Alberto Rios -
April 5, 2009
About the Author
Alberto Álvaro Ríos joins Books & Co., now in its 12th season, as host. No stranger to the series, he was the first guest author in 1993. Rios is a Regents' Professor at Arizona State University, where he has taught for over 26 years and where he holds the further distinction of the Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English.
Rios is the author of nine books and chapbooks of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. His memoir about growing up on the Mexico-Arizona border, called Capirotada, won the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award and is the 2009 OneBookAZ adult selection.
Ríos is the recipient of the Western Literature Association Distinguished Achievement Award, the Arizona Governor's Arts Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Walt Whitman Award, the Western States Book Award for Fiction, six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, and inclusion in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as well as over 200 other national and international literary anthologies. His work is regularly taught and translated and has been adapted to dance and both classical and popular music.
The Theater of Night
The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body
Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses
The Lime Orchard Woman
The Warrington Poems
Whispering to Fool the Wind
About this Book
Capirotada, Mexican bread pudding, is a mysterious mixture of prunes, peanuts, white bread, raisins, milk, quesadilla cheese, butter, cinnamon and cloves, Old World sugar and, according to Rios, “things people will not tell you." Like its Mexican namesake, this memoir is a rich mélange, stirring together Ríos's memories of family, neighbors, friends, and secrets from his youth in the two Nogaleses--in Arizona and through the open gate into Mexico.
Capirotada is the collection of vignettes. There’s a rickety magician, his chicken, and a group of little boys, but who plays a trick on whom? The story about the flying dancers and mortality. About going to the dentist in Mexico because it is cheaper--and maybe dangerous. About a British woman who sets out on a ship for America with the faith her Mexican GI will be waiting for her in Salt Lake City. And about the grown son who looks at his father and understands how he must provide for his own boy.
Alberto Rios’ Web Site
OneBookAZ Web Site
Ron Carlson: Hello, and welcome to Books & Co, I’m Ron Carlson and today we are talking with Alberto Rios, a writer best known as a poet who has written some nonfiction including the memoir Capirotada. Which has been selected as the 2009 OneBookAZ, which, welcome first of all…does that mean that everyone in Arizona is going to be reading your book?
Alberto Rios: Well, apparently, I don’t know if that is accurate but I would like to think that it’s true.
Ron Carlson: And what is it? Each year they select a book? Or how does it work?
Alberto Rios: They do, its been going on for a few years and a group of librarians and educators and different people who might have some vested interest in book culture in the state nominates a group of books and than they put it up for public vote and for this particular upcoming year Capirotada is gonna be the book.
Ron Carlson: Sweet, sweet. Well what a good choice in terms of being steeped in Arizona and all about your youth growing up in Nogales, the product of a very unusual household. I have known from talking to you I have known some of this story but why don’t you make us all familiar with the genesis of the book.
Alberto Rios: Well it’s always difficult to tell ones families story and do it any kind of justice, even a memoir is one part of it. For me growing up it was a big part of what I was.
Ron Carlson: You were born in Nogales?
Alberto Rios: I was in Nogales Arizona, almost right on the border. Literally there was a fence, I was born in the old what is known as the old convent or was a convent. In the Old St. Josesphs Hospital. And my mother was a stranger in a strange land. My mother was from Warrington Lankishire England. And I always looked a lot more like my mother. My father was born in Tapachula Chiapas, on the border of Guatemala and southern Mexico, very dark and I didn’t resemble him in that sense when I was growing up. But what that meant was out household was a, you would think of it as a house divided but it was a in fact like a jigsaw puzzle fit in together. These strange parts were joined in ways that were memorable to me now in retrospect. But at the time I was living there they were instructive, they gave me a way to think about growing up that mattered.
Ron Carlson: As you have written elsewhere being an America, of belonging, citizenship, the whole thing.
Alberto Rios: It was strange beast. Growing up on the border meant just exactly what that suggests. It was in between everything. That meant that you had to make some decisions and understand what those decisions were going to produce. And for me it came from different languages, from foods, from different ways of…
Ron Carlson: There is a lot of food in the book.
Alberto Rios: A lot of food in the book…that’s true. Not all of it you know was food a kid is going to end up liking but as an adult looking back with some reverie I miss them but at the time all those things you put in your mouth and most people think of that as goof but its language as well, it’s a lot of things, it’s the things you put into your mind along with that. They matter but they are not always fun.
Ron Carlson: Right, exactly. There is a lot of food in the book a lot of word awareness we are going to talk about that. We’ll get to the food in a minute. But your parents met because your father was in the service in England. And your mother at that time was she a nurse?
Alberto Rios: She was studying to be a nurse she was at the Royal Warrington Infirmary just at the end of Britain World War II. My father was stationed in her home town. He was at that point a para-trooping medic which is a very difficult thing to think of my father being. I mean jumping out of airplanes and than helping people after you land. But my mother going to be a nurse, they dated and they were going tot live in England originally after my father was discharged but he was I think quite cruelly discharged in the United States rather than in England so my mother had to come and find him.
Ron Carlson: Well you, in the book one of the most powerful sections of this is italicized toward the end and it’s in your mothers words. You interviewed her?
Alberto Rios: I did, and I couldn’t take that story from her. It’s her story through and through. And so the italics were a way of letting her have that moment.
Ron Carlson: You really got a sense of her voice. And she tells the story of their, OK they were engaged, they had wedding plans, and this was…
Alberto Rios: And my mother was Catholic which was kind of a rarity in England in those days. So they had hosted the bands in the church, in the Catholic Church, they had evidence of domicile which is a technical term, They had rented an apartment, they had everything ready to go and two weeks before my father was to be discharged his commanding officer came and informed him that he would be doing that in the states and the sorry part of that is of course my mother is very very light, my father very very dark. And while my father had no particular trouble with that in Europe, and in England, my mother’s parents loved my father. His commanding officer thought otherwise and made it difficult for them. So my mother in her whole life had never been more than two train stops from home got on a boat and left her family.
Ron Carlson: She made that journey.
Alberto Rios: She made that journey, and crossed the ocean and than crossed the country by train. And when she arrived in Salt Lake City which is where he was discharged she had sent a telegram ahead and this was all during a time when you couldn’t pick up your phones and ‘are you sure’ your going to be there, she couldn’t get any confirmation and even sending a telegram. You just had to hope that somebody would be on the other end and receive it. When she got off the train in Salt Lake City and the doors of the train opened, there he was waiting for her.
Ron Carlson: As she tells the story of being on the ship and the people who befriended her and having no idea of what to do in New York and spending a night there the tentative quality and the fear really comes through this great adventure that she had embarked on. Than their meeting, now so they got married and this is in the very early fifties in Nogales which had must have been a very different place, your book is brimming with a real earned nostalgia for that little town. I wonder if you could read us about where you mother came. This is a section of holidays…
Alberto Rios: We all have different holidays and mine was a blend, it had to do with the holidays of Mexico and it had to do with the holidays of the United States. But on top of that it was the personal holidays, the things that we celebrated. I think this is the part your talking about. I sometimes don’t know what other peoples holidays are now, but I’ve still got one more of my own, Thanksgiving. Not the one that’s in the books though, Thanksgiving in my house had nothing to do with pilgrims. My parents are both form somewhere else, which makes me a first generation American. The pilgrims in that sense are mine, I suppose. But my parents think about the day in other terms. I can think of my mother crying on only two occasions. Both of which came to me as stories, when my mother came to this country from England and having lived through the Battle of Britain, through the war itself and having trained as a nurse. My father just after they were married in Nogales took her to the grocery store. They walked into the veterans market and my mother’s eyes were wide. But she played it cool. How much can we get she asked my father, what do you mean he asked. You can get as much as you want, what ever you want. My mother, who could not remember living in Britain without rationing just stood there and cried. There is a holiday in that.
Ron Carlson: That is a very affecting section of her, a stranger in a strange land as you had said. And also having come from this hard lesson of war I can’t imagine who anything in her life would have been different. And so she actually finds out she can get sugar, she can get flower, and she starts on a career of cooking, on the border. So you’ve got about three cultures meeting. The English, the Mexican, and the American, and one of the things she learns is Capirotada. Among other things, you describe the food in this book very vividly but the narrator yourself…
Alberto Rios: I hated it, I hated it growing up. Capirotada is a Mexican bread pudding and it is a treasure chest of foods, you put everything you got goes into Capirotada it was a Lenten dish so it was a special time frame. You didn’t have to face it year around which you were thankful for as a kid. But also as a kid when you mix a lot of foods together that’s like a nightmare I mean, how could they wreck the peanuts like that. It would have peanuts and prunes and cheese and bread and just a whole bunch of things which as a kid of course I thought was the worst idea anybody can come up with. But now it’s a good metaphor for all of those differences that were all around me. And now when I think about them they did come together. In this sort of memorable bread pudding that the book is named after, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it but each of the parts were great parts. And it takes some work to see them fitting together.
Ron Carlson: And it was full of nutrition.
Alberto Rios: Well, it was full of nutrition, I guess that ones way to look at it.
Ron Carlson: You know what struck me about your mother’s story and the way you are describing it was how willing she was to throw herself into this, different foods and try things and figure out what they might be.
Alberto Rios: It was impressed on me early on and I’ve never forgotten it and I hope I live way myself, no fear, and no whining. She didn’t come here to complain and she didn’t look backward, she came her because it was my father and she meant it and she lived it.
Ron Carlson. One of the things she made was pit cookies. Which that’s a title of another of you book of stories.
Alberto Rios: Another food I didn’t like.
Ron Carlson: Now what are pit cookies?
Alberto Rios: Pit cookies are called chochitos in Spanish and they are gingerbread pigs. That you give to kids and if you’re a kid and your grandmother is trying to make you laugh and putting it in your face or something if you make the mistake of smiling, your dead. From then on your grandmother thinks you love pig cookies. You get them every time you go to visit. I made the mistake of smiling apparently.
Ron Carlson: Like I said it is her willingness too, and I think that section of the actual document of her voice at the end of this story is very powerful. Besides the food there is a lot of words. And it starts out with…we have two languages here, possibly three some people might say. English, English, American, English, and Spanish.
Alberto Rios: Into that mix just coincidentally were indigenous languages particularly Yaqui. When I say Spanish, I know that a person growing up on the border has to include the indigenous mix. It’s not Spanish and that took me a long time to figure out. That is was an imperfect Spanish that I grew up learning as well.
Ron Carlson: One of the first words in the book is lemon, am I saying that right? And your mother, tell the story.
Alberto Rios: My mother, when I was about five we got a new house and we were able to move into a new house just outside of Nogales four miles north in a place called (inaudible) Verde. And my mother got to choose the colors they were going to paint the rooms. And my mother having come from England, it was the fifties, everything was bright. It was post war, she was feeling good, when we got to the kitchen, the workman who were all Mexican workers who spoke only Spanish and my mother was trying to learn Spanish this is part of her ethos. When they asked her what color she wanted the kitchen she said lemon, because she wanted a nice bright yellow and a lemon you know that’s going to be perfect. So they said OK and we came back the next day she almost fainted when she walked into as anyone would know who has been in Mexico or Latin American, lemon or Mexican lemons are green, little green like key limes. And so we walked into this kitchen and it was bright green. And my mother obviously in some distress the workman said “Senora, Senora we’ll change it we will repaint it.” And she said, “No, no. Leave it.” She said that’s going to be a lesson to us that we should know there is a lot to learn in this world. And she left it that way until I left for college which makes me laugh now but after 13 years or however long it took for me to leave you start to think about it.
Ron Carlson: So there is a word that won’t get away, let me remind everybody that we are talking with Alberto Rios about his memoir Capirotada. It is the book for OneBookAZ 2009. We’ll there are some other features of life in the border. First of all you describe the town almost like it is a character. And name all of the names of all of the stores. As I said the book brims with a nostalgia. And it must have been a great place being a young person growing up. And that’s the feeling that comes off of these stories as you explore the arroyo with your buddies and is that where you lived at the edge of town.
Alberto Rios: That arroyo was exactly where we were not supposed to be. So of course that is where all of the adventures happened. But it was a wild beast than. And I don’t say wild beast the way we think of Nogales today, it’s in the news all of the time for all the wrong reasons. What we perhaps overlook is people live there and have a life there. And are living those lives and are having to eat lunch at noon, I think part of this book looks to those real regular lives and not what’s in the headlines. They were not the headlines we see today back than.
Ron Carlson: It’s a different, even the story of the braceros is that correct? The way that immigration is so much in the news and with so many viewpoints. Here in the fifties, what were the braceros? What was that?
Alberto Rios: It was a word for the guest worker program that came in the fifties and went into the sixties and incidentally they are just making some reparations now to people who were in that. But it was a beginning attempt to solve that, we need some workers. Here were some workers that can do those jobs. Let’s just figure out rationally how to do that. It was an imperfect program obviously how these things are. But it was a, what was not imperfect about it was it was a starting point, people were talking, and coming up with some solutions and it was something I still remember to this day the workers who would come up.
Ron Carlson: Did you have Spanish? Were you also speaking in Spanish yourself, talk about your own…
Alberto Rios: I forget how much Spanish was part of my life growing up. When I go back down to Nogales I recognize that I need to be speaking Spanish to get along. So I must have even back, maybe not in school but in the community itself. And Nogales, there are two Nogales’s, there is Nogales Arizona and Nogales Sonora. And they are called together (?) Nogales’s. They are the two Nogales’s. And they are inextricable. They are part of each other. We talk about the border there, we call it the line. But that line, that’s an interesting word to me as I seen the line metamorphose into a fence and know a wall, security threat. That little innocent thing called the line used to be. It was in essence a more or less open border. And it was a friendly place to live. Not an antagonistic place.
Ron Carlson: The book is so warm, the book is so full of fellow and family feeling and it makes almost like a desert Garden of Eden.
Alberto Rios: In some ways that was part of what I was trying to portray. Obviously, obviously there were other aspects. And one includes language, when I was growing up my father’s whole family and all my caretakers his family were all speakers of Spanish and if I wanted to eat I had to learn how to speak Spanish. And it was of course what I learned. My mother to me and even to my brother was something of a stranger in that mix. So much so that when I was first growing up we lived on Rodriguez Street and it was right behind the Catholic Church and I called the lady down the street ‘mama’ because she did the kinds of things we thought a mother should do. She would give us boxes of Jello to eat right out of the box, that’s what a good mother does. But my mother, I called her ‘Agnes’ when I was growing up because she spoke only English back than and even I recognized the stranger aspect of that. And I had no problems with this growing up in a mix of language which is a way of giving dimension to the world. Anytime you give something two names it’s got more than one and therefore more than one way to be addressed. It wasn’t until we got into school were peoples hearts were in the right places but at that point we got punished for speaking Spanish because the idea was to have everybody speaking English. Even though we were capable and already doing it. That has a long trouble history but for me…
Ron Carlson: And I know you have written about that elsewhere…
Alberto Rios: Yeah…but for me speaking Spanish is part of what made me a writer and a poet in particular is that it helped me understand that there is no one way to look at anything. And my parents themselves showed me that there were two ways to think about what’s in the refrigerator and two ways to speak and two ways to just go about your business in the world.
Ron Carlson: Your parents comment on the fact…your mother said she got to go a lot of places because she was with your father. And your father he got to go a lot of places he would have been forbidden to go alone simply because they were together and so different.
Alberto Rios: It was the fifties and those things were not so easy to leave behind. I think we have the more stark version of that perhaps in the American South. The African American experience but we perhaps don’t give the same gravity to something that was happening equally in the American Southwest where people who were very dark skinned Mexican primarily would have been experiencing much the same situation.
Ron Carlson: Let’s talk about the making of the book. This is a memoir and memoirs are very very popular know there are a lot of true life family stories and history being written this is a book that is just brimming with anecdotes story after story, once I started in it just takes you right all the way forward. How did you view or how did you come to the frame or the form of the book?
Alberto Rios: I think that’s an excellent question. And it came to me I’m not sure I came to it. If I had to confess how the book came to be it was a way of explaining poems, I was about to read or it was a way of contextualizing a lot of my experience and what became increasingly intriguing to me as a writer is the things I remembered and the things I didn’t. And the things I remembered so many of them would seem overtly inconsequential but they had a habit of coming back and I needed to put them somewhere and I knew there was value to them and it took a little bit of work to sort out what that value actually was. Come to find out in creating the book and it uses a very simple temporal structure I’m young at the beginning and I’m a father at the end. My father is my father at the beginning and I take that role. It was the work of sorting out why the small things mattered and that was often the work of the poet and certainly the work of the writer in general. But it’s not the big things newspaper take pretty good care of obviously. This was the daily life of the things that were finally going to be what made a difference in your day at that given place, and that stay with you regardless.
Ron Carlson: Did you find as we’ve said before with other writers on this program that the accumulation of detail just in that excretion and the gathering of that detail they were clues to the overall arc of the book?
Alberto Rios: Absolutely, absolutely, I began to hear myself repeating certain things and making connections that were stark to me, there is a particular anecdote of how my parents went to the movies. And that became a bigger frame work for language and food as well. What they would do because we had no money growing up they couldn’t afford a babysitter and when my father’s family couldn’t help. What they would do is on a Saturday night my mother would run down to the move theater and they had no car and I was young, I don’t remember this but this is what they would always tell me, my mother would run down to the movie theater, watch the show come running back and my father would than run down to the show to see the second showing of it and come running back. And so they both saw the same movie, on the same night, in the same town. But it was larger and it was bigger than the idea of them just going to the movie together. And it opened up a discussion and a discourse that I think provides a lot of the frame work in the book. There are lots of ways to do something, we think we are doing them together, we think we are having the same experience, and we kind of are but there is room for everybody.
Ron Carlson: You’re a poet, and you are known as a poet, and you travel as a poet. Do you want to say something briefly in terms about the constructing of prose and poetry?
Alberto Rios: Yeah, and it’s what kills me as a prose writer. I really think all of my writing is poetry; I am more than willing to stop in the moment and that has something of a criminal aura to it. If your going to be a successful prose writer you are gonna keep moving. But my sense of writing things is just I want to understand the moment I am in. And if that helps me to move on and I think it does I believe it does it will project me to the story I need to tell. But I am not in a hurry to tell that story, and that can lead to on occasional indulgence, as you know is a poets indulgence, but I think that’s how I come to the writing and I think that’s how I make the page. And that’s just me personally; people obviously do it different ways.
Ron Carlson: I was struck so many times in this book I though oh, this is the story that goes with the poems because I know so many of your poems. This time has flown by and it was wonderful to talk to you about this book and it was a perfect choice for Arizona the OneBook. We’ve been talking with the poet and writer Alberto Rios about his memoir Capirotada which in the OneBook choice for Arizona 2009, this has been Books & Co. I’m Ron Carlson. Thank you for joining us.