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Friday, March 4, 2011

Number 86: Alberto Rios "Refugio's Hair"

Refugio's Hair

In the old days of our family,
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera--The Land of the Lime--
And her days were happy.
But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bareback, and sit there
As he held its long face in his arms.
And then he did the unspeakable deed
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse's rear leg.
The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.
When they reached the trees and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.
The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.
But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother
Wore her hair short like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.

-- Alberto Rios

Hap Notes: Alberto Rios (born 1952) was born on the border town of Nogales, Arizona. He grew up in a family of mixed cultures, his father was born in Mexico and his mother was born in England. Stories of his youth are filled with the sadness of teachers forbidding him to speak Spanish in the class room and the culture doing its best to wipe the rich (I may say, richer, here) language of his father. When I say "forbidding," by the way, I don't mean they just told him not to do it- they punished him (and other classmates- he says they "swatted" him. Something that is now, I believe, illegal) and shamed them. Welcome to the land of "the free" Alberto, eh? This has been pretty common practice in America and I find it revolting, particularly in town that borders Mexico. These kids are American citizens, not foreign nationals.

Not all of Rios' teachers were state-education-law following drones. He had a teacher in high school who saw his writing (he'd been writing things in secret for years) and encouraged him, opened him up to new poets, gave him a bit of hope. He eventually attended the University of Arizona where he received a degree in English and Psychology. He has been teaching Creative Writing at Arizona State since 1981. He is the author of nine books of poetry. He has also written short stories and a memoir.

The poem is riveting isn't it? His uncle whose soul had the "edge of a knife." What a strange and sadistic trick to play, eh? And doesn't it contrast interestingly with the biblical story of King David's recalcitrant son Absalom whose hair caught in a tree and hung him? Refugio is the name of his Grandmother but, from the spattering of Spanish I know, it is the (male) word for refuge or shelter. Which she certainly was. Oh, an Alamo tree is the Spanish word for Cottonwood tree. Wearing "her hair short like a scream" is so well put- the knife's edge cuts her hair but no one can touch her hair in her dreams. In fact, no one could touch Alberto in his head either as he grew up in a school system that invalidated his rich heritage while he wrote secretly in the back of his notebooks. His books and poems are often full of magic.

This poem of memory, brings up some memories for me, as I think on the young Alberto's plight in school.

When I lived in California, I worked, when I was a retail manager, with a young man whose parents had immigrated from Chile almost fifteen years prior to my meeting him. He was a tough kid, belligerent and hostile and all of seventeen years old. I like belligerent hostile kids, there's some life in 'em. So I took his abusive curt answers to my questions with relative cheerfulness. One day (he was going to walk home late at night by himself after work which I forbid all kids to do- I drove a lot of those kids home each night) I was driving him home and he told me that he could speak very little English and that's why he was often mad and frustrated. I was stunned to find out that he had been passed from class to class (he was a junior in high school) without learning how to write or read well enough to feel comfortable since he'd been in school in America all of his life. He shrugged and said "The teachers don't like us (Spanish speaking kids). They just ignored us." I'd love to tell you that I tutored him and everything worked out fine but while I offered, he was too proud and angry to accept.

One more personal memory: When I lived in Atlanta I worked with some people from Castro's "Mariel Boatlift" do you remember this? People were allowed to leave Cuba in boats and it was alleged that Castro emptied his prisons and let the "undesirables" leave. First off, you could go to prison in Cuba for many different reasons, not just because you were a felon and secondly, it was found later than less than a quarter of the emigres were "undesirables." The people I knew were high school teachers- one taught physics, one taught literature. They had been in America a couple of years when I met them. We had an evening where we traded "traditional" dinner evenings. I made Yankee pot roast with carrots and potatoes with apple pie for dessert. They made Pollo y arros- Chicken with rice (which I have never tasted better or been able to equal.) They served delicious coffee- Cafe' Bustelo with sweetened condensed milk. I'd never tasted any coffee so good (it was 30 some odd years ago- and I had no experience with Hispanic culture at the time- strange place to get it, Atlanta.)

Well, they showed me the coffee can and I started reading the Spanish aloud, trying to discern what the words were. I looked up and there were tears streaming down their faces. Their uncle was there and a brother who had also come from Cuba. They were all weeping. I was startled and stopped. The uncle said, "This is the first time we have heard someone else speak Spanish to us in two years." The side of a coffee can read by a small town midwestern girl who knew no Spanish at the time; even this moved them.

I suppose I should mention that, at the time, these people who could have done such good for Spanish speaking students as teachers, were working maintenance at an apartment complex (as I was) and that's how I met them.

The stories of Rios' school days brought back these memories to me. They needed to be set down just as his grandmother's story needed to be told. Rios has won tons of awards and his books are full of the "magical realism" that he teaches at Arizona State.

Here's a wonderful Rios quote from a Bloomsbury interview:" I want my poems and stories to serve the community in the same manner the baker’s bread does. People eat bakery bread for taste as well as nourishment, and my writing should provide a similar kind of sustenance. The baker’s main ingredient is flour, mine is words, yet both our products are created in large measure to serve others. The ultimate test for me is to offer a poem or story at the metaphoric kitchen table, and have people respond as if I’ve passed them a slice of delicious buttered bread. In that sense, I never think of myself as reading these poems from a lectern, or of teaching them to a captive audience of students. My poems must take care of themselves, and make their own way. I just wish they’d write home more."

You can find more Rios here:

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