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Rios, Alberto

Alberto Rios


Born September 18, 1952, in Nogales, AZ; son of Alberto Alvaro (a justice of the peace) and Agnes (a nurse; maiden name, Fogg) Rios; married Maria Guadalupe Barron (a librarian), September 8, 1979; children: Joaquin. Education: University of Arizona, B.A. (English literature and creative writing), 1974, B.A. (psychology), 1975, M.F.A., 1979; attended University of Arizona Law School, 1975-76. Politics: "Liberal/Democrat." Religion: "Cultural Catholic."


Homem—3038 North Pennington Dr., Chandler, AZ 85224. Officem—Department of English, Box 870302, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-0302. E-mailm—[email protected]


Arizona Commission on the Arts, Phoenix, artist in artists-in-education program, 1978-83, consultant, 1983m—; Arizona State University, Tempe, assistant professor, 1982-85, associate professor, 1985-89, professor, beginning 1989, Regent's Professor of English, 1994m—, co-chair of Hispanic research and development committee, 1983m—, director of creative writing program, 1986-89. Counselor and instructor in English and algebra in Med-Start Program, University of Arizona, summers, 1977-80. Writer-in-residence at Central Arizona College, Coolidge, 1980-82. Member of board of directors, Associated Writing Programs, 1988m—, secretary, 1989m—; board of directors, Arizona Center for the Book, 1988m—, vice chairman, 1989m—. Member of national advisory committee to National Artists-in-Education Program, 1980; member of grants review panel, Arizona Commission on the Arts, 1983; member, National Endowment for the Arts poetry panel; judge, New York City High School poetry contest. Gives poetry readings, lectures, and workshops.

Awards, Honors

First place award, Academy of American Arts poetry contest, 1977, for "A Man Then Suddenly Stops Moving"; writer's fellowship in poetry, Arizona Commission on the Arts, 1979; fellowship grant in creative writing, National Endowment for the Arts,1980; Walt Whitman Award, National Academy of American Poets, 1981, for Whispering to Fool the Wind; second place award, New York Times Annual Fiction Competition, 1983, for "The Way Spaghetti Feels"; New Times Fiction Award, 1983; Western States Book Award for fiction, 1984, for The IguanaKiller; Pushcart Prize for fiction, 1986, and poetry, 1988, 1989; Chicanos por la Causa Community Appreciation Award, 1988; distinguished teaching award nomination, Arizona State University; Poets and Writers Award, Red Rock Review, 1999; Edward Stanley Award for Poetry, Prairie Schooner, 2000; Latino Literary Hall of Fame Book Award, 2000; nominee for National Book Award in poetry category, 2002, for The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body; Distinguished Achievement Award, Western Literature Association, 2002.


Elk Heads on the Wall (poetry chapbook), Mango Press (San Jose, CA), 1979.

Sleeping on Fists (poetry chapbook), Dooryard Press (Story, WY), 1981.

Whispering to Fool the Wind (poetry), Sheep Meadow Press (New York, NY), 1982.

The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart, Blue Moon/Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1984.

Five Indiscretions (poetry), Sheep Meadow Press (New York, NY), 1985.

The Lime Orchard Woman (poetry), Sheep Meadow Press (New York, NY), 1988.

The Warrington Poems, Pyracantha Press (Tempe, AZ), 1989.

Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses (poetry), Norton (New York, NY), 1990.

Pig Cookies and Other Stories, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1995.

The Curtain of Trees: Stories, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1999.

Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1999.

The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (poetry), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2002.

Contributor of poetry, fiction, and drama to anthologies, including Southwest: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Karl Kopp and Jan Kopp, Red Earth Press, 1977; Hispanics in the United States: An Anthology of Creative Literature, edited by Gary D. Keller and Francisco Jimenez, Bilingual Review Press, 1980; The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellman, Robert O'Clair, and John Benedict, W. W. Norton, 1988; American Literature, Prentice-Hall, 1990; and Best American Poetry, edited by Robert Bly, Scribner, 1999. Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Little Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, and Paris Review. Also contributor of translations to New Kauri and Poetry Pilot. Corresponding editor, Manoa, 1989m—; member of editorial board, New Chicano Writing, 1990m—.


Rios's poems have been adapted for dance and for classical as well as popular music.

Work in Progress

The Theater of Night, a poetry collection; a novel about a married couple in Arizona who become involved in a small-time crime.


Alberto Rios is a prize-winning writer of Chicano heritage known for both his poems and short stories, many of which employ elements of magical realism. Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jose David Saldivar noted of this twin occupation: "Rios's poetry is a kind of magical storytelling, and his stories are a kind of magical poetry." His 1982 verse work, Whispering to Fool the Wind, won the Walt Whitman Award from the National Academy of Poets, while his 2002 poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Similarly, Rios's first collection of short fiction, The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart, took the Western States Book Award for fiction in 1984.

Rios, born on the U.S.-Mexican border, often portrays incidents in life that are representative of duality, from language to cultural mix. As William Barillas noted in Americas Review, "Rios has written poetry and fiction exploring borders between countries, between languages, between imagination, memory, and the common day." In his 1999 memoir, Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir, Rios directly relates incidents of growing up bi-cultural; speaking with Susan McInnis of Glimmer Train, he also detailed what it is like to have feet in two cultural milieus: "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 blood. On the border we're dealing with several languages, several cultures, different sets of laws, and everything else you can imagine. Nevertheless, you've 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."

To go with this "in-between state," Rios has constructed what he refers to as a third language, neither Spanish nor English, but an amalgam and a private language all his own. On the strength of this new language, Saldivar maintained that "Rios is surely one of the major vernacular voices of the postmodernist age. It is as a poet that he assumes his important position. However, Rios also writes lyrically dazzling short stories." The critic went on to comment: "Because Rios's poetic representations of his characters' stories hardly differs from their own speech and point of view, he is one of the great third-world American storytellers."

Nogales of the Spirit

Born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, Rios is the son of a Mexican father and a British mother. His paternal grandfather was a prominent figure in the Mexican revolution, and Rios grew up in the border town of Nogales, speaking Spanish as his first language. However, once he reached school age, he was forced to substitute English for that language, even on the playground. By the time he was in junior high school, he had almost completely lost his Spanish. "The Spanish," Rios told Barillas, "got crowded out, and went into a special place that I knew I had to be careful of." However, once in high school and starting out in college at the University of Arizona, he began speaking the language again, relearning his native tongue, in effect. This process of growing up in two cultures ultimately proved beneficial to Rios as a budding poet, as he explained to Barillas: "Growing up in a multicultural household and neighborhood and world was always like having binoculars, how by putting two lenses together you can see something far away much closer. When you see something closer you see it better and understand it more. Having two languages I had a natural inclination to 'binocularize,' to put a dual perspective on everything around me."

Rios's early attempts at writing came as a student in junior high school, when he scribbled poems in the backs of his notebooks. He continued to write in high school, and at college earned a double major in English and creative writing. He also began another degree program, studying law at the University of Arizona before finally shifting over to the M.F.A. program in creative writing. With many of his professors coming from areas other than the Southwest, Rios was confronted with a kind of language and cultural racism when he was advised to give the characters of his poems less Spanish-sounding names. Happily, he did not listen to such advice and continued to give voice to the family members, friends, and acquaintances he had grown up with.

A Professional Poet

Financed by a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1980, Rios finished his first major chapbook of poems, Sleeping on Fists. Then in 1982 came his Whispering to Fool the Wind. This early collection, winner of the Walt Whitman Award, is a volume in which, according to Saldivar, "extraordinary and magical things happen." Writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, Mary Logue commended this same collection for its "written miracles." In the work Rios tells stories in verse, from that of Uncle Humber to who dies out of anger at the refusal of a seam-stress to give him pinsi for his butterfly collection in" The Story of the Pins" to an evocation of Rios's grandmother in "Nani," which Saldivar dubbed "one of the most remarkable poems in Chicano literature."

With The Iguana Killer Rios turned to short stories, many of them geared for a young-adult audience. This collection, Saldivar explained, "explores the luminous world of [the author's] childhood and border culture" with tales such as the title story, "The Child," "A Friend, Brother Maybe," and "The Way Spaghetti Feels." Most of the tales are narrated in a direct manner, though some reflect their author's interest in magical realism.

Rios's next four publications were poetry collections. The 1985 Five Indiscretions contains poems about" desire, sexuality, and religion," as Saldivar noted, adding that most of the verses deal with courtship or romance. A reviewer for Library Journal felt that the poems in this collection demonstrate Rios's "deep social commitment and rare ability to identify with others," while Saldivar found that Rios's poetry in this and other collections "is always lavishly textured." Rios followed this with the 1988 collection The Lime Orchard Woman, which contains "quasi-mythical topics" relating to Rios's Hispanic roots, according to Ivan Arguelles, writing in Library Journal.

More poems of life in two cultures that exhibit a magical-realist bent are found in 1990's Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses, the first of Rios's works to receive mainstream publication. Reviewing the collection for Fairleigh Dickinson University's Literary Review, Michael O'Brien thought that Rios "has the unique ability to combine the 'real' of everyday life with the 'magic' of dream and memory."

From Short Stories to Memoirs to Poems

These characteristics are also evident in Pig Cookies and Other Stories, set in a small Mexican town where cookies have supernatural powers and life takes other surprising twists and turns. "The tales in this collection glisten with a magical sheen, at once other-worldly and real," remarked Greg Sanchez in World Literature Today. "Rios takes us from the realm of imagination to the concrete and back again with surprising fluidity." Rios also creates winning characters, wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer: "These poignant, funny tales of the rich, unsuspected lives of regular folks transcend time and place." Lawrence Olszewski, writing in Library Journal, commented that a "slew of engaging characters from all walks of life appear and reappear at various stages of their lives" in these poems. Writing in Hispanic, Laura Figueroa observed that this gathering of stories was an "imaginative tragicomedy depicting love, life, and death." A contributor for Publishers Weekly had further praise for Pig Cookies and Other Stories: "These poignant, funny tales of the rich, unsuspected inner lives of regular folk transcend time and place." And Booklist's George Needham felt the same work was a "remarkable collection," and that Rios had "created a delightful universe centered in a tiny village in northern Mexico."

The Curtain of Trees: Stories again deals with small-town life, but this time along the U.S./Mexican border with which its author is so personally familiar. A contributor to Publishers Weekly described the work as a "tender collection," but added that the verses contain "little sentimentality." The book's nine tales deal with families, loves lost and found, and the distrust of strangers. The same reviewer also praised Rios for his characteristic "unadorned but potent prose."

Though much of his work deals with memories of his life growing up on the border, Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir is Rios' autobiography, detailing events of his life growing up in Nogales, Arizona. The book's title comes from the word for a Mexican bread pudding known for its varied ingredients. Similarly, his memoir is a potpourri of ingredients, including childhood tales. A Publishers Weekly contributor, calling Rios a "master of the coming-of-age story," went on to observe that Capirotada "is an extremely personal family history filled with small anecdotes and finely drawn landscapes." This same contributor felt, however, that as literary biography, the book "fails to match the power of Rios's fiction. "Gwen Gregory, writing in Library Journal, had less reserved praise, calling the memoir "finely crafted and emotionally powerful without being heavy-handed."

Rios became a finalist for the National Book Award for his 2002 poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body. The muscle in question is the stapedius, located in the ear. As the writer explained to Leslie Wootten in a World Literature Today interview, "Two of its purposes are to keep us from hearing ourselves chew and from hearing our heartbeat." Rios works with this metaphor in the poems in this collection in which verses "struggle to bring into view what we've been protected from experiencing."

Once again, through his verse, Rios "focuses squarely on childhood experiences and memories," as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly explained. With

If you enjoy the works of Alberto Rios

If you enjoy the works of Alberto Rios, you may also want to check out the following:

Angelico Chavez, The Short Stories of Fray Angelico Chavez, 1987.

Beatriz De La Garza, The Candy Vendor's Boy and Other Stories, 1994.

Norman Dubie, The Mercy Seat: Collected and New Poems, 1967-2001, 2004.

poems such as "My Chili," the poet looks at local specialties, while in "A Physics of Sudden Light" the tone is more serious and "Audenesque," as Robert Murray Davis noted in World Literature Today.

Showing himself to be a consummate wordsmith, Rios refrains from putting all his faith in vocabulary. As he explained to Wootten: "Words are wonderful suitcases that hold ides 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."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp.220-224.


Americas Review, fall-winter, 1996, William Barillas, "Words like the Wind" (interview), pp. 116-129.

Bloomsbury Review, January-February, 1996, Leslie Wootten, "Writing on the Edge" (interview), p. 11.

Booklist, May 1, 1995, George Needham, review of Pig Cookies and Other Stories, p. 1553; October 15,1999, Grace Anne A. DeCandido, review of Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir, p. 411.

Glimmer Train, spring, 1998, Susan McInnis, interview with Rios, pp. 105-121.

Hispanic, May, 1995, Laura Figueroa, review of Pig Cookies and Other Stories, p. 80.

Library Journal, May 1, 1985, review of Five Indiscretions, p. 64; February 15, 1989, Ivan Arguelles, review of The Lime Orchard Woman, p. 161; May 1,1995, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Pig Cookies and Other Stories, p. 134; October 1, 1999, Gwen Gregory, review of Capirotada, p. 120.

Literary Review, spring, 1991, Michael O'Brien, review of Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses, p. 419.

Publishers Weekly, March 20, 1995, review of Pig Cookies and Other Stories, p. 54; April 26, 1999, review of The Curtain of Trees: Stories, p. 55; August 30, 1999, review of Capirotada, p. 62; April 29, 2002, review of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, p. 65.

Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1982, Mary Logue, review of Whispering to Fool the Wind.

World Literature Today, spring, 1996, Greg Sanchez, review of Pig Cookies and Other Stories, p. 414; July-September, 2003, Leslie A. Wootten, "The Edge in the Middle" (interview), p. 57, Robert Murray Davis, review of The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, p. 105


Alberto Rios Home Page, (May 14, 2005).*

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