WORDS LIKE THE WIND
An Interview with Alberto Ríos.
By William Barillas.
Américas Review. 24:3-4. Fall-Winter 1996 (1998). 116-129.
Born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, of a Mexican father and an English mother, Alberto Ríos has written poetry and fiction exploring borders between countries, between languages, between imagination, memory, and the common day. His discovery of the miraculous in ordinary experience has prompted comparisons to the surrealism of Federico García Lorca as well as to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American authors. Like those precursors, Ríos is a poet of the body’s intelligence, of inherent perception and expression in physical gesture and embrace. The poem “The Mouths of Two People,” for example, refers to “mouths that are where eyes appear to be, / mouths whose secret lips are subtle lids, / whose words like the wind are barely heard” (Whispering 72). In the much anthologized “Nani,” he remembers how these “second mouths” allowed him and his Mexican grandmother to communicate even though she spoke no English and he (as a boy) had forgotten Spanish:
. . . I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more. (Whispering 59)
“Language,” Ríos has written, “is our weakest hold on the world” (unpublished manuscript). This sense of the inadequacy of language, ironically, is precisely what leads him to metaphor and surreal imagery to represent his own interior life and that of his characters, people yearning to bridge the gulf between self and the world.
Like Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and others associated with the recent renaissance of Latino writing in the United States, Ríos draws on his experience of growing up in a bicultural environment. His paternal grandfather, Margarito Calderón Ríos, a prominent figure in the Mexican Revolution and advisor to Mexican president Alvaro Obregón, maintained homes in Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala, and in Nogales, south of the U.S. border and the Arizona city by the same name. By so doing he was always prepared to move his family to safety should unfavorable political winds begin to blow. Ríos, then, was “born of people who were outside of time and place, people who were displaced and unsure” for whom borders were less external geographical realities than dimensions of their emotional lives: “They found the line inside themselves, the things they would do and would not do, in there” (Pig Cookies xiv). The things they would do included emigration to the United States, continuance of family life, and participation in their small town community, all dominant themes in Ríos’s poetry and fiction.
Ríos’s books of poetry are Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow, 1982), which won the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award for 1991, Five Indiscretions (Sheep Meadow, 1985), The Lime Orchard Woman (Sheep Meadow, 1988), and Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses (Norton, 1990); his limited editions include Elk Heads on the Wall (Mango, 1979), Sleeping on Fists (Dooryard, 1981), and The Warrington Poems (Pyracantha, 1989). The short stories in The Iguana Killer (Confluence, 1984) and Pig Cookies (Chronicle, 1995) amplify themes and even specific narratives that also appear in his poems. His writing continues to appear in major literary journals and anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Currently Regents’ Professor of English at Arizona State University, he has served as visiting faculty at institutions including Vassar College, University of Idaho, University of Alaska, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The present interview was conducted on January 25, 1996 at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, where Ríos was a visiting speaker.
Q. You spoke Spanish at an early age and then forgot it. How did that happen?
A. Growing up along the border with my father’s extended family, Spanish was essentially my first language. But there was a lot of English mixed in, partly from living on the border, partly from listening to the news on the radio, and television just coming in. There were a lot of influences. I think language ultimately is not as neat as its name. It’s whatever amalgam of words gets you dinner or a ride in a car or whatever you need. We tend to call it English or Spanish but it’s like a border, you know. No border is pure; there’s a lot of exchanging, a lot of sharing, a lot of important work going on. Well, when I got to first grade I was a first grader speaker of whatever first graders speak, which for me was primarily Spanish but also made up of playground words, English, and regional Indian dialect. I didn’t realize until many years later how much of my Spanish was actually Yaqui language.
Q. Are there Yaqui terms you still remember?
A. Oh yeah, like buqui for “kid,” or bichi for “naked.” All kinds of words. Anything with that ending is often Yaqui in that region. Cochi for “pig,” for example. Anybody who grew up in Nogales would recognize that word first before, say, puerco or cochino, which we never used. It’s a cochi to me, you know. It was always a cochi.
Well, it was a child’s existence, and children find their way. Then first grade happens. First grade is when adults start to tell children how to find their way, and there’s a confusion, another kind of meeting place. My friends, who also spoke Spanish, and I got into the first grade classroom, where on the very first day our teacher said “You can’t speak Spanish in here.” We kind of looked around at each other, raised our hands politely, and told the teacher, “Seguro que sí. . . of course we can speak Spanish. Listen to us.” She said, “No, that’s not what I mean. You are not to speak Spanish, and if you do, I’m going to swat you.”
That sounds very negative, and of course it is. But it made me start paying attention to language in ways that as a writer I’m glad for. Not as a human being, but as a writer. Now, when you go into a first grade classroom what do you see? First grade stuff! Fingerpaints, chalkboard, clock, maps, kickballs that aren’t flat. Stuff! We wanted it! It was our job to want it--we were first graders. And if it took learning English, we weren’t stupid--we could do that! Two weeks tops! We could do that. And we did. The thing is, we didn’t stop learning. That’s the part nobody talks about very well.
A bargain was being struck, one that you couldn’t go home and talk to your parents about. If Spanish was something you were hit for, and you get hit for doing something bad, Spanish then must be bad. That wasn’t hard to figure out. We didn’t articulate it; we just felt it. We knew what getting swatted would feel like. In second grade that equation widened out a little bit. If Spanish was bad, and our parents spoke Spanish, they then must be bad people. And we learned to be ashamed of them. We suddenly were put into the position of having to take care of them, which is unfair. How do you take care of your parents at school? Don’t let them come to school. Don’t let them show up. The teacher would give us a PTA meeting notice, which was in English, and say, “Take this home to your parents.” We’d say, “Yes, ma’am” and put it in our notebooks. On the way to the school bus, we’d drop the notes into the garbage can at the end of the playground. It was our little ritual. The garbage can, by the way--do you know what was written on it? The word basura. It didn’t say “trash” in English because when you want people to do something, you use whatever language it takes. So we got the notes in English but “trash” in Spanish. We threw our notes away because we loved our parents, and that was the only way we could take care of them. If we took those notes home, our parents would respond. We knew that if our parents came to school and started speaking Spanish they’d have to get in that swat line. I laugh at that now because that is second grade reasoning. But we were second graders, and that’s all we had.
By the time I was in later elementary school, in junior high school, and in the beginning of high school I couldn’t speak Spanish anymore, which is to say, I didn’t want to. I had learned too well. The Spanish got crowded out, and went into a special place that I knew I had to be careful of.
Q. When did you begin to speak Spanish again?
A. It wasn’t until late in high school and the beginning of college that I relearned Spanish. But I didn’t relearn it; Spanish hadn’t gone anywhere. What I did was relearn my attitude toward it. This is what I think is missing in most theories of language retention, which tell you to open up a book and review. But there’s a reason why I didn’t simply do that. Coming back to Spanish wasn’t hard. But the feeling I had learned about Spanish didn’t go away. We tend to discuss language intellectually, in terms of the mind, and we stop short. But as a child you’re learning as much with the body as with the mind. You’re learning at that age, for example, how to ride a bike. When you’re learning to ride a bike what you’re really learning is balance. You know that if you lean a little too far this way or a little too far that way you’re going to fall down and get hurt. Well, when you’re getting hit for speaking Spanish it’s like you leaned to one side on your bike. You learn with your body how not to get hurt. Because Spanish is tinged with danger, English comes out of your mouth. When I came back to it later, I could take care of the intellectual aspects, but my body hadn’t forgotten. As the saying goes, you never forget how to ride a bicycle.
Q. You hadn’t forgotten the stigma attached to Spanish.
A. Right. Now, I wouldn’t have put that vocabulary on it, because it is a balance that, for the body, doesn’t exist in the realm of words. There is a whole generation of people like me who have to deal with this, who can’t forget how to ride the bike. When university students agitate for Chicano studies programs, what’s the first action they take? Hunger strikes. Well, it’s the body in relation to an intellectual pursuit . . .
Q. The connection between understanding and nourishment. So that’s one way we can understand your poem “Nani,” about your grandmother serving you albóndigas.
A. Absolutely. She serves me with her body as much as with anything else and we talk in that particular poem not vocabulary to vocabulary in terms of English or Spanish but body to body. We understand each other exactly. I felt that poem, and I marvel at it now because it’s doing a lot of the work that I talk about more intellectually now. I’ve come to understand it with extended perceptions and complexities. But when I wrote it I didn’t have any of that on my plate. The poem was what it was.
Q. How did the recovery of Spanish affect your poetry?
A. 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. My friends who only spoke English could only say one word for an object, which stayed one dimensional for them. There was no other way to see it. But if you knew that everything around you had at least two names, maybe three, suddenly the whole nature of perspective and the whole nature of understanding shifted.
Q. What do you see as the difference in world view between the two languages?
A. I think there are many differences. One is that in English there is a greater sense of the “I” perspective--”I did this . . . I did that.” It’s a rugged individualism, in which the world responds to you and you change the world until you’ve got it how you want it.
Q. Whereas in Spanish you don’t even need the pronoun; it is implied by the verb.
A. The pronoun is simply one part of the syntax. It is not the king of all things. The world view in Spanish is that you are part of the world, to which you accommodate yourself. Well, we’re drinking coffee here and I have a cup. In English if I dropped it I would say, “I dropped the cup.” I dropped the cup--taking personal responsibility and making clear what that action is. Spanish is more reflexive and respondent to the action: Se me cayó la taza. “The cup fell from me.” A very different approach to explaining that moment. There’s a Latin American and essentially a world notion of a life in things, of which we are one part. If “the cup fell from me,” we were both there. We both watched that happen; we were partners in the event. The cup was there too. Have some respect for that.
Q. In terms of the recent renaissance in Latino writing, what does the infusion of a Spanish, Latin American worldview bring to American literature? Coming after postmodernism, which emphasizes the “I” and the first person narrative, what effect is Latino writing having on the language?
A. Well, for one thing the “I” is an inheritance from a much more oral tradition, and the “I” is collective. Even when you say “I” it doesn’t mean one. It is a greater “I”--it is the whole town, it is the family, it is the culture.
Q. Something like what Whitman is doing in “Song of Myself.”
A. Yes, yes. Whitman is greatly revered in Latin America, and with great reason. He spoke to the collective “I.”
Q. Rubén Darío and José Martí and . . .
A. All of them. And Neruda, who saw the life in things, and Vallejo, and so on. If we’re going to pick on postmodernism, it was a left turn instead of right turn from Whitman, toward a perceived “I” that seemed infallible. There is a wonderful moment in a documentary by Robert Hughes called The Shock of the New, in which he talks about surrealism and postmodernism in relation to a centeredness on the “I.” His very biting line is “Yes, but is the ‘I’ ultimately interesting?” When I show that to my classes we talk about how it’s very interesting the first time someone tells you about a dream. Maybe it’s very interesting the first ten times. But finally there’s no collective sense in it. The persona is interesting to that person who is telling you their dream, but you have no interaction.
Q. Do you see Latino writing in the last twenty years bringing a sense of community lacking in mainstream American literature?
A. I think so. Community itself becomes kind of a character in much Latino writing; it has energy and is a player. There’s much more sense of “manners,” which I mean in the traditional way--that there are some rules for things--that comes to play in a lot of this writing. Also it’s characterized by an openness to the idea that we don’t have an answer or an explanation for all things. So there are ghosts, all kinds of escapades that a coldly scientific perspective would dismiss. But somebody who’s lived through it says, “But it did happen; it happened to us. We all went through it.”
Q. What inspires you to write in Spanish, or to include Spanish in English language poems?
A. When I come to that moment, I try to listen to how I am receiving the poem, to how the language is coming to me. I simply try to be honest with myself. I have to worry later about the reader. Part of it is that binocular perspective that I was talking about earlier. You sometimes need a different sound; sometimes a word needs to be said in its otherness.
Q. Can you give an example of that?
A. Oh, let’s see. Nani may be. When I said albóndigas, I could have said “meatballs.” But “meatballs” simply is not what I’m talking about. It’s that simple. Albóndigas are a very specific kind of food in a context that is personal to the interaction of the two characters in that poem. Meatballs is not the same. It may be accurate, but it’s not true.
Q. What is the power of poetry for you? What does it persuade you of?
A. Nothing more than whatever I felt in junior high, when I started writing in the backs of my notebooks. Going to the back of the notebook was like speaking Spanish. It was a dangerous place, because if the front was where you did what you were supposed to be doing, the back was where you weren’t supposed to be. What do you do when you want to make a spitwad, or if you’re going to write a note to someone? You go to the back of your notebook and pull out a piece of paper. And you get into all sorts of trouble.
Q. It’s analogous to descending into the unconscious mind.
A. Very much so. I knew I could do anything back there. But in the front of the notebook I did algebra, or geography. There were rules. In the back of my notebook there were none. I would hear things or think things that compelled me to write them down. They seemed keepable in the same way that you might find a nice rock or pine cone. Sometimes they were words or pairings of words, and as they became more complex, sentences and maybe poems. As I began to write these things it was clear that I couldn’t show them to anybody. I couldn’t show them to an English teacher because they didn’t look like any poetry we were reading in English class. I couldn’t show it to my parents because that’s the law of being a kid--you don’t show anything to your parents. And I couldn’t show it to my friends, because they wouldn’t understand. First of all, they wouldn’t understand writing something that wasn’t an assignment. They certainly wouldn’t have understood if it was poetry. This was the sixties in kind of a tough school. You’re writing poetry, you’re a guy . . . they would have a ready made vocabulary to heap on you. I didn’t need that. I couldn’t show it to anyone. It was simply and finally mine. I wasn’t writing for anybody, I wasn’t writing to get published, I wasn’t writing for money. I was just writing, because it mattered. If poems can do for me what they did then, that’s enough. It’s a hard place to come to. It was a pure space that I had for years.
Q. You try now to return to that feeling, to that open space that you had . . .
A. That was purely and simply mine. It was a territory. It was wild, like the West, where I lived. It was something visceral in me, something again of the body. It was my place. And that’s the best way I try to think of myself as a writer. Later on, that all changed, there’s no question. But for a while, it was personal. If I have to find a metaphoric touchstone for that I’ll tell you where I felt it. I was in Paris, and I saw the Eiffel Tower. I had seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower, but they never had the impact on me that seeing it had. Here was this incredible structure that was simply a homage to possibility. Not to function . . . it wasn’t a big light tower, or power plant, or office building. It was simply the viable nature of possibility. It was simply what could be done.
Q. Do you see poetry in that way?
A. Well, I see some part of it being laid on that foundation of possibility. When I sit down to write a poem, I don’t have any function for it in mind. It will find its own definition, its own function. If it works functionally in the world and if it does something that’s good. That’s a bonus, but I don’t think that’s the impetus. That’s not what starts it.
Q. What role does metaphor play in how you communicate? A lot of your poems have metaphors or similes that are not merely comparisons. You bring in a whole other narrative, in order to clarify the larger narrative that you’re relating.
A. It’s what I would call “situational physics,” or maybe “local science.” It allows me to demonstrate the truth of the moment, which I can’t demonstrate with the variables that the moment presents. If I go to metaphor, I can find a demonstration, a proof of the physics of the moment. Some people call it “magical realism” or “surrealism” but I don’t think it is any of those things. It’s something in the moment that is by itself science. Picasso said that a person who looks at a green parrot and does not also see the green salad that is there, diminishes the parrot. I take that as a working thesis for how I think and work. You’ve got to be able to see everything that’s there, not just the thing as it seems to present itself. My greatest joy as a writer is when I find the green salad in the parrot. That is to say, I’ve helped to show the ordinary in a new way. In my poem “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” I phrase it as “trying to find an edge in the middle,” where we don’t expect edge to be. How do we make the ordinary make us breathe fast, as it once did? My work at its best doesn’t find the things that take care of themselves, that are already loud, but finds the quiet thing, and gives it voice.
Q. In the poem “Taking Away the Name of a Nephew,” which is about the desaparecidos, the disappeared ones in Latin America, you consider “How many paper cuts might roughly equal / the breaking neck of a favorite nephew.”
A. We cannot gauge big numbers. We cannot gauge tremendous pain. But I know what a paper cut feels like. That is immediate. I don’t want to get one; I hate them; I know what it feels like. What is the equation here? How many of these equal death? And how many more equal torture and suffering? I can’t even live with one papercut. I’m trying to gauge the unimaginable, to use something I know to begin imagining something I don’t know, and don’t want to know.
Q. I’d like to know something about the genesis of a single poem, say from your book Five Indiscretions.
A. One of my favorite poems in that book is “On January 5, 1984, El Santo the Wrestler Died, Possibly.” In Latin America, and in Mexico in particular, wrestlers have a recognized presence in the greater community. Right now there is a fellow named Superbarrio, who appeared on television with Cuauhtémoc Cardenas in the last Mexican presidential election. Imagine this guy dressed up like a wrestler superhero walking with the possible future president of a country. It was a great moment, very Latin American. Superbarrio appeared a number of years ago when the police were evicting someone from a low income house. A crowd formed in the neighborhood, saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do this.” Suddenly, a costumed, masked wrestler appeared, jumping up onto the bed of a truck. “Stop!” he said. “I am here. Superbarrio!” He gave a speech: you can’t do this, and I stand for this and that. Sure enough, everybody rallied to the call, and kicked the police out of there. Superbarrio started showing up in different places. But he didn’t look the same in every photograph. It became apparent that different people were wearing the costume. This was brought to his attention. “Superbarrio,” he was asked, “how come you look different in each of your photographs?” And he gave one of the best retorts of all time: “It is because I am everybody.” What a great subversive notion, that the superhero is the people! It was a wonderful rallying point. And what other hope is there? Why not this?
There is power in that. The most famous example of a wrestler in this tradition was El Santo, who went on to be a movie star in his superhero outfit. It was rumored that he never took off his mask, even at night, even when he slept, so that nobody saw his face. Everybody knew his arch-enemy, El Demonio Azul, a name that sounded great when announced over a microphone in a large wrestling arena: El Demonio Azul! When El Santo died, all his wrestling compatriots, dressed in their full gear, were his pallbearers. Now, how do you reconcile this seemingly frivolous image with its actual meaning, which is tremendous? That’s what I try to do in the poem, which comes from the Latin American sensibility. You don’t articulate the connection, you live it. You are it. You are the connection.
Q. What do you think you’ve achieved technically since your first book?
A. I think I have a much better sense of metaphor, and of the line as an energetic contributor to a poem. I have a much more sustained sense of story, which is not to say that the poems tell a story, but that they don’t let go now, whereas years ago they might have exhausted themselves more quickly than they do now. I’m able to see better, and I think that’s a real leap. Stronger muscles in the writing process.
Q. Where do you go from here?
A. In a curious way I need now to find a way back to the intuitive wildness that came to me without plan, and not let my sense of what I know a line can do dictate what it should do. I need a sense of what athletes have, when they work so hard, and practice and practice, so they know that the move they need at any moment is in their muscles, and that they don’t have to think about it. When poems open up like that for me, that’s it. That’s something I haven’t always felt. Poems were once more of a wall for me; I could build it brick by brick, but I didn’t have the sense of opening up. I feel it now.
Q. When did you know that you were a poet? When did you decide that writing poetry was a great ambition?
A. I never made that decision. But I’ll tell you something that happened to me that I’ve come to see as a clarifying moment. It happened in second grade. I was a good student, and I did all my work. But I got into trouble because I got caught repeatedly committing that dastardly crime--daydreaming. When the teacher called my parents in she said “You’ve got to do something about this. He’s staring out the window, daydreaming.” They said, “Is he not doing his work?” And she said, “Well, no, he’s doing his work, but he’s daydreaming.” Afterward in the car we just laughed, and that was the end of it for my parents. I mean, what are you going to do? But it was of great concern to the teacher. In retrospect I’m so glad she did that, because I take it as a positive marker. I was learning what all second graders learn. You get all this wonderful information, like about explorers. I went to Coronado Elementary School, named after the explorer. We don’t hold explorers up so readily as heroes anymore but back in the fifties you did. It was absolute--these were wonderful people, heroes. As a second grader, what do you want to do? You want to go out and discover something! Yet you can’t even cross the street without somebody’s permission. So you are in this incredible confused state; you’re given all this information and at the same time you’re told, “Yes, but don’t use it. We don’t actually want to do anything with it. Wait twenty years.” Now, as a second grader, you don’t know how to wait. It’s not part of what you can do; you’re not able. So, what do you do with all that information? The only recourse I had, and what a lot of kids have, is the imagination. I could discover things there. I could go there. I could use what I knew and build these worlds. In many respects that’s very sad, but it was also joyous. The imagination became a huge place for me, without limits, where I could cross the street without permission. That was the beginning of my writing. Not just doing homework, not just learning, but the next step--doing something with what I had learned. That’s often forgotten in education. We always talk about learning. We talk little about doing something with it.
Q. You have a son in elementary school now. Is he experiencing the same things, or has Arizona public education come along enough that he’s not punished for speaking Spanish or for daydreaming?
A. He’s not punished in the same way I was. But I think in more sinister ways those dangers are out there for them and he recognizes them. There are things like the English-only mess that is national and certainly has hit Arizona. That’s not getting swatted for speaking Spanish, but it may as well be. Psychically it’s that same belt. If your language is presented on the news as something suspect or even debatable, immediately you stumble. If how you speak is being brought into question, well, then you are being brought into question.
Q. What do you see as the motivation behind the English-only movement and the desire to stop bilingual education?
A. Oh, fear. Fear of moving forward, fear of things we’ve always been afraid of. I’m not surprised by it. It’s a very old reaction to say “Let’s not do something” as opposed to “Here’s something we can do; let’s see what we can do with it.” Moving forward we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Where is this multiculturalism going to lead, this polyglot culture, all these words, all these languages. What a problem! What a problem!
Q. People making comparison to Babel, and the balkanization of America.
A. That’s right. Without listening to the positives. All of that can be characterized just as persuasively as an absolute positive. As I said earlier, that notion of finding perspective by looking at a thing all the ways it can be seen--that’s science! That’s progress, that’s everything that in other guises we would want! But not, for lots of reasons, in this social context. We can legislate all we want but the reality is going to be different. And all that energy will be a sad waste. Language is always changing, times are always changing, and that they are getting richer is simply a good thing.