberto Alvaro Ríos) American poet, short story writer, and memoirist.

Ríos is recognized as an important and influential American poet, whose verse often explores the dynamics of life on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States. Drawing on the oral storytelling tradition of his Chicano heritage, his poetry has been praised for its unique perspective on the American Southwest experience.

Biographical Information

Ríos was born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, on September 18, 1952, to a Mexican father and a British mother. As a young boy, he first learned Spanish; but like most Chicanos, he was forced to speak English when he attended school. By the end of elementary school he gave up speaking Spanish altogether. The juxtaposition between these two worlds—the English and Spanish—is a recurring theme in his verse. In junior high school Ríos began to write poetry. In 1974 he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a year later he received another bachelor's, in psychology. He then enrolled in law school but quit in order to enroll in the Master's of Fine Arts program, which he completed in 1979. That same year, he published his first collection of poetry, Elk Heads on the Wall. He has received numerous awards, published hundreds of pieces in magazines and journals, and served on the editorial boards of many literary journals. Currently he is a Professor of English at Arizona State University and gives lectures and readings around the country.

Major Poetic Works

Critics assert that Ríos's verse is largely drawn from his childhood memories and an oral storytelling tradition passed on from his family. His verse often relates stories from and about his grandmother, grandfather, parents, cousins, aunts, and childhood friends. Several of his poems are told from a child's point of view. For example, in “Madre Sofía,” he writes from a child's perspective about a mysterious trip to a gypsy fortune-teller with his mother. In “Nani” he recounts the silent language that he shared with his beloved grandmother. Ríos also explores in his work the concept of borders. In “Day of the Refugios” he describes the double meaning of the Fourth of July in Nogales: it is a day of celebration of America's independence as well as the saint's day of people named Refugio—including his grandmother and his mother-in-law. In Ríos's world, the Fourth of July thus represents the juxtaposition of his Chicano and American heritages. As a result of these border divisions, Ríos has created a hybrid writing, which is characterized by the use of magical realism. In these verses, he begins with a realistic situation that develops into a surreal one. Several of his poems are concerned with the themes of desire, religion, and violence.

Critical Reception

Critics praise Ríos for his thoughtful articulation and exploration of the dynamics of life in the border area between Mexico and the United States. Moreover, reviewers commend his use of vivid detail and magical realism in his poetry and short stories. His use of magical realism has prompted comparisons to Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez. Ríos's work has been published in numerous periodicals and his poems are often anthologized. Viewed as a notable American poet and vital voice from the American Southwest, he was awarded a poetry fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980 and was awarded the Walt Whitman award in 1981 for Whispering to Fool the Wind, which was published the following year. He also received Pushcart Prizes for poetry in 1988 and 1989, and was a nominee for the National Book award in 2002 for his latest collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (2002). He was also the 2002 recipient of the Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award.

Principal Works

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Elk Heads on the Wall 1979

Sleeping on Fists 1981

Whispering to Fool the Wind 1982

Five Indiscretions 1985

The Lime Orchard Woman 1988

The Warrington Poems 1989

Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses 1990

The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body 2002

The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart (short stories) 1984

Pig Cookies and Other Stories (short stories) 1995

The Curtain of Trees (short stories) 1999

Capiratada: a Nogales Memoir (memoir) 1999

José David Saldívar (review date summer 1982)

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SOURCE: Saldívar, José David. “The Real and the Marvelous in Nogales, Arizona.” Denver Quarterly 17, no. 2 (summer 1982): 141-44.

[In the following review, Saldívar regards Whispering to Fool the Wind as a classic volume of poetry.]

Whispering to Fool the Wind, the 1981 Walt Whitman Award-winning manuscript, by Alberto Ríos, seems, as few first volumes of poetry do, an entirely necessary work, perhaps a classic. Ríos introduces new tones and perspectives to the American Southwest experience and follows such writers as Carpentier, Rulfo, and García Márquez in their dialogue between Old World forms and New World expression.

Alberto Ríos, a Chicano from Nogales, Arizona, received his MFA Creative Writing degree from the University of Arizona. Presently, he is a Visiting Professor of English and Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Ríos is sensitive to the Chicano experience and his poetry is thoughtful and well-wrought. His poems are usually narrative poems; that is, they contain a storyteller and a tale.

What strikes me most about Ríos's Whispering to Fool the Wind are the various ways his characters are able to exchange experiences, often their securest possessions, with us. Ríos as storyteller in verse draws from an oral and sometimes silent code which is passed on from his nani (grandmother), his abuelo (grandfather), cousins, aunts, childhood friends, an Uncle Humberto, and a representative man he names Carlos. And because Ríos's poetic representations of his characters' stories hardly differ from their own speech and point of view, he is one of the new, great American storytellers. Storytelling in verse, traditionally, is a difficult task because the details we appreciate in prose fiction—a sense of being and time, of characters exchanging experiences, a sense of the stories of all our lives—are seemingly at odds with the compactness of poetry. Nevertheless Ríos is able to master this difficult procedure.

The most extraordinary things happen in Whispering to Fool the Wind. Panfilo's head is deformed and “awkwardly” bent out of shape; a grandfather “who has served ants with the attitude of a waiter” in “Mi Abuelo” is buried in his best suit; and a poor Uncle Humberto, a collector of butterflies, dies of excessive rage because one day Graciela, a “hard seamstress,” refuses to give him pins. In his “True Story Of the Pins,” as in García Márquez's children's stories, Ríos's poem is itself an allegory of the storytelling process:

Pins are always plentiful
but one day they were not
and your Uncle Humberto
who collected butterflies
you see here on the walls
was crazy looking for some
and he went to your cousin
Graciela the hard seamstress
who has pins it is rumored
even in hard times, but when
she found out why he wanted them
because the wind from the south
who was her friend since the days
of her childhood on the sea
told her, she firmly refused
your poor Uncle Humberto.

Throughout Whispering to Fool the Wind, marvelous things are related with the greatest of accuracy without being forced on the reader. It is left up to readers to interpret things for themselves in the way they understand them.

Ríos's work reaches back to a whole lifetime of his own and others. In “Madre Sofía,” Ríos writes about his impressions of a gypsy fortune-teller his mother once took him to in Nogales. His dramatization of the episode, through a child's point of view, syntax, and language, captures us where an adult rhetoric never could:

My mother took me because she couldn't
wait the second ten years to know.
This was the lady rumored to have been
responsible for the box-wrapped baby
among the presents at that wedding,
but we went in, anyway, through the curtains.

The child does not know how to feel about the lady with a “face mahogany” and “eyes half yellow half gray.” But his description of the gypsy Sofía is, I think, one of the most fascinating and humorous pieces of writing in the book. He sees “breasts as large as her / head, folded together, coming out of her dress / as if it didn't fit, not like my mother's.” Ríos the child is obviously frightened by “those breasts swinging towards him,” and he valiantly tries protecting “whatever it is that needs protection when a baseball is thrown.” He later associates the gypsy Sofía with Joaquín, the amputee with “quarter arms … who came back from the war to sit / in the park, always reaching for children.” At the end of the poem, Ríos is happily told that “the future will make you tall.” Although Ríos the adult is not what one would call tall, the gypsy's prophecy contains both a literal and figurative meaning: the child, when he grows up, will be tall in stature and a success to his family. Surely, in announcing the 1981-82 Walt Whitman Award, the judge, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Donald Justice, could never have realized that his commentary about Ríos's work would prove Madre Sofía right: Ríos's poetry, he says, “gives what is basic to the literary art—that felt sense of life demanded by Henry James … And whoever reads this work must be impressed as I was, by the power the most natural seeming and casual image has, in the hands of a true poet, to transform and illuminate.”

With Ríos's stories in verse, words, eyes, soul, and world are brought into connection. His gift as a storyteller is the ability to relate the marvelous reality incarnate in Nogales, Arizona, a whole different creation and culture whose chief power is to fascinate. His poems are the blood stories of his ancestors' lives. In “Carlos,” one of the most haunting poems in Whispering to Fool the Wind, Ríos's individual voice clings to his text the way the handprints of a potter cling to his/her work:

Carlos is the name
by which loneliness
knows each of us.
Carlos the distant relative
worse off than we are
who drank medicines
of poverty and died
not in his sleep
but wide awake …
Carlos who lives inside
pain in each of us …
Carlos who is the name
of a boat and the fisherman
and the anchor.
Carlos who is cold
and the woman and the night.
Carlos who wants only
to age with each of us,
to grow old, to be happy.

Ríos's song of himself is “Carlos.” Carlos appears like a ghost in several other poems in the book, as the representative man who lets the wick of his life, to repeat Walter Benjamin, be consumed by the gentle flame of his story.

Ríos's earlier books Elk Heads On the Wall and Sleeping On Fists1 are closely consonant with Whispering to Fool the Wind. His poems “El Molino Rojo” and “Rodríguez Street” are the direct blood ancestors of his later work. Unlike the fiction of Carpentier or García Márquez, in which their creators are trying to bring worlds to an end, “El Molino Rojo” is about a world already dead. His poem describes a world deprived of fertility much like that of Rulfo's Pedro Páramo.

In “El Molino Rojo,” Ríos creates a bewildering limbo, a confusion of temporalities, a zone in which memories, words, acts, and people all exist simultaneously in death. Old men come to the bar named El Molino Rojo to drink pulque. It is the center of their world. Throughout the poem, the dead voices in the text await their rest, and they never seem to find it. Ríos's dense poem shows a world coming to an ending without an end, a world in which not even the dead are allowed to pass into oblivion:

Chapo is the youngest
who died two years ago
but still must come here
because he has nowhere else
and no one …
No one listens to him
because he is dead.

“El Molino Rojo,” like much of Ríos's later work, expresses a longing for closure and resorts to the marvelous to represent it. It is as though in order to dramatize his world Ríos is obliged to turn away from conventional realism in which only the plausible can occur, as though what he had to say was too painful or too fantastic to be said realistically.


  1. Sleeping On Fists (Story, Wyoming: Dooryard Press, 1981). Elk Heads On the Wall (San Jose, California: Mango Publications, 1979).

Alberto Ríos (essay date spring-summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Ríos, Alberto. “The Body of My Work.” Genre 32, nos. 1, 2 (spring-summer 1999): 27-39.

[In the following essay, Ríos contends that the “language of the body” plays a significant role in his poetry.]

What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is understand others.

—Carlos Fuentes

I've said many times that my first language was more or less Spanish. It's true, but it's not true, too. Mine was Spanish the way potlucks are meals, which is an apt comparison, I think. My language, finally, consisted of whatever words would get me dinner. In that sense, my first language was the same as everybody's. And in this moment, pointing at my mouth was as strong as anything I could say, as strong as “dame comida,” or “give me food.”

It was a child's existence, and children find their way. Pointing and winking and laughing are part of the vocabulary mix. Then first grade happens. First grade is a name for that time when adults start to tell children how to find their way, rather than simply letting them, and there's confusion. First grade is often quite abruptly another kind of meeting place, another kind of food and language.

My friends also spoke Spanish, and some English and some pointing and some Yaqui and some border and some Papago. We spoke it—this it we had created—easily and all the time, framing ourselves in this carnival language made of linguistic high-wire acts and rhetorical elephants, fluent tigers and eloquent cannonballs. We were all bukis getting around on our patamobiles, always asking for chicle to chew and Fanta to drink. Our parents drove around in troques, or caught el bus. We spoke this language easily until we got into the first grade classroom, where on the very first day our teacher said, “You can't speak Spanish in here.” Whatever I was speaking, whatever we were all speaking, it must have had enough Spanish in it to make it Spanish altogether, at least in the school's sensibility.

You can't speak Spanish in here. We all looked around at each other, raising our hands politely. We tried to tell the teacher that we could, of course we could. We could speak Spanish anytime, and other things, too. Couldn't she hear? This was good, we thought, because it was something we could do, something we could show her. We all laughed.

But no, she said, she meant that we were not to speak Spanish, that if we did she was going to swat us.

And that was bad. Not only that, but anyone who did speak it and couldn't speak any English at all would have to go to “1-C.” That was the name of the grade for kids who couldn't manage in all English, and 1-C didn't count for a grade because if you went there you still had to come to first grade the next year. First grade again. It was like failing. It's like whatever you did in there didn't count. Even as first graders we understood that much, even if we couldn't articulate it. 1-C was like flunking before you even began.

And it was Spanish you spoke in there. The message about Spanish was clear, and if the threat of 1-C weren't enough, we were told we would be swatted if we spoke Spanish even on the playground, just like for saying a “dirty” word. I don't know if 1-C was something that happened across the country in the 1950s or if it was just the Southwest, but it was an effective tactic. We knew that anybody who went there never caught up. And just like never catching up in any of the playground games, we knew that meant something.

“After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?”

—Russell Hoban

I think people's hearts were in the right place in trying to get us to speak English in preparation for the adult world and the place in which we lived, and I don't sense any huge, evil plan at work. But that's almost worse.

We got our rewards for speaking English, though, and they were clear: for lack of a better word, we got the wonderful first grade stuff! Desks, pencils, cubbyholes, clay, chalkboards, paints, butcher paper, maps. Well, we didn't actually know about maps, yet, but we liked the string that hung from them in front of the chalkboard—we could tell this was for pulling. This was all real stuff, stuff we didn't have at home. Not even close.

Stuff! We wanted it! It was our job to want it—we were first graders, after all. And if it took learning English, we weren't stupid—we could do that. Two weeks tops. We could, and we did. And, well, maybe too well.

The thing is, we didn't stop learning. That's the part nobody talks about very well.

A bargain was being struck, one that you couldn't go home and talk to your parents about. If Spanish was something you were hit for, and you get hit for doing something bad, Spanish then must be bad. That wasn't hard to figure out. We didn't articulate it; we just felt it. We knew what getting swatted would feel like.

Speaking English, on the other hand, got you stuff.

“The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville

In second grade, that equation widened out its orbit. If Spanish was bad, and our parents spoke Spanish, they then must be bad people. In that way, in that almost scientific and mathematical way, we learned to be ashamed of them. What two and two adds up to, after all, is exactly what we were learning. But it was far more than numbers. We suddenly were put into the position of having to take care of our parents, because they didn't seem to get it. They didn't seem to understand it as well as we did. They acted as if nothing was wrong.

So, how do you take care of your parents at school? The clear answer for us was, Don't let them come to school. Don't let them show up. The teacher tried to convince us otherwise, and would give us PTA meeting notices, which were in English. She'd say, “Take this home to your parents.” As if we were dumb enough to fall for that one.

We'd say, “Yes, ma'am” and put the notices in our notebooks. But on the way to the school bus, we'd do our walks, and as part of our walks we'd calmly drop the notes into the garbage can at the end of the playground. It was our little ritual, and we were true to it. We didn't talk about it.

The garbage can, by the way, had an interesting word written on it. The word was basura. It didn't say “trash,” which is what it meant in English, because when you want people to do something, you use whatever language it takes. I knew all about that from before coming to first grade—you find the words that will get you dinner. So we got the PTA notices in English, but “trash” in Spanish.

We threw our notes away because we loved our parents, and that was the only way we could take care of them. I knew that if I took the notes home, because my parents were parents, they'd respond. I knew that because they were my parents, they'd come to school if they were asked. And I knew that if my father opened his mouth at school, Spanish might come out. And if Spanish came out, well, that was it for him: he'd have to get in the swat line.

I laugh now at the thought of my parents getting swatted because that is so clearly second-grade reasoning. But we were second graders, and it's the only kind of reasoning we had.

“A mind enclosed in language is in prison.”

—Simone Weil

By the time I was in later elementary school, in junior high school, and in the beginning of high school, I couldn't speak Spanish anymore, which is to say, I didn't want to. I had learned too well. The Spanish got crowded out, got kicked out, and went into a special place that I knew I had to be careful of.

It wasn't until late in high school and the beginning of college that I relearned Spanish. But I didn't relearn it. Spanish hadn't gone anywhere. What I did was relearn my attitude toward it. This is what I think is missing in most theories of language retention, which tell you to open up a book and review the language. There's a reason why I didn't simply do that.

Coming back to Spanish wasn't hard. But the feeling I had learned about Spanish didn't go away—that's what was hard. The feeling. Too often we discuss language intellectually, in terms of the mind, and we stop short there, as if the mind explains everything. As a child, however, these were the years we were learning about the world as much with our bodies as with our minds. The two were not yet distinct, though that's perhaps difficult to remember. But you're learning at that age, for example, how to ride a bike. You can't simply have an explanation given to you—you've also got to just go out and do it. When you're learning to ride a bike what you're really learning is balance, which is the body's version of intuition. Go in the direction you feel is right, even if you can't explain why.

Balance, however, is easy enough to understand. You know that if you lean a little too far this way or a little too far that way you're going to fall down and get hurt. You find by experience and by caution the place that lets you move on.

Remember, though, that we were learning about languages at the same time, and it wasn't so different from learning the bicycle. When you're getting hit for speaking Spanish, it's like leaning too far to one side on your bike—you get hurt. As with Spanish and school, you learned with your body how not to get hurt. You learned which way to move. You found the center place that let you navigate safely forward. If you were lucky.

Because Spanish was tinged with danger, then, grouped with whatever else got you into trouble, English was what came out of our mouths. When I came back to Spanish later in my life, I could take care of the intellectual aspects, but my body hadn't forgotten what it had learned, and I had no real way to address it. The visceral aspects of learning, talking about the body, this is an absent discussion.

Here's the thing: As the saying goes, you never forget how to ride a bike. It's the body that remembers. And it does not simply or only remember how to ride a bike. It remembers all the things that kept it from harm.

“Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one's mother's womb.”

—Italo Calvino

I'm saying, of course, that the further side of bike riding extends to language: if it was important, you never forget what you learned in the beginning. And you did it—or said it, over and over again, thousands or hundreds of thousands of times. You pedal, you balance, you turn. There are equals in language. You learn the words, you learn the meaning, you learn the stigma. I wouldn't normally put an intellectualized vocabulary on bike riding, because it is a balance that, for the body, doesn't exist in the realm of words. But in language, the implications, the results, and the lives that emerge from this process—these bear talking about.

There is a whole generation of people like me who have to deal with the outcomes of first grade, who can't forget how to ride the bike. Watching the avenues of understanding take form in recent years has been fascinating. For example, recently, when university students in California agitated for Chicano studies programs, and the more important Chicano studies departments, what's among the first approaches to action they've taken? Hunger strikes.

So much else about the study of a culture that is all around makes ready and important sense. I'm not sure, however, that the world at large has understood why hunger strikes are important beyond the momentary statement they make, and I'm not sure students, or faculty, or community members have done a good job in articulating any connection between a Chicano studies department and not eating. But, for me, the connection is clear. The connecting of the body to an intellectual pursuit makes an intuitive connection between understanding and nourishment, of course. But it also connects the body that got swatted to the body that speaks.

If, at an early age, so much of what we learn is with the body; if language is a confusion; then how else to respond later on in a quest for learning but with the body? And with confusion? And a hunger strike most of all—what better metaphor could there be, what better leap toward poetry and physics? What better way to make a connection, which is the verb in our greater language of understanding? Connection. Something that engages the body and confusion both—stop eating in order to go forward. This is something. This is the whole language spoken by those who feel what words have given them, words in all their forms.

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

—Roland Barthes

“To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.”

—Octavio Paz

The swatting, the circumstances and learning, the outcome—this all sounds very negative, and of course it is. But I've appreciated something in the struggle to understand all this, for which I am thankful. A swat, the threat of a swat, made me start paying attention to language in ways that as a writer I'm glad for. Not as a human being, or as a teacher, but as a writer.

I've come to see how much language of the body there is in my work. This effort of finding and telling the body, unconscious as I've been of so much of it, stems from how I learned the world, how it was given to me. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that this is how I've tried to give it back, whether I knew it or not. I think of my grandmother, for example, and how often she served me with her body as much as with anything else when she put a bowl of albóndigas in front of me for lunch. How much she told me, how much she fed me, how much she saved up for me, all with her body. Our words were not how we spoke. That is not how I understood her, or how I remember her.

I grew up calling my grandmother “Nani,” which is the diminutive of nana, a word that itself travels between many languages, and I suspect even between planets. In late elementary school, I had by then a difficult time speaking Spanish, and my grandmother did not speak English. Nonetheless, I found myself at her house at least once a week for lunch. English and Spanish were our languages, our now separate ways of talking, but ours was an absence of words, too. That absence, in this case, made a third, and stronger language. It became a vocabulary of gestures and of eyes.

This was a simple language, but as difficult as any. It is even more difficult when the two speakers know that they are connected, but cannot immediately find where that connection is. This is different from speaking to someone senile, or someone too young. But in this third language of non-words, into which we had been forced, and in this setting of grandmother and grandson, both can speak, and speak well. The whole situation might have seemed to be a problem, but a grandmother and a grandson having lunch together—this is not a problem.

And these moments, these lunches, almost more than in any other manner, this way of talking to each other, and what we said—this is how the two of us were most related. The way we talked to each other best was, finally, very simple and it was in a language and with an alphabet I think anyone will recognize: She would cook, and I would eat.

That's how we talked. It tasted good.


Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albóndigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
I watch the mama warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?
She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.

“Methinks the human method of expression by sound of tongue is very elementary, & ought to be substituted for some ingenious invention which should be able to give vent to at least six coherent sentences at once.”

—Virginia Woolf

“In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.”

—Federico García Lorca

Figuring out how she spoke best and most meaningfully to me also helped me to understand how she spoke to others, and to my grandfather in particular. Though he died before I was born, there was not a conversation at any family gathering in which he did not present himself, and forcefully.

That was a great trick, and I was always amazed. How could someone dead be so present? But the answer was simple, and real. He spoke through all the mouths in my grandmother's house: someone would say this about him, someone would say that. It may not have been much, but someone would always say something. And so there he was.

The best thing I found out was how my grandparents kissed, and that they never stopped, even after he was gone. This was his best trick, even better than getting into the middle of every conversation.

I will let him talk once more. It was the both of them, and everybody they left, who still surprise me. If my first language was whatever got me dinner, my next true language was what I learned after dinner. What people said that I heard, and what people said that I saw. These were two clear and different things. Again, whether I realized it or not at the time, recognizing this kind of connection was what fed me as much as anything I ate: dinner, after all, was just dinner, and filled me for the night. Other things filled me for life.


Mr. Teodoro Luna in his later years had taken to kissing
His wife
Not so much with his lips as with his brows.
This is not to say he put his forehead
Against her mouth—
Rather, he would lift his eyebrows, once, quickly:
Not so vigorously he might be confused with the villain
Famous in the theaters, but not so little as to be thought
A slight movement, one of accident. This way
He kissed her
Often and quietly, across tables and through doorways,
Sometimes in photographs, and so through the years themselves.
This was his passion, that only she might see. The chance
He might feel some movement on her lips
                    Toward laughter.

“If the Soviet Union can give up the Brezhnev Doctrine for the Sinatra Doctrine, the United States can give up the James Monroe Doctrine for the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine: Let's all go to bed wearing the perfume we like best.”

—Carlos Fuentes

In this discussion the future of Chicano Studies lies. And not just Chicano Studies, but all studies. I say that because it's where my future lies. It's me. It's everybody like me. We are not abstractions, or easy political labels, and certainly not stereotypes. We have started recognizing who we are, and what. How we got here, and why. When this happened, and how. But all of this simply sets the stage for what must come next. The work of Chicano Studies, my work, up to now has been to understand. It is time to use that understanding as a foundation.

I teach at a very large university now, and I find myself faced with a curious conundrum. In order for my university students to graduate, I must require of them a second language, the same way a second language was required of me when I graduated. This was, of course, the same language that was first taken away from me.

But enough. I've also been given a great deal, and a better understanding of the world most of all. The real discussions are, what have we learned? What do we remember? What do we need to move forward? What do we offer in exchange for our safe passage?

What do we offer? I linger on that last question. I suspect I have experience and understanding. I have been an explorer all my life—each of us has been. I have a field report to offer, and I will do so in hopes that someone will listen. If there is anger, there is every other emotion as well. Don't be fooled by the loud, and don't try to fool anybody with it. The future of Chicano studies will be largely predicated on finding the range of emotion in all of its work.

But most of all, what is our vocabulary? Spanish, English, all the things I have spoken, all the things I have wrestled with: which of these? The better question, as I've come to see it, is, Which is the truer language, the more effective communication: the word tortilla, or the smell of a tortilla? The word menudo, or the taste of the broth? Things themselves create their own language; we diminish them by naming before listening.

“Life is a foreign language: all men mispronounce it.”

—Christopher Morley

As I sit here writing it is the end of 1998, almost the new year. I am upstairs in our house in a suburb of Chandler, which itself is a suburb of Phoenix. Chandler, when I was growing up, was a thriving small town, far away from Phoenix and in our athletic conference. It was a cotton town, agriculture and farming, and there was a fighter jet from WWII in the city square. But it's different now.

Downstairs, my wife, Lupita, my son, Joaquin, and my mother-in-law, Refugio are all busy making tamales together. I can smell the meat, which was cooked last night and whose smell has filled the house. I hear them talking, and laughing. I go downstairs to take a picture. Refugio has made the masa. She chooses the cornhusk leaves from the largest ones I have been able to find from the many packages we have emptied into the sink and have let soak. They soften in the water and don't crack when you open them. She puts the masa on the big leaves, and uses smaller ones to fill in. Joaquin adds the right amount of meat, and hears every opinion about how much that should be. Lupita finishes the assembly line, adding the olives, jalapeño strips, and raisins. Then she folds each tamal over on its end and begins the stacking. I fit a dozen at a time into a plastic bag—five and five with two in the seams between the two rows—and start laying them flat in our freezer. This goes on all morning and into the afternoon, and we count only by dozens. There is masa everywhere by now, even on the dog Kino's nose, whose job up to now has been to slurp up all the raisins that have fallen on the floor. The masa has a gritty texture, the ground nixtamal corn giving it substance.

My wife keeps saying she's wearing her “beautiful tamal dress,” and that we should not splatter anything on it. What she means is that she wore this ratty house dress last year to make tamales—it's been many years of making tamales, all her life—and it took a year of washings to get the red chile stains out. By now the Mexican songs are winning out. Vicki Carr is the last of the five CDs, and Joaquin is getting all the love songs explained to him. “But is it a metaphor?” he asks. Sheesh. Kids.

My mother, Agnes, is coming up from Nogales tomorrow. She was here for Christmas as well. It's a sunny day outside, Arizona in December—at least in the 70s. There's a bad-air alert for the metropolitan area today, too much fireplace ash, diesel fuel, and dust in the air, all with no wind. It's in the newspaper and on the news. Don't drive, carpool, stay indoors. You can see a slow thickness in the air, but the irony is that all this junk makes a spectacular sunset. “Sunset,” of course, may be the more operative metaphor here. How much more a huge neon sign in the firmament do we need? Phoenix, however, is planning to apply for “clean air” status anyway. As I go outside to throw some trash, my neighbor says, “Looks like California.”

What I'm saying here is that Chicano Studies aren't studies at all, not the kind of studies that lift themselves from the pages of books. This is about a life lived. It's about the heat of a December day, the smell of tamales and bad air, the sound of the guitarra and television commercial at the same time, and laughter and shouting, the taste of lukewarm coffee in the passing of this day. Too much noise, too much noise someone says, and the television gets turned off. On the stereo the CDs are clearer now. We use the “random” feature to move between CDs, but the changes move us farther than that. We moved between time and cultures and emotions. It's the Trio Los Panchos, which my mother-in-law loves, and Gloria Estefan, who, even though she's Cuban, seems okay in this crowd, and Alberta Hunter, a household favorite, singing her blues and talking about her “handy man.” My wife and I laugh. My mother-in-law doesn't speak enough English to get anything, but my son is just old enough, thirteen now, to smile because he can't help it. The Beatles White Album, the “good” one of the two CDs, and something else I haven't heard yet.

Then we're done! We're done! A freezer full of tamales and a kitchen that looks like something has exploded in it. I guess we're not done until we clean up. There are red marks on the wall from the chile in the meat occasionally splattering over the side of the big olla that holds it all. There's also telltale red on my son's lips—he's been sneaking tastes of the meat thinking nobody would notice. Masa, meat juice, cornhusk shreds and brown silks, dirty pans and dishes: clean, clean, clean.

And then we are done. We're going to the movies this afternoon, but before we go we'll have some burros made out of the leftover tamal meat. The television comes back on; the morning paper is spread around on the couches. It's afternoon after work, this kind of good work. It is this work that language needs to remember, and that books need to keep. The next century will look very different, I suspect. But much as well will survive.

“No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.”

—Adrienne Rich

“Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language. There is no one center, and time has lost its former coherence: East and West, yesterday and tomorrow exist as a confused jumble in each one of us. Different times and different spaces are combined in a here and now that is everywhere at once.”

—Octavio Paz

Finally, it's not words that make language. It's our lives. Speaking Spanish, speaking English, speaking whatever doesn't mean much if the words no longer reach for and find, in that small moment they are spoken, the thing they claim to represent. In this sense, Chicano Studies are always about language.

But language is spoken by people, who don't follow the rules so neatly. Chicano Studies, because they are about language, are people studies, and every person is different. This would seem to make the task of studying this group impossible. But, rather than weakening the process, it empowers it, as tackling the impossible is always heroic. There may be rules for languages, but there are finally no rules for being Chicano.

We encourage and further the support of diversity in the greater culture. But we must also look into our own backyards, and celebrate the diversity within our own group. We are many things, without limit. In that sense, we still belong to the imagination as much as to experience. This is an exciting proposition. It gives us room for choices.

Languages are solutions, not problems. People are solutions, not problems. But we must remember to recognize language in all the places it offers itself. We must taste it as well as hear it; we must feel it as well as smell it. We must see it. And when we speak, we must remember how many hundred and thousand ways there are to say what we are about to say. In this sense, English or Spanish or anything else like that are laughable labels, absolutely inadequate to the task. There is no “only” language, except language itself. And all languages together still do not get the job done. There is joy as much as anything else in this recognition, which suggests that something “only” is something lonely.

It's time to start thinking big, and we—whoever we are—may as well be the first to try. Really try. Let us choose our words wisely, and know that we are choosing from all the words that have ever been. To think otherwise impoverishes us as human beings.


  1. Alberto Ríos. From Whispering to Fool the Wind. Sheep Meadow Press. New York, 1982.

  2. Alberto Ríos. From Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses. W. W. Norton. New York, 1990.

Joseph Deters (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Deters, Joseph. “Fireworks on the Borderlands: A Blending of Cultures in the Poetry of Alberto Ríos.” Confluencia 15, no. 2 (spring 2000): 28-35.

[In the following essay, Deters investigates the role of “spaces” and “borders” in Ríos's verse.]

Alberto Ríos is an award winning author of both poetry and short fiction.1 His book of verse, Whispering to Fool the Wind, won the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 and his first book of short stories, The Iguana Killer, (1984) won the Western States Book Award the same year of its publication.2 A commonality of both his verse and prose is that they generally focus on life on and around the borderlands. In much of his creative work, his poetic and narrative voices reveal a child's perspective. In some instances, the reader hears the voice of an individual living out his/her own youth, and at other times, one listens to the remembrances of an adult as they reflect back on their youthful past. Another constant in Ríos work is that, in spite of this child-like perspective, it almost always deals with real and serious issues. In reference to Ríos' poetry, José David Saldívar identifies some of these ideas when he observes that many of his poems, “focus on the liminal geographic spaces of Chicano border towns such as Nogales, often bordering on two worlds, two languages, two cultures and two literary traditions” (66).3 The critic's comments regarding the notions of “spaces” and “border,” both geographic and cultural, are clearly of primary importance in not only Ríos' poetry but, it is safe to say, in the works of the majority of Chicano scholars and artists active today. Since both the concepts of “spaces” and “border” are integral to this study, let us pursue an understanding of these issues a bit farther.

In his book Movements in Chicano Poetry, (1995) Rafael Pérez-Torres, asserts that, “The ‘border’ divides, separates, categorizes, dispossesses. The ‘borderlands’ by contrast form a metaphorical and literal space where worlds blend and cross” (35). Clearly, it is the divisive and at times hostile nature of the Mexico/United States border that “separates, categorizes and dispossesses” the two nations and peoples. Accordingly, it is the “border” that acutely designates and emphasizes that everything and everyone belongs to either one side or the other. Clearly, this concept of “border” propagates the emergence of a seemingly endless series of oppositional binary constructions: Mexican/Anglo, Spanish/English, Mexico/United States, etc. On the other hand, the continuation of Pérez-Torres' thought regarding the “borderlands,” suggests quite a different idea. In contrast to his notion of “border,” the critic sees the “borderlands” as a space of blending and crossing, “metaphorical and literal.” He goes on to say that the “borderlands” are: “an interstitial site [that] suggests a type of liminality. The betweenness leads to a becoming, a sense of cultural and personal identity that highlights flux and fluidity while connected by a strong memory of (a discredited) history and (a devalued) heritage”(12). In short, whereas “border” necessarily represents a paradigm of binary division, “borderlands” represents a challenge to that structure. It is this second notion which resonates with our interpretation of much of Alberto Ríos' work. As the analysis that follows will illustrate, it is precisely the poetic voice's memories of history and heritage that enable not only the manifestation, but also the celebration of an individualized sense of culture and personal identity. We shall see that the focus of Ríos' poetic voice is not on the divisive space of the border itself, but rather, on a child's life in the liminal region of the “borderlands.”

In the study of the poem that follows, we will observe that as the poetic text evokes the space that is the Mexico/United States border it is neither Mexican not American. Furthermore, while the space indeed represents a combination of different features from both nations, the “borderlands” also reveals its own defining characteristics, and can thus be considered hybrid in nature. It is somewhere or something in between, and it is precisely this “betweenness,” to which Pérez-Torres referred to earlier, that we shall explore in Alberto Ríos' poem, “Day of the Refugios.”4

I was born in Nogales, Arizona,
On the border between
Mexico and the United States.
The places in between places
They are like little countries
Themselves, with their own holidays
Taken a little from everywhere.
My Fourth of July is from childhood,
Childhood itself a kind of country, too.
It's a place that's far from me now,
A place I'd like to visit again.
The Fourth of July always takes me there.
In that childhood place and border place
The Fourth of July, like everything else,
It meant more than just one thing.
In the United States the Fourth of July
It was the United States.
In Mexico it was the día de los Refugios,
The saint's day of people named Refugio.
I come from a family of people with names,
Real names, not-afraid names, with colors
Like the fireworks: Refugio,
Margarito, Matilde, Alvaro, Consuelo,
Humberto, Olga, Celina, Gilberto.
Names that take a moment to say,
Names you have to practice.
These were the names of saints, serious ones,
And it was right to take a moment with them.
I guess that's what my family thought
The connection to saints was strong:
My grandmother's name—here it comes—
Her name was Refugio,
And my great-grandmother's name was Refugio,
And my mother-in-law's name now,
It's another Refugio, Refugios everywhere,
Refugios and shrimp cocktails and sodas.
Fourth of July was a birthday party
For all the women in my family
Going way back, a party
For everything Mexico, where they came from,
For the other words and the green
Tinted glasses my great-grandmother wore.
These women were me,
What I was before me,
So that birthday fireworks in the evening,
All for them,
This seemed right.
In that way the fireworks were for me, too.
Still, we were in the United States now,
And the Fourth of July,
Well, it was the Fourth of July.
But just what that meant,
In this border place and time,
It was a matter of opinion in my family.

As was alluded to before, an especially noteworthy characteristic revealed by the poem, which we will discuss in detail in the following paragraphs, is its innovative portrayal of hierarchical structures and the all too prevalent binary oppositions that have worked against and oppressed Chicanos for years. In part, this occurs precisely because of the creation of a poetic space of “betweenness” where these types of constructions are met with resistance. Lauro Zavala articulates that these kinds of liminal spaces or “terrenos,” are of a very special nature; “Estos terrenos pueden ser físicios o bien puede tratarse de distintos lenguajes, diferentes géneros literarios, diferentes tradiciones culturales o diferentes etapas de desarrollo. El concepto de liminalidad borra las separaciones jerárquicas” (147). This erasure of hierarchies mentioned by Zavala will be kept present as will the idea of challenging and overturning binary constructions as we consider the poetic text.

From the onset, there is a distinctly strong first person poetic voice. The poetic stage is quickly set, “Nogales, Arizona,” and its hybrid spatial quality is underscored in the second stanza as the borderlands are described as “places in between places.” Immediately then, the oppositional construction Mexico/United States is called into question. For the poetic voice, Nogales belongs to neither nation as the simile, “They are like little countries / Themselves,” emphasizes. This hybridity is not only evidenced in the portrayal of space, but is also present in the poetic voice's description of holidays. These special celebrations are, as the speaker relates, “Taken a little from everywhere.” As the poem goes on to reveal, the fourth day of July is not just the celebration of American Independence, but it is also the feast day of Nuestra Señora de Refugio, a day in which people named Refugio celebrate and remember their patron saint. However, as we shall see by the end of the poem, the Fourth of July is neither, exclusively, a celebration of independence nor of saints, but rather it is revealed as a special hybrid event which combines elements of both days and is made all the more unique by the importance of this day for the speaker's family.

From the beginning of the work the personal and individualized nature of the poem is made clear. Its seemingly (auto)biographical and personal quality is underscored by the repetition of words like “I,” “me” and “my.” As we eventually learn, the speaker is an adult reflecting back on childhood. In the third stanza, the notion of being a child is described as another representation of “betweenness.” In the same way that Nogales is stuck in between Mexico and the United States, childhood is stuck in between infancy and adulthood. The language of the poem makes the comparison clear, “Childhood itself a kind of country, too.” In effect then, the construction of childhood/adulthood is challenged as the adult discourse of the poetic voice reveals and recalls the child-like perspective of years gone by. Furthermore, it portrays what Saldívar has called the “liminal world of childhood” (68). This is especially relevant as it expands upon the notion of the liminal, highlighting that liminality is not always solely constructed for reasons of nationality, ethnicity, or culture. As this text plainly illustrates, in this case, age and maturity are shown as yet other factors.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas the now adult poetic voice goes on to explain how reflecting back on the Fourth of July is a way to momentarily return not only to the borderlands, but to childhood as well. The unique nature of the celebration in the mind of the poetic voice is representative of the ubiquitous hybridity which the speaker encounters. This is confirmed by the text itself, “The Fourth of July, like everything else, / it meant more than just one thing.” As mentioned before, the Fourth of July is not only a celebration of North American Independence, but it is also the “día de los Refugios.” The use of Spanish in line eighteen underscores the Hispanic nature of the latter celebration, thereby emphasizing its contrast with the most important festival of United States' patriotism. However, just like in earlier cases, the construction of this apparent opposition; Fourth of July/día de los Refugios, does not remain intact. We will return to this in a moment.

In stanzas seven through nine the poetic voice considers the importance of language and words and reflects upon the names of various family members. The repeated use of the word itself, “name,” four times in the seventh stanza, begins the lexical fireworks that make up the following stanza. The list of names follows a colon, important structurally as the punctuation detains the reader momentarily thereby breaking the rhythm of the verses. Then, the various names virtually explode onto the page. These names, like the fireworks, are synesthetically described as colorful. And, indeed they are. The vividness, vitality and chromatic quality of these Hispanic “nombres” are communicated in the pronunciation of their multiple syllables, and in the fact that to the monolingual non-Hispanic reader, colorful might be an appropriate adjective to describe these, what might seem to be, somewhat uncommon names. The variety of vowel sounds and the repeated use of the softly trilled Spanish r helps to recreate the explosive pops of fireworks complete with the oohs and aahs of impressed onlookers. The commentary of lines 25-26, “Names that take a moment to say, / Names you have to practice,” could well be considered good advice to the same borderlands-dwelling monolingual, who after many years of exposure to Spanish, has still not mastered, in some cases even minimally, the pronunciation of Christian and surnames of Hispanic origin. Yet another interesting aspect of these poetic lines is the way in which the poetic voice craftily interweaves child-like speech, “not-afraid names,” with a decidedly serious adult perspective, “These were the names of saints, serious ones.” In this way, the two representative discourses, that of a child and that of an adult seemingly become intertwined as one.

Later, the importance that the names of saints have in the poetic speaker's own family is presented. The relevance of the name Refugio is made quite clear as all of the family members with this name are recalled; grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother-in-law. As we said before, the Fourth of July is the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Refugio. The baptismal name given in honor of Mary our Lady of Refuge, is María del Refugio, or Refugio for short. It is interesting that the name is a direct reference to Mary the mother of Jesus and underscores her nature as protector and provider of refuge for her son and by extension, her faithful. The Refugios who abound in the life of the poetic speaker are of no less stature. The evocation of the past that the poem offers in the form of memories of these episodes of childhood can indeed be seen as a sort of refuge from the present, and a pleasurable escape back into the past. With the same child-like observation to detail, “Refugios everywhere, Refugios and shrimp cocktails and sodas,” the poetic voice associates the goodies and treats of these past birthday parties with the people and events from long ago that accompanied them.

The mention of “green tinted glasses” is more than the casual observance of a great grandchild but is also symbolic of the vision that these women had and have passed on to their younger generation. The affinity and closeness that the speaker feels with the aged matriarchs of the family is quite palpable. In fact, it permits the poetic voice to participate in the birthday fireworks. With the verses, “These women were me, / What I was before me,” the text creates a feeling of timelessness or atemporality that challenges the construct of past/present. These same verses are important in that they raise the issue of gender. Up to this point, the gender of the poetic speaker has not been identified and has thereby minimized the presence of the male/female paradigm. In effect, while these verses may call the issue to mind, whether or not the speaker is male or female is irrelevant and remains ambiguous throughout the poem. Regardless of the gender of the speaker, grandson or granddaughter, the heartfelt communion and intimacy that exist within the bonds of this family remain the same.

In lines 39-40 the poetic speaker claims that the Fourth of July is a celebration of “everything Mexico.” It is a way to honor and remember the homeland of relatives, language and customs. At this juncture of the poem, it momentarily seems as if the poetic speaker is clearly asserting that the honor and respect due to the family women far exceeds that of the far-removed idea of United States independence. However, as the poem has illustrated up until now and as it goes on to show, a party in the borderlands on July Fourth, simply cannot be an exclusive celebration of everything Mexico in the same way that it cannot be an exclusive celebration for everything American. After all, that would be a return to the binary paradigm of Mexico/United States that the text has so successfully undone. At this moment in the poem, the quality of liminality of the borderlands space and the “betweenness” of which the poetic voice has been speaking retains and manifests its hybrid nature. Indeed, the fireworks which seemingly celebrate national patriotism become “birthday fireworks.” At the same time, the fact that this day is significant in American culture as well is never forgotten, “Still, we were in the United States now, / and the Fourth of July, / Well, it was the Fourth of July.” The use of the initial word “Still” in line forty nine of the penultimate stanza stops the reader momentarily, and prepares him/her for the last stanza which in many ways summarizes the entire poem.

With the pronouncement of, “But just what that meant, / In this border place and time, / It was a matter of opinion in my family,” the poetic speaker highlights the “flux and fluidity” mentioned before with regard to the interpretation of this borderland space, time and culture. The hybridity that we have seen manifested in this selection is not solely the result of the mingling of established nations, cultures or ethnicity, but rather on a very personalized vision of the world.

As we have observed in the study of this poetic text, the vision described in Ríos' poem is one in which binary oppositions and hierarchies are challenged and undercut at almost every turn. Perhaps, it is an attempt to do what Pérrez-Torres mentions by, “drawing on the various heritages and histories that comprise the Chicano space, the poetry points toward what can and should be” (12). As the text reveals, the Fourth of July party described by the poem is all-encompassing and celebrates saints, grandmothers, national independence, childhood, language, names, and origins. Perhaps most importantly, however, it is a manifestation and celebration of self, “In that way the fireworks were for me, too.” In “Day of the Refugios,” we see a harmonious amalgam of cultures, traditions, celebrations and customs and in so doing Alberto Ríos artfully illustrates the unique nature of the borderlands.


  1. An early version of this paper was presented at CHISPA 1998.

  2. Among Alberto Ríos other books of poetry are: Elk Heads on the Wall (1979), Five Indiscretions (1985), The Lime Orchard Woman (1988), and Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses (1990). His most recent publication is a collection of short stories titled, Pig Cookies, (1995).

  3. This is said in reference to Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982), but applies in this case as well.

  4. This poem has had an interesting trajectory. It was first published in the journal Portlander and afterwards appeared in Celebrate America in Poetry and Art. Later, Ríos discusses the poem in an essay titled “Days with Names,” in New Letters, and finally, the poem was anthologized in Themes in Reading.

Works Cited

Cárdenas, Lupe. Alarcón, Justo. “Entrevista con Alberto Ríos.” Confluencia, 6:1, (1990): 119-28.

Jenks, Deneen. “The Breathless Patience of Alberto Ríos.” Hayden's Ferry Review. 11 (1992): 115-23.

Pérez Torres, Rafael. Movements in Chicano Poetry. Against Myths, Against Margins. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Ríos, Alberto. “The Day of the Refugios.” Portlander. 2 (1993-94): 34-35.

———. “Becoming and Breaking: Poet and Poem.” Ironwood, 12:2 (1984): 148-152.

———. “Rosete's Smile.” Hispanics in the United States. An Anthology of Creative Literature. Ed. Keller, Gary D., and Jimenez, Francisco. Michigan: Bilingual Review/Press, 1980. 30-38.

Rosaldo, Renato. “Fables of the Fallen Guy.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Calderón, Héctor and Saldívar, José David. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. 84-93.

Saldívar, José David. Border Matters. Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

———. “Towards a Chicano Poetics: The Making of the Chicano.” Confluencia. 1:2 (1986): 10-17.

Sommers, Joseph, Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás, Eds. Modern Chicano Writers. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1979.

Zavala, Lauro. “Hacia una teoría dialógica de la liminalidad cultural: escritura contemporánea e identidad cultural en México.” Diálogos y fronteras. Ed. Alvarado, Ramón and Zavala, Lauro. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 1993. 147-168.

Richard Vela (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3779

SOURCE: Vela, Richard. “The Idea of Boundaries in the Work of Alberto Ríos.” Pembroke Magazine, no. 34 (2002): 115-22.

[In the following essay, Vela traces the concept of borders in Ríos's verse, contending that his work “ranges from exploring the dualistic nature of border culture to exploring the hybrid culture that results from these juxtapositions.”]

Alberto Alvaro Ríos has written four books of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. He won the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 for his first book of poetry, Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982), and the Western States Book Award for his short story collection, The Iguana Killer (1984). Growing up on the Arizona border, the son of an English mother and a Mexican father from the tropical state of Chiapas in Mexico, Ríos experienced the notion of boundaries or borders in many ways, and his work explores that basic concept and condition of dividedness. In Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir (1999), for example, he says that “we talk about the border at Nogales as a place only, instead of an idea as well. But it is both where two countries meet as well as how two countries meet” (12). The “true line,” as he says in Pig Cookies and Other Stories (1995), “is not, finally, an external, physical line, as maps and border patrol and immigration would have. The line is, more cleverly, inside, where jeeps cannot go” (xiii). This sense of duality and of the illusive nature of reality is a common part of the experience of all bilinguals and, perhaps to an even greater extent, the experience of those of us who grew up as Latinos in these border towns.

This view of the world informs Ríos's work in many ways and seems most apparent in the poetry for which he is best known. Especially in his early work, Ríos dramatizes the essential sense of the border as division. Some of the boundaries he explores are the ones that would most easily come to mind—the division between Mexico and the United States, the division between Spanish and English—but Ríos does not confine himself to an exploration of the sociological realities of border life. His more recent work seems to focus less on these divisions and more on the created “third thing” that arises from these oppositions, the hybrid identities that develop in border situations. One of the ways that Ríos explores this new reality is through a technique that many critics attribute either to surrealism or to the Magical Realism practiced by many South American writers. Explaining one aspect of this technique, Rawdon Wilson says that Magical Realism “focuses the problem of fictional space … by suggesting a model of how different geometries, inscribing boundaries that fold and refold like quicksilver, can superimpose themselves upon one another” (210).

In parallel fashion, Ríos frequently begins his works with a realistic situation or detail and then spins out of it an imaginary dimension that gains equal footing with the original thing and sometimes even subverts it. The short poem “Why Animals Stay Away,” from Ríos's first collection, makes the distance between the speaker and an owl into “a third animal” (Whispering 16). In Five Indiscretions (1985), the poem “Advice to a First Cousin” builds contrasting images of “the way the world works” through two alternative images of a scorpion (12-13). “Shoreline Horses,” from The Lime Orchard Woman (1988), shows how a glimpse of a woman's “left breast, / The point of it / On the inside of the green blouse,” becomes “That shoreline / Horse of the new world” (19-20). In each of these examples, the idea of the thing, as conceived by the speaker of the poem, expands the nature of the reality and may become both the acting subject in the poem as well as the object of inquiry as the poem develops.

This movement from an emphasis on division to an emphasis on the created new term perhaps reflects changing attitudes toward borders and border experience. For example, Miguel León-Portilla in Culturas en Peligro (1976) speaks of Chicano groups who “have suffered from the trauma of two cultures in conflict” (16). Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), develops that same wound imagery more graphically when she says “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country-a border culture” (3). Mary Louise Pratt, in her book Imperial Eyes (1992), uses the term “contact zone” to discuss this same phenomena in her study of travel literature. “A ‘contact’ perspective,” she says, “emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other” (7). Guillermo Gómez-Peña pushes the idea further in Warrior for Gringostroika (1993) when he states that “Dominant culture is a metareality that only exists in the virtual space of the mainstream media and in the ideologically and aesthetically controlled spaces of the monocultural institutions” (Byrd 103). Victor Zúñiga, in his recent article “The Changing Face of Border Culture Studies” (1999), says that border scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s has tended to see the border as “a unique territory where identities are transformed as a result of encounters and acts of resistance, mixtures and migrations, bonds and ruptures, giving way to new identities, new oppositions and ‘curious’ symbolic coexistences” (38).

Ríos, in several interviews, echoes the ideas and even the imagery of these studies. In a 1998 interview, when asked about growing up on the border “with a foot in each culture,” Ríos replied, “For me it's more than straddling two cultures. It's really three. There is an in-between state, a very messy, wonderful middleness to the culture I come from. It is a culture of capillaries, a culture of exchange, of the small detail that is absorbed the way oxygen enters the blood. On the border we're dealing with several languages, several cultures, different sets of laws, and everything else you can imagine. Nevertheless, you have got to live side-by-side. What results isn't neatly anybody's law, anybody's language. It's more a third way of living, and that time, or place of exchange, reckons with the world a little differently” (McInnis). This third way of existence, the hybrid world, described by critics and ethnologists, results, Ríos suggests, from his tendency to “binocularize,” to see both the glass and el vaso at the same time and to understand the object better. “My friends,” he says in another interview, “who spoke only English could only say one word for an object which stayed one dimensional for them. There was no other way to see it. But if you knew that everything around you had at least two names, maybe three, suddenly the whole nature of perspective and the whole nature of understanding shifted” (Barillas). This binocular vision is variously displayed in Ríos's poems and stories. Ríos explores the problems of borders in his works by exploring how a shift in perspective can change reality, how language is a leaky container for the real, and how even the body is subject to the force of shifting boundaries.

In many of his works an unexpected turn of perspective may suddenly open up a new and surprising aspect of everyday reality. The results of these discoveries varies. Sometimes what is found is a comic reality, often an exploration of the speaker's divided emotions. In a poem such as “The Purpose of Altar Boys,” for example, the young boy realizes that dragging his feet on the carpet to build up static electricity before he holds “the metal plate” under the chins of the kneeling communicants gives him an opportunity to deliver a mysterious “Holy Electric Shock.” At the same time, he is able to “look / with authority down / the tops of white dresses” (Whistling 28-29). In a more extended imaginative flight, the speaker of “The Midnight Show,” disappointed that the dancer will not take off all her clothes, sets up a hypothetical contemplation of gender in which he says that “To be a man whose sex / derives from descriptions / in a junior high lockerroom,” and “to be a woman whose breasts / could shuck corn / if required to” (Whistling 38-39).

The title story in The Iguana Killer (1984) provides a more elaborate field of exploration. Eight-year-old Sapito, or “little frog,” so called because of his bulging eyes, lives in Villahermosa in the southern state of Tabasco, but he has a favorite grandmother who lives “in Nogales in the United States” (1). When she sends him a bat and ball as a present, “he recognized and admired the ball and knew what it was for. He could certainly use that. But he looked at the baseball bat and was puzzled for some seconds,” until finally he says “It was an iguana-killer. ‘¡Mira, mama! Un palo para matar iguanas!’ It was a beautiful dream. It was perfect. His grandmother always knew what he would like” (2). He gains fame and admiration when he becomes the champion provider of iguana meat. This adaptation of error into virtue occurs twice more in the story. When Sapito visits his grandmother in Arizona, he sees his first snow and thinks the sky is falling. Being told that it is “nieve, snow, that was falling, not the sky” (5) does not entirely clarify the situation for Sapito, since, of course, nieve to him only means ice cream. When he tries to explain snow to his friends back in Villahermosa, he is met with skepticism, until he produces a photograph, and then when asked what flavors this nieve comes in, he first says vanilla, but later exploiting the situation expands his story to include strawberry and pistachio snow as well (7). The final example occurs when a large sea turtle—three and a half feet across—is killed and Sapito asks for the shell that the fishermen were about to throw away. Sapito takes it home, and, filled with his new idea, cleans and polishes it, then builds a frame which he fastens to the shell before he takes it to the house of a woman who had recently had a baby. He has turned the shell into a crib. The progression of the three episodes shows how error can become the basis of creation in the case of the bat/iguana-killer, how the ambiguity of language can be exploited to create fiction, and finally how a thing that is refuse in one context becomes a gift in another.

A similar exploration of realities and exploitation of assumptions informs several of the other stories in this collection. In “The Child,” two widows traveling from the Mexican city of Guaymas to Nogales, Arizona, are concerned and solicitous about a sickly looking child riding on the bus with them and seated next to a man they assume is the boy's father. The man tells the women that the boy is sick and that they are going “to see a doctor, a specialist in Nogales, maybe Tucson” (14). When their bus stops at Hermosillo, the women go back into the bus to take the boy something to drink. They discover that he is cold, then realize that he is dead and that the man traveling with the boy has suddenly disappeared. The next to last paragraph in the story says: “The child was dead. It had been dead for a long time. That is true. But it had also been operated on. The boy's insides had been cleaned out and replaced with bags of opium. They had tested it to be certain. Then the boy was sewn up again, put into his clothes. Sometimes this happens. This was not the first” (21). The stable world and practiced assumptions of the widows are jarred by the horrible transformation of the child into a container for smuggling. The connecting point between these stories is the fact that both, in their very different ways, show the permeability of reality, that what things are depends on how we use them. The child, the bat, and the turtle shell are each transformed. Identity is not given but fashioned by the circumstances and perceptions of the characters in the stories.

A related aspect of Ríos's use of borders occurs in his exploration of how difficult it is for language, as we usually understand it, to capture experience. As Ríos himself says in an interview, “If you've got only one word for something, it lacks dimension even in how you conceive of it. … If I know that el vaso is also a glass, or an iguana killer is also a baseball bat, I've immediately got two ways to conceive of it. The thing has depth, and therefore I can't help but understand it better” (Britton 7). Sapito's realization in “The Iguana Killer,” that nieve can mean both ice cream and snow is one example of this problem, but often in his works Ríos shows how communication occurs even when traditional ways seem blocked. In the poem “Nani,” for example, Ríos describes eating at his grandmother's.

Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albondigas.

(Whispering 59)

Discussing this poem in an interview, Ríos says, “My grandmother could only speak Spanish. And I was still going to her house once a week at least for lunch, just the two of us. We had a problem. I mean, we can describe it that way. She didn't speak English. I didn't speak Spanish. But in fact, there was no problem, because we were grandmother and grandson, and what we created for ourselves was essentially another language … we created for ourselves a third language, one that didn't diminish either of us. It was a simple language. It's one I think a lot of people understand. Simply, she would cook, and I would eat. And that's how we talked. It tasted good” (McInnis 3). Here, as in the stories, situations and perceptions shape language and reality rather than simply reflecting it.

A variation of how perception might shape reality in a more literal sense occurs in Ríos's exploration of the body as the border of physical experience. In the poem “Hers is the Noise, Also, of the Dogs Asleep and in Dreams,” young “Milagros in a moment of weakness / Wished upon her mother / An unkindness, which came to be.” Repenting, Milagros begins to inhabit an imaginary space, “Got herself lost / And turned around in her sadness.” Making the imaginary concrete, as Milagros made her wish a reality, Ríos says “She took care to make / Only as many fires / Along the trail of her insides / As would sustain / The making of her food” (Teodoro 17-18). This sense of discomfort with the body suggests the neoplatonic notion that the body is only something worn by the soul, an idea explored by Swift, Thoreau, and Carlyle, among other writers. In the poem “One Night in a Familiar Room,” Ríos describes an old story teller by saying that “He could discuss such men / for he had once been a student / and had worn a younger body” (Whispering 41). In “Some Years,” the speaker says that “some years nothing happens / and you don't remember them as years / so that when you look at your own / body, it looks like someone else's” (Whispering 54). A woman in his poem “The Bath” actually “undressed / and put her nipples on / for decoration,” although usually “She kept them in the water / next to her bed / where the teeth had been / years ago.” Then “She floated in the water / watching her skin fold / again then again.” Finally her nipples “float from / her body going off like boats / onto the water” (Five 8). In “The Fact of their Two Bodies,” what seems like a simile becomes a deeper transformation as the speaker imagines two lovers: “Him, pulling off her blouse fast / As a tablecloth, only a little movement / Of her delicate dishes, her two china teacups, / This small, a nickel's worth of magic” (Lime 68).

Although traces of this approach are evident in all his works, the exploration of alternatives becomes more prominent in his most ambitious poetry collection, Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses (1990). In this book, the impressions left in a sofa, the indentations in sugar, the various shapes to which a simple avocado may be compared, each of these notions becomes an object to be explored as though the perceptions of the thing were as real as the thing itself. In “An Accounting of All Her Men,” for example, a man losing his mind to Alzheimer's disease becomes younger as he “walked himself / Backward into time” (Teodoro 93-95). In “Marvella, for Borrowing,” a woman becomes heavier because she carries the eyes of the men who desire her, “She had gathered to herself / Some part of all of the fingers / of all of the men who had / Touched her,” and the men themselves become “thinner / Because they looked too hard” (Teodoro 41).

Ríos uses this unusual idea about gaining weight in an earlier poem, “Her Second Weight,” where a woman who has been made love to is described as still carrying the weight of her lover: “after he had lain on her and gotten up / the weight of his body did not go, / only his name walked from her” (Five 14-15). In another poem, “Remembering Watching Romy Schneider,” the expansion is the result of the actress being on the screen, so that the speaker sees “Her nose, doorstop, small butte / On the floor of a canyon rising,” and he thinks that “An explorer standing there must choose / As men through the centuries in stories / Have chosen: cave to the left, cave / To the right, which to the woman?” (Lime 59-60). The reverse side of this notion of expansive reality occurs in the first poem of Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses, where in “The Used Side of the Sofa” the simple acts of walking or breathing diminish the character: “When she walked / She left herself / Where she had been.” Until, finally, in a Kafkaesque turn, the woman disappears.

Every year that treadled
Asked something of her
And with her every breath
She breathed out more
Than she took in,
And when she walked
She left her footprints,
Then her feet,
As she later could feel
Nothing under her. …


The idea of leaving, with its apparently opposed meanings of to remove oneself as well as to leave something behind, helps to shape the logic of this poem. In the lines, “When she sat then rose / She left an indentation,” for example, the woman removes herself from the couch and, simultaneously, leaves the indentation. Ríos develops another variation on this idea of gradual diminishment in his poem “He Will Not Leave a Note,” where the character Marquita finds a similar process as her man slowly leaves her, “Every day he shaved off something of himself. / One day he would be altogether different. / One day she would wake, and look at / The back of a man who was not there” (Lime 16-17).

The movement in Ríos's work ranges from exploring the dualistic nature of border culture to exploring the hybrid culture that results from these juxtapositions. In his poems and stories, the nature of life on the border between Mexico and the United States provides a framework for the series of other experiences that may be considered as explorations of the idea of borders. In this ambiguous world, the act of knowing, especially as a character moves from one culture to another, tends to explode into new formulations of reality rather than simple additions to an existing store of ideas. Language is one of the most obvious differences in border situations and vocabulary and pronunciations can include or exclude. Language then becomes an object of contemplation rather than an invisible medium. How one says things can clearly change the nature of the thing, and sometimes, in Ríos's works, an image reshapes the thing itself and sometimes also changes the speaker. Even the edge of our own physical existence begins to lose its distinctness in this ambiguous zone. Both the action of a body and the ambiguity that may be created by an attempt to describe that action in the bilingual world have equal claim on reality. Things which might normally be no more than images tend to become in Ríos's work the basis for a kind of metamorphosis. Given the divided and ambiguous qualities of this world, Magical Realism, or even surrealism, as Ríos uses it, seems to arise naturally out of the border condition. As Ríos says in the introduction to his most recent book of short stories, The Curtain of Trees (1999), he writes about “a time-between-times about people who inhabit what is a place-between-places, physically, emotionally, and historically,” a world that encourages him to write “about the nature of possibility” (xii).

Works Cited

Anzaldúa. Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. 1987.

Barillas. William. “Words Like the Wind: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” Americas Review. 24:3-4 (Fall-Winter 1998). 116-129.

Britton, Sheilah. “Discovering the Alphabet of Life: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” Research (Arizona State University). 11:2 (Spring/Summer 1997). 38-41

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. “Excerpts from Warrior for Gringostroika.The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports from a Disappearing Line. Eds. Bobby Byrd and Susannah Mississippi Byrd. El Paso, Texas: Cinco Puntos Press. 1996.

León-Portilla, Miguel. Endangered Cultures. Trans. Julie Goodson-Lawes. Dallas: Southern Methodist Press. 1990. Translation of Culturas en Peligro. Alianza Editorial Mexicana, S. A. 1976.

McInnis, Susan. “Interview with Alberto Ríos.” Glimmer Train. 26 (Spring 1998): 105-121.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge. 1992.

Ríos, Alberto Alvaro. Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1999.

———. The Curtain of Trees: Stories. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1999.

———. Five Indiscretions: Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press. 1985.

———. The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1984.

———. The Lime Orchard Woman: Poetry. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press. 1988.

———. Pig Cookies and Other Stories. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 1995.

———. Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses: Poems. New York and London: W. W. Norton. 1990.

———. Whispering to Fool the Wind: Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press. 1982.

Wilson, Rawdon. “The Metamorphosis of Fictional Space: Magical Realism” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 1995. 209-233.

Zúñiga, Victor. “The Changing Face of Border Culture Studies.” NACLA Report on the Americas. November/December 1999. 36-40.

Alberto Ríos and Leslie A. Wootten (interview date July-September 2003)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2546

SOURCE: Ríos, Alberto, and Leslie A. Wootten. “The Edge in the Middle: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 57-60.

[In the following interview, Ríos discusses the major themes of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, the role of science and animals in his work, and his use of magical realism.]

[Wootten]: How did you decide on The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body as a title for your new book of poems?

[Ríos]: The title is excerpted from “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” a poem I wrote shortly after my father's death. The human body's smallest muscle is called the stapedius, and it's located in the ear. Two of its purposes are to keep us from hearing ourselves chew and from hearing our heart beat. The muscle does important work, I think, but at the same time, it keeps us from something that belongs to us. We are protected from particular sounds for our own good. There are many things in life we are protected from hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and feeling. In large measure, the poems in this book—and all my books—struggle to bring into view what we've been protected from experiencing. But by this, I mean the small things as well as the large.

The last line of the book is, “Words are our weakest hold on the world.” Without words, what?

Well, words do good work—don't get me wrong. Words are wonderful suitcases that hold ideas for us. Even so, they don't know everything and aren't always necessary, or aren't always the answer. The body remembers instinctively how to walk, run, eat, sleep, kiss, and much more. The words come after. And there are so many words and so many languages that, as a result, the world sometimes gets more complex than it really is. I don't run in Spanish, for example—I just run. Still, we live in a world of words. It is simply an imperfect world.

The phrase “edge in the middle” appears in the poem “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science.” Discuss the edge in the middle as it pertains to your life and poetry.

We live 99 percent of our lives in the middle, moving through day-to-day routines and patterns we've established because they work for us. Too often, we take the middle for granted because it's always there—so familiar, we don't realize that the dailiness of life keeps us healthy. Part of this oversight is because the press and media feed us a constant diet of extremes. Of course, news of the world is important—and we must pay attention to it—but news of the world doesn't sustain us as the middle does. One of the things I try to do in my life and poetry is to nurture keener sensitivity and sharper awareness—that is to say, seek out the edge, the epiphany, the fingersnap, that exists in the middle, which is where we least expect to find these things and never think to look. A discovery where you expect to find one is a wonderful thing, but a discovery that is not where you expect, a discovery in plain view—this is doubly wonderful, and feeds us rather than leads us.

Speaking of discoveries, a number of your poems involve references to science.

What manifests in my poetry is situational physics—a physics whereby moments create their own set of rules. I believe this notion fits comfortably—if unexpectedly—into science's domain. Growing up on the cusp of two cultures with a Mexican father and English mother undoubtedly influenced and broadened my view of what is possible in the world. For example, Hispanics and a variety of other cultures believe that humans are partners to the world rather than rulers of it. In English, one might say, “I dropped the glass,” whereas in Spanish that same moment might be articulated as, “The glass, it fell from me.” English assumes human responsibility for the dropped glass, whereas Spanish assumes the glass itself is something of a sentient participant in the action. For me, this allows the world and its ways to be an active and unpredictable part of my work. We often refer to science as the law of averages, but I think it would be more accurate to say that science is also the law of possibilities. In a law of averages, the single event that doesn't behave gets dropped. In my work, this moment is no less itself, no less a part of the world because it behaves differently; in fact, it may be the basis for a whole story. One might call this the science of the single event. That explains on some level all the aberrations and curious goings-on in my work. Awareness of different cultures and languages underscores the magnitude of those possibilities.

Part of that world includes animals, which are a major presence in your work. So often, though, your animals exist on the fringes, close but, somehow, inevitably beyond reach. Talk about that.

Animals have been a big part of my life. When I was growing up in Nogales, Arizona, we had dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, snakes, fish, birds, and chickens. This menagerie roamed inside and around our house. Parakeets roosted on the living-room curtain rods, and our pet hen scratched freely all over the backyard. Her name was “Hen-rietta,” but most of our pets were either “Bruno” or “Katrina,” named by my parents for sentimental reasons that were never completely clear to me. We had so many animals, it was easy to lose track of who was who and who was where. If an animal vanished, it usually reappeared in a day or two, crawling out from under the sofa or flying down from a secret roost. We probably didn't even miss it. What I'm saying here is that animals of all kinds were part of my daily life back then, and they didn't require words, or worry, even if they were lost for awhile. The contrast between then and now is dramatic. We have one dog, and his sudden absence would be a major upset, triggering a frantic search. But then, he's our only pet, and his disappearance would stand up and shout. I write about animals being out of reach because the animals of my childhood exist only in memory and imagination. They are no longer close enough to touch physically, but they are still present. I haven't lost sight of them. Perhaps what I'm saying after all is that it is my childhood I am protecting, and the animals are its small glimmers.

The horse in particular is a recurring image in many of your poems.

Much of the horse imagery I use can be traced to a particular experience I had as a boy. Our family was on a day trip in Mexico. We were picnicking on a riverbank outside Imuris, a small town I often write about. It was a wonderful day—hot, but not too hot. No ants or flies, none that I remember anyway. We were relaxing on a blanket after a lunch of mangoes and fresh farmer's cheese in tortillas when two boys on horseback suddenly appeared. After chatting a few minutes, they asked if I wanted a ride, and I said sure. The boys' offer was a great act of sharing. The ride was an adventure, especially since I'd never ridden a horse with confidence before that day. The horse was probably old and tired—nothing to fear—but I didn't know that. All I knew was that I was climbing on a big horse for a big ride. The experience filled me with tenderness—for the boys, the horse, the ride, the day—but, of course, I didn't speak my feelings aloud; they weren't made of words. I've carried that tenderness with me all these years. It was a unique and defining moment—my heart opened up. In terms of minutes and distance, the ride wasn't long or far, but inside me the ride was as long and far as a ride can be.

Gabriel García Márquez spoke in an interview about an intrinsic tenderness in men. What about this tenderness?

I don't want to generalize in ways that are unfair, but speaking from stereotype—as we do more often than we realize—I would say that tenderness may sometimes be deeply buried in many men. Consequently, when tenderness surfaces in them, we take note because it's a surprise. Men and women both often keep tenderness buried to protect themselves. After all, tenderness makes us entirely vulnerable—we open our hearts to something or someone without knowing what to expect. There may be no suitable words to articulate what we are feeling, but the emotion belongs to us—it's been inside us all along. Hello, it says suddenly. And there we are, standing naked.

Let's talk about magical realism, a term that is often applied to your writing.

Magical realism is the essence of surprise. That element of surprise, by the way, connects magical realism to the edge in the middle we've talked about. Both involve moments when things happen that are different from what we've been trained to expect. With surprise at its core, magical realism is indefinable. In fact, to define it is to misunderstand it. Anyone who applies magical realism to an author's writing expects the term to do more work than it should—or can for that matter. The bigger challenge is to discuss the work itself—what it's doing, and how. Nevertheless, I understand that magical realism is a term many use. While I can't define the phrase, I can discuss where I think it comes from, and why some might apply it to my work.

First of all, magical realism derives from a life lived, not a life imagined. By that, I mean if particular impossible things are real to you, write about them—indeed, you must. If, however, they merely seem like a good plot twist, you're better off to leave them out. My work comes from my life—it's that simple. Magical realists at their best do not make things up. Rather, they honestly report something that has happened, or which could have happened. This is a way of describing what I earlier called the science of the single moment.

Can you provide an example from your new book of what you mean?

Dogs running in the distance appear to have no legs in the poem “Gray Dogs.” They become ground birds. Their leaps become flight. They fly into trees, float over streets made of branches. The thing is, the dogs do not change, but the narrator's perspective—his vision—shifts, and he reports what he sees. This is honest reporting. At a distance, one cannot see a dog's legs. It is our assumption they still exist. Maybe they do, but at that moment, as a narrator, I can see no legs. Photographers and artists—Picasso, for example—have often talked about this kind of honesty, this not reporting what cannot be seen. Ironically, to report legs on the dog at that moment—which is what most writers would do—would be to make something up. Making something up is often charged as being the worst thing done in magical realism, and yet it is not what the best magical realism does at all.

“Gray Dogs” has a surprise turning point.

Initially, I thought I was writing about how dogs running in the distance are less distinct than when they're close. As I wrote along, I realized I can't see any of my dogs clearly anymore because they've all died. They exist, but only in my imagination, like all the animals of my childhood. This was an emotional epiphany for me, and it became the first line of the poem's second stanza: “All my dogs have died this way,” by going off into a distance. After I wrote that line, I let emotion lead, and the poem surprised me by basically writing itself. All I had to do was hang on, following the idea to its finish, following my dogs into that distance.

Do many of your poems come in a rush this way?

No, it's more typical for my poems to come from bits and pieces I've written and filed away over time. I'm not consciously aware of connections between the various bits, so I'm invariably surprised at how seemingly disparate images sew together in unexpected ways. Although I don't have any one way of writing poems, I would say that surprise, the discovery of connection—this science—is a common denominator. Every once in a while, however, there is the odd poem that simply invites me for a ride—like that horse in my childhood. Get on is the only thing I can do, get on and hold onto whatever will be held in that moment.

What prose or poetry are you writing now?

I'm finishing a novel about a married couple who move to Arizona from Mexico. In Phoenix, the pair inadvertently becomes involved in a small crime, which is the worst kind because it isn't headline news, and nobody offers help. Being from another country, the two are ill-equipped to fend for themselves, mainly because they are unsure of the rules. Their small crime consequently snowballs into a complicated problem.

Let's end by talking a bit more about the novel, particularly the excerpt included in this issue of World Literature Today. I think the excerpt provides a good example of magical realism as you've described it.

I can see how you would say this given our discussion about magical realism. Certainly, surprise is an element in this selection, as it is throughout the novel. I was continually surprised as I wrote, so I hope the reader is surprised as well. The narrator makes a discovery in the kitchen she has known for most of her long married life. She has seen her reflection many times in the kitchen window, the refrigerator handle, in spoons, and other familiar places, but she has always taken the reflections for granted. They were just there, nothing to take particular note of. Now that her husband is gone, she perceives the reflections—and herself—differently. In fact, the many reflections of herself around the room form a small yet strong community of emotional support that feeds rather than leads her to take action. The realization does not make her move—instead, it lets her move, and the choice she will make is the heart of the book and of her character. This ties into what I was saying earlier about how wonderful it is to make a discovery in a familiar place where you least expect it—a discovery that is in plain view. This particular discovery is not only wonderful but essential, enabling the narrator to go out into the world to get her husband back. By paying close attention to what surrounds her, the narrator is sustained in unexpected ways. Such sustenance is ours, as well, if we are attentive to the dailiness in our own lives—the edge, the epiphany, the fingersnap surprise that exists in the familiar middle.

Robert Murray Davis (review date July-September 2003)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

SOURCE: Davis, Robert Murray. Review of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body by Alberto Ríos. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 105.

[In the following review, Davis underscores the role of duality and mutability in Ríos's verse.]

Most of the poems in Alberto Ríos's eighth collection [The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body] are associated with memories of his childhood on the Arizona-Mexico border in the 1950s, which helps account for the duality of his vision, or from his awareness of the Sonoran desert in which he has lived all of his life, which may account for the miragelike shifting and blending of shapes. (The smallest muscle, by the way, is in the ear—see “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” the concluding poem.)

Some of the poems, like “My Chili,” are essentially local color, celebrating the varied tastes and effects of the vegetable that bites as it is bitten. Even here, however, duality and mutability are evident—and they are more obvious in other poems, where oranges change into birds and back again; where body parts transpose to other functions; where a coyote becomes a (flying) carpet and dogs become birds; where a nipple is pushed through a button-hole; where water dripping from mesquite trees is “not water but water / Mixed with what it brings from the leaves.”

Given the shifting quality of things, it is no wonder that Ríos says, in the volume's final line, that “Words are our weakest hold on the world.” Of course, as one of Eliot's characters said, “I gotta use words when I talk to you,” and Ríos delights in the paradoxes and uncertainties both of language and of what it attempts to describe. He is most successful, I think, when, on the one hand, he does not strive too hard for paradox and, on the other, when he does not take refuge in mere nostalgia, as in his poem about playing baseball with an artificial lemon, or in portentous striving after significance, as in the conclusion that “It is not this dog's ears that hear. / It is the centuries, / And they answer back.” He is talking about species memory. Fair enough, but sometimes one longs for a dog to be just a dog.

Even so, the (late) Audenesque tone of the opening poem, “A Physics of Sudden Light,” seems entirely successful not only in itself but as a keynote for the collection: “In this light / You are not where you were but you have not moved.” And in “If I Leave You,” addressed to his son, the curt, almost choppy lines reflect the speaker's paradoxical disbelief in heaven and, for his son's sake, the need for it to exist.

Most important, although the poems are grounded in the scenery and rituals of a specific region, at his best Ríos shows by the subtle artifice with which he has crafted them that definitions of his work by region and ethnicity are artificial in the worst sense of the word.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 178


Ríos, Alberto Alvaro. “Becoming and Breaking: Poet and Poem.” In Daily Fare: Essays from the Multicultural Experience, edited by Kathleen Aguero, pp. 20-7. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Ríos reflects on his childhood and his early verse.

———, and William Barillas. “‘Words Like the Wind’: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” The Americas Review 24, no. 304 (fall-winter 1996): 116-29.

Ríos discusses the differences between writing in English and Spanish, his attitude toward poetry, and the role of metaphors in his poetic work.

———, and Timothy Sedore. “An American Borderer: An Interview with Alberto Ríos.” The South Carolina Review 34, no. 1 (fall 2001): 7-17.

Ríos places his poetry within the context of Chicano literature, explores recurring themes in his fiction and poetry, and discusses his creative process.

Additional coverage of Ríos's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 34, 79; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 122; Hispanic Writers, Ed. 2; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry for Students, Vol. 11.

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