Special to the Crier
In August of 2013, Arizona became the 46th state in the union to appoint a poet laureate when Governor Jan Brewer selected Alberto Rios to be the state’s inaugural poet laureate. On Oct. 10 of that year, I had the honor to host Mr. Rios for his first public reading as Poet Laureate of the great state of Arizona. The reading was held at the Sedona Public Library and Sedona is a poetry kind of town. The night of the reading as the crowd arrived early, (crowds in Slo-dona never arrive early) it was obvious there was a buzz in the air. The library was forced to put out more and more chairs in the big auditorium as people kept arriving. The local newspaper sent a photographer and newspaper reporter to cover the event. I stood at the podium and addressed the crowd.
“Hola, Beinvenidos amigas y amigos.”
I addressed the crowd in Spanish to begin the show because Alberto Rios is a native of Nogales, a town which is split by the international border. His poetry has earned national acclaim and frequently deals with themes of being both Mexican and American. Much of his poetry uses both languages. Rios says that he is often asked which language he spoke first English or Spanish. He laughs and says that as a child, distinctions such as language are adult terms. A child says the word which gets them the cookie. They do not worry about whether that word is galeta or cookie, Spanish or English, they only worry about speaking the word that will get them the cookie. Maybe as the child grows older, and more sophisticated they begin to learn which words will work on which people. He remembered being a child in elementary school and having a teacher address him and his friends. The teacher told them, “You boys Spanish has a lot of Yaqui words mixed in.” Again, Rios points out, as children they were not concerned about the label of the language they were speaking – they were merely trying to communicate. Rios ponders for a moment, and then states. As infants we learn to speak by hearing others form words and ideas – so I suppose my first language was listening.
Rios holds up a piece of melted metal and tells a story about a fire in the Nogales train depot. This chunk of slag was once a boxcar which was melted in the fire, he remembered being young and being transfixed by the roaring fire, so hot it even had the ability to melt metal.
Rios addresses the audience in a soft, gentle voice that is strong and confident at the same time. He speaks at a slow and mellow pace, gesturing with his hands, his stories often building to a hilarious conclusion which leaves the entire audience laughing. He paces as he walks, speaking about why he does not write more about border “issues” such as smuggling, crime and drugs. Rios states plainly that there is no need for him to write about such things, that many people are already speaking about them. He prefers to write poetry about the places where no one is looking. If the border region is so terrible, afflicted with all these issues and problems, then why do so many people choose to live there – both sides of the border are crowded places. This is what he likes his poetry to address, the struggle to live ordinary lives of purpose and noble meaning.
Rios tells another story to illustrate his point. A few years ago he was commissioned by Governor Brewer to dedicate a new border crossing in Rios’ hometown of Nogales. Rios read his poem at a formal opening in front of a large audience which included Governor Brewer as well as then President of Mexico Vincente Fox. One by one the dignitaries were introduced and stepped up to the podium. Finally President Fox was introduced and people turned their heads from side to side, expecting him to appear from either the right or the left of the stage. Vincente Fox chose to enter from the rear of the auditorium. He strolled through the crowd, a large man who appeared bigger atop the heels of his cowboy boots and big cowboy hat atop his head. As he walked towards the stage, Fox stopped to shake hands and greet people. President Vincente Fox walked with all the charisma of a rock star.
Then Rios read his poem, describing the shared landscape, the swirling together of cultures, and concluded his poem with the words “it is not the border which divides us – it is the border which unites us.”