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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Alberto Ríos (b. 1952)

[5245] Salvador Brquez, Dolores del Rios as Ramona (1928), courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

The son of a Mexican American father and a British mother, Alberto Ríos was born in Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border. Much of his work draws on the mixture of his parents’ cultures and growing up in the American Southwest. He received his B.A. from the University of Arizona and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1979. Ríos’s collections of poetry include Whispering to Fool the Wind(1982), Five Indiscretions (1985), The Dime Orchard Woman: Poems (1988), Teodora Luna’s Two Kisses (1992), and The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body(2002). He has also published three collections of stories, The Iguana Killer(1984), Pig Cookies and Other Stories (1995), and The Curtain of Trees (1999). In addition, he has written a memoir, Capirotada (1999), about growing up on the U.S.-Mexican border. Ríos has taught at Arizona State University since the early 1980s.

Ríos’s storytelling draws on the oral traditions of his Latino heritage while celebrating its diversity and sense of community. His speakers and characters reveal the tensions of living in a racially charged area of the Southwest. Magical realism — a mixture of fantasy and realism — characterizes much of Ríos’s work. Ríos thinks of teaching and writing as complementary activities. In one interview he explains, “When I sit down to write something, I’m not neglecting my teaching one bit. And when I speak aloud in front of a class, I’m not neglecting my writing one bit. They are two arms of the same body. They serve each other.” Frequently taught and translated, Ríos’s work has been adapted both for dance and as popular music.

Teaching Tips

  • A skillful promoter of his own work and reputation, Ríos has an elaborate Web site hosted by Arizona State University. Review this Web site in class with your students or have them review it at home. What message about his own life and work does Ríos seem to be promoting? Ask students to support their answers with specific evidence from the site.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Advice to a First Cousin,” the speaker combines humor and superstition with wisdom. In the second part of the poem, who are the “scorpions” about which grandmother speaks? What is the moral? Why does this poem fit well into the oral tradition of storytelling?
  2. Comprehension: “Refugio’s Hair” tells how a woman’s hair had to be cut off. What gives this poem its mythic quality? Instead of just telling a story, how does this poem incorporate religious or cultural icons?
  3. Comprehension: What two cultures are represented in “Day of the Refugios”? Are they given equal time in the poem?
  4. Context: Compare and contrast Ríos’s poem “Seniors” with the ending of Viramontes’s novel Under the Feet of Jesus or Anaya’s story “The Christmas Play.” What similar images and themes are displayed? How does the verse presentation differ from the prose presentations?
  5. Exploration: In 1965, Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act, repealing the national-origin quotas and race-based policies that had all but prohibitied the entrance of “less desirable” people who might not have had the “capacity to assimilate.” This legislative change profoundly impacted U.S. demographics, allowing for an ethnic heterogeneity that went against the grain of “melting pot” cultural homogeneity. Research this topic, while also comparing the experiences of marginalized or oppressed groups as documented by authors writing before and after this date. Consider too a prominent theme in Ríos’s work — that cultures can be woven together, preserving their best parts, without losing their unique traditions.

Selected Archive Items

[2195] Robert Runyon, Woman and Two Children, South Texas Border (1920),
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Photograph of woman and children at the Mexico-U.S. border. Folk music and literature from this region often highlight the conflicts between Anglos and Chicanos. See Americo Paredes’s novel George Washington Gomez. Writer Alberto Ríos was born near the border, and much of his work deals with the interaction of Mexican and American cultures. His first book, Whispering to Fool the Wind, won the Walt Whitman Award.

[3551] Anonymous, Latino. A Jitterbugging Yuma. Arizona 1942 (1942),
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Latino youths dancing in Yuma, Arizona, near the hometown of writer Alberto Ríos. Ríos teaches English at Arizona State University. His memoir Capirotada recounts his childhood on the Mexico-U.S. border.

[5245] Salvador Brquez, Dolores del Rios as Ramona (1928),
courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
Newspaper movie illustration. Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona failed to improve treatment of California Indians as she had hoped it would. Instead, elements of the story’s romantic depiction of California’s Hispanic heritage became firmly entrenched in the mythology of the region.

[8754] Elliot Young, Interview: “Aztlán as the U.S. Southwest” (2002),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Professor Elliot Young discusses Aztlán, the mythical city from which the Mexiques came before they arrived in central Mexico, and the role Aztlán plays in Chicano consciousness.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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