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A poet and writer, Alberto Alvaro Rios has been heralded as a major voice of Southwest poetry and even as the most articulate poetic voice of the American language in the 1980s. It is as a poet that he has received the bulk of attention, but Rios is also a writer of short stories, including a collection written for young adults.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Biracial
Born September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona, Rios is the son of a British mother, Agnes Fogg Rios, and a Mexican father, Alberto Alvaro Rios. Growing up on the Arizona-Mexico border, the young Rios first learned Spanish. When he entered grade school, like most Chicanos of Mexican ancestry, he was forced to give up his first language. As Rios recalls, ”We got swats for speaking Spanish, even on the playground.” By the time he was in junior high school, Rios could no longer speak Spanish. As a result of his forced forgetting of that language, Rios invented a third language—”one,” he says, ”that was all our own.” Many of his most important early poems dramatize the essence of this uncanny third language.
In junior high, Rios began writing, what he calls ”mildly rebellious, abstract poems” in the back pages of his notebooks. He continued this practice in high school and college. Rios attended the University of Arizona and earned his B.A. with honors in 1974. Not satisfied with a double major in English and creative writing, Riios earned another B.A. with honors in psychology in 1975. Rios then enrolled in law school at the same university but quit after a year to enroll in the M.F.A. program in creative writing, which he completed in 1979.
Rios became a technically brilliant poet at the University of Arizona, but, like many ethnic American writers, he spent much time in creative-writing workshops, in arguments over the content of his work. His professors, who were not from Arizona, would want him to change the names of his characters because, according to Rios, ”they had never heard of a Sapito or a Graciela. These were the names of my relatives!”
In 1980, Riios received a fellowship in creative writing from the National Endowment for the Arts. Sleeping On Fists (1981), a major chap-book, was completed during this period. Next came Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982). In Riios’s early poems, he draws from an oral culture that was passed on from his nani (grandmother), abuelo (grandfather), cousins, aunts, childhood friends, an Uncle Humberto, and a representative relative who Riios names Carlos. Storytelling in verse, traditionally, is a difficult task because the details in prose fiction—a sense of being and time and of characters exchanging experiences— are seemingly at odds with the compactness of poetry. Nevertheless, Riios was able to master this difficult procedure. Riios’s work reaches back to his own past and to that of others. In ”Madre Sofiia,” for example, he writes about his impressions of a local gypsy fortune-teller who his mother once took him to see. Carlos appears, like a ghost, in several other poems in the book, as the representative border man.
Short Stories and Recognition
Rios did not limit himself to just poetry. His collection of bucolic fables, The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart (1984), won the prestigious Western States Book Award for fiction, sponsored by the Western States Art Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Written for what Riios calls a ”young adult” audience, The Iguana Killer explores the world of his childhood and border culture. In the title story, young Sapito, like a mythical British knight, uses an American baseball bat his grandmother sends him to become the greatest iguana killer in tropical Mexico.
In Rios’s Five Indiscretions (1985), nearly every poem is about desire, sexuality, and religion, and nearly every poem deals with courtships between men and women. A reviewer for Library Journal felt that the poems in this collection demonstrate Riios’s ”deep social commitment and rare ability to identify with others.” Riios followed this with the 1988 collection The Lime Orchard Woman. More poems of life in two cultures that exhibit a magic-realist bent are found in Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses (1990), the first of Rios’s works to receive mainstream publication. These characteristics are also evident in Pig Cookies and Other Stories (1995), set in a small Mexican town where cookies have supernatural powers, and life takes other surprising twists and turns.
Rios’s works have been published in over one hundred magazines, and his poetry has often been anthologized. His poem ”Chileno Boys,” in Five Indiscretions, has been set to reggae music by David Broza for CBS records. In 1984, Rios was the only Arizonan selected for the Esquire feature titled ”The Best of the New Generation: Men and Women Under Forty Who Are Changing America.”
Rios is now a Regents’ Professor of English at Arizona State University. In 2002, Rios was nominated for the National Book Award for his collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body. That same year he received the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award. In January 2003, he was invited to write and deliver a poem at the inauguration of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. His most recent collection is The Theater of Night (2006).
Works in Literary Context
Riios has been praised both for his mastery of imagery and his command of the technical precision of poetic language. If queried about his use of language, however, Riios refrains from putting all his faith in vocabulary. As he explains to Leslie Wooten in the Bloomsbury Review:
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.
Rios’s literary style has been placed under the umbrella of magic realism, a term originally applied to Latin American authors, especially Gabriel Garciia Mairquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Magic realism combines dreamlike narrative that evokes myths and fairy tales with precise descriptions of everyday events. It has been said that Rios’s poetry is a kind of magical storytelling, and his stories are a kind of magical poetry. While most of the young-adult stories in The Iguana Killer, for example, are straightforwardly narrated, ”The Way Spaghetti Feels” and ”The Birthday of Mrs. Pineda” border on the metafictional and magic-realist impulse in postmodernist fiction. Throughout Whispering to Fool the Wind, extraordinary and magical events are related with the greatest of accuracy without being forced on the reader. The character Painfilo’s head is deformed and “awkwardly” bent out of shape; a grandfather ”who has served ants with the attitude of a waiter” is buried in his best suit; and poor, sad Uncle Humberto, a collector of butterflies, dies of excessive rage because one day, Graciela, a ”hard seamstress,” refuses to give him pins.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have been generally favorable to Riios’s poetry, showing greatest enthusiasm for his early work, generally. Of particular note to critics is his use of language in both his short stories and poetry. He has won several major awards, including six Pushcart Prizes.
The Iguana Killer
Rios’s prize-winning collection of stories received highly favorable reviews. Jodi Daynard, in The New York Times Book Review, favorably compared Riios’s The Iguana Killer with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), another book about children. E. J. Montini, in the Arizona Republic, claims, ”It is the taking away of secrets, the cruel, sometimes crude manner in which they are exposed, that is at the heart of each story in The Iguana Killer.” In brief, various reviewers were favorably impressed with Riios’s bicultural perspective, with his portrayal of young Chicanas, and with his use of surreal language.
Five Indiscretions Five Indiscretions, arguably Rios’s most ambitious book, has not received the acclaim and attention as of some of his other works. Some reviewers, however, have praised his ability to represent gender issues and his use of the American language. A writer for Booklist, for example, claims that “Rios is especially impressive in conjuring the emerging sexuality of adolescent girls.” Similarly, a reviewer for Library Journal notes that Rios ”offers the insights into the lives of women seldom found in the work of a male writer.” And Lawrence Joseph, in American Book Review, argues that ”Five Indiscretions displays the breadth and richness of the American language.” He even claims that, in the future, when the revolutions of the American language are clearer to us, most of the poetry of the 1980s will pale beside Rios’s.”
- McDowell, Robert. “Rios, Alberto (Alvaro).” Contemporary Poets. Edited by Thomas Riggs. Seventh ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001.
- ”Rios, Alberto.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 66. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
- Island of the Three Marias.” Poetry for Students. Edited by Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason. Vol. 11. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2001.
- Barillas, William. ”Words like the Wind.” (interview). Americas Review (Fall-Winter 1996): 116-129.
- Wootten, Leslie. Writing on the Edge” (interview). Bloomsbury Review (January-February 1996): 11.
- McInnis, Susan. Interview with Riios. Glimmer Train (Spring 1998): 105-121.
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