The Curtain of Trees
Go to Amazon for further information. Originally published by University of New Mexico Press.
The Curtain of Trees. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
From the middle of the twentieth century comes the latest collection of stories by renowned Chicano writer Alberto Alvaro Rios. The Curtain of Trees re-creates a time and place largely forgotten these days except by grandparents and elders. The stories in this book are part folklore, part oral history, but in full measure literary as they recollect family tales modified by time, telling, and now Rios’s graceful perspective.
Set along the Arizona-Mexico border, these stories engage the gulf between Mexican and Chicano, aunt and nephew, sister and sister, sanity and madness. Sometimes the gulf cannot be spanned; sometimes it is nonexistent. The stories are about a land untouched by modernity, where the town crier dresses up as a bear to spread the news, where everybody takes care of the wandering boy named Gustavo, where family lineage means hospitable passage through a distant town.
Like so many family stories told on long afternoons, the tales in The Curtain of Trees are authentic, touching, and fantastically unbelievable.
Cultural transformation, and small-town life along the Mexico-Arizona border, are illuminated in this tender collection of stories by poet and novelist Rios (Whispering to Fool the Wind; The Iguana Killer). There is little sentimentality in these nine tales, even as they delicately balance a nuanced melancholia with faith in the sustenance that family and close friends provide. The title story, which closes the collection in a sensuous and dramatic extended narrative, focuses on headstrong Carmelita and her family over years of betrayal, love and love lost. In Nine Quarter Moons a fierce wind blows through a town, as it does once a year, summoning change, fear and uncertainty in the community. This story and the next, which features two strangers who meet in a small town and try to find common ancestors (Outside Magdalena, Sonora), delineate the conflict between distrusting strangers and the need to bond with others. Rios explores characters who live on the fringes of society in The Other League of Nations, a dark, comic look at a coincidental meeting of the towns insane citizens. In other tales, a misfit sees the world differently, watching everyone from the village rooftops, and a homeless girl is also a careful observer, sussing people by looking at what they have left behind.... Rios demonstrates his considerable versatility with characterization and structure, writing in unadorned but potent prose. His characters are from another era (circa the 1950s), roaming the unpaved streets of small villages, their lives made vividly real through the authors powerful sensitivity and sharp eye for detail.
By Jim Carvalho
DECEMBER 7, 1999:
Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir by Alberto Alvaro Ríos (University of New Mexico Press). Paper, $15.95
The Curtain of Trees: Stories by Alberto Alvaro Ríos (University of New Mexico Press). Paper, $14.95
READERS LOOKING FOR tough talk won’t get any from Alberto Ríos. While neither weak-kneed nor sentimental, his writing is never loud, harsh or flinty. In fact, Ríos may be the gentlest writer around.
In two closely-related collections released this year, the Arizona author and college professor gracefully weaves his childhood memories of border-town life in Nogales into a colorful tapestry of recollection and invention.
Capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding made from a panoply of ingredients (prunes, peanuts, white bread, raisins, milk, cheese, spices, and the “old world” sugar known as “panocha”) is what Ríos calls the Mexican version of fruitcake, a huge jumble of good things. Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir is similar in construction, also employing a huge jumble of good things, but the results are infinitely more satisfying than any fruitcake.
The 26 short non-fiction pieces in Capirotada are as diverse as they are satisfying. Told in a conversational tone, the stories about food, family, language and locale ramble along like so much friendly barroom banter. And if the deliberately casual tone produces a few awkward sentences, the prose is well-suited to the subject matter.
If the tales in Capirotada go down like cold Tecate (workaday, but nonetheless thirst-quenching) the stories in The Curtain of Trees taste like an expertly-mixed Manhattan. Curtain’s eight short stories and one novella, all set near the Arizona-Sonora border, contain some of the most mesmerizing and finely-crafted prose anywhere, as in the opening of “The Orange Woman, the Walnut Girl”:
“I have always been guided first by the smell of the leaves. The cottonwood leaves in fall are full of moisture and sigh, while the big-ear leaves of the cactus suppose themselves indifferent to the world. They buy one good coat for life and stick with it stubbornly to the end. Why not? they say, shrugging their shoulders as if to suggest the spendthrift folly of anything else.
“The Privet leaves do not want to go away and try to hang on all year. They hear everything and want desperately to be friends with the world, very different from the mesquite, which goes about its workaday business, dropping leaves and growing more, always on schedule, with the added bonus of mesquite pods, so many of them and so happy in their bodies and their music but inexplicable given the attitude of that tree.”
The stories in Curtain also display Ríos’ talent for getting inside the skin of his characters to narrate stories in the first person: as a crazy girl in “The Orange Woman, the Walnut Girl,” as a wayward boy in “Don Gustavo, Who had a Hand for an Ear,” and as the daughter of the town crier in “What I Heard From the Bear.”
Ríos has much in common with the author Luis Alberto Urrea: both writers are border-town half-breeds (Ríos comes from Nogales, a Mexican father and an English mother; Urrea comes from Tijuana, a Mexican father and an American mother). Both are college professors, and both are accomplished in multiple disciplines (fiction, poetry, non-fiction). But Urrea’s a little tougher.
In fact, when it comes to tough-talking Chicanos, Ríos is no match for the hammers and heroin of Dagoberto Gilb, or the tough-girl tempers of Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros. It’s hard to imagine Ríos writing about the street meaning of “panocha,” for example, and downright impossible to imagine him writing about it the way Cisneros did a few years ago, when she wrote about her big purple vulva in Ms. magazine. In Ríos’ writing, readers will find no questionable subject matter, and nary a curse word. It’s the literary equivalent of what stand-up comedians call “working clean.”
And it works. Ríos’ writing is quiet, graceful, often luscious, but never sentimental or cloying.
With Capirotada and especially The Curtain of Trees, Alberto Ríos proves again that writers are like teachers and lovers. Sometimes the gentle ones leave the deepest impression.