Friday, December 6, 2013

Escape to Paradise

View of Caribbean from the 8th Floor of our Hotel
The Wife Warily Feeding the Fish

Ah, Pura Vida

In late October of this year my wife and I decided on taking a two week vacation to Cozumel, Mexico. We had been here before on a couple of occasions and quickly fell in love with the place. It is a small island of the southern tip of Yucatan in the heart of the Caribbean, or Paradise. Luckily, it was off-season and the hotel half-empty of tourists, at least for the first week.

I purchased the trip, all-inclusive, online and it included the round-trip flight, two weeks at the hotel, all meals and drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). The hotel staff and waiters were warm and friendly and ready to spoil its visitors. Somehow, cheapskate that I am, I never minded tipping them. They brought us drinks and snacks, right out to the beach, even to the water if you happened to be in the ocean!

It was good to be in Mexico again and be in the company of Mexicanos, who continually seemed amazed that I, being American could speak Spanish so well. The hotel had two restaurants, a buffet open all day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a formal restaurant offering menu items, but one you had to make reservations for, and wear formal clothes to. The food was not what we expected, but you could eat all you wanted.

At our age, we wanted a vacation where we could sit at the beach, kick back, drink and eat and that's what we got! We were not in to the numerous excursions available (expensive too), diving, para sailing etc. or the tours to the mainland to Tulum, Chichen-Itza or Xel Ha, though we did book one to Xcaret, a jungle theme park for an entire day. But just snorkeling in the ocean in front of the hotel was enough for us. Dozens of fish surrounded us. Curious fellows who were used to being fed bread crumbs by the guests. The waiters, if asked would give us zip-lock bags filled with stale bread and once you began to feed them the word was out, and dozens came in from the deeper water and the frenzy was on! On occasion you would get a nibble on you back or leg even!

The water is crystal clear, and Luke-warm, a special treat. The beach had a gentle slope and soft waves that allowed non-swimmers like my wife to walk out 50-75 feet and still be only chest deep in water. The island is developed only on one side, the north-facing side with its only town, San Miguel, and dozens of hotels stretching for miles. The harbor hosts a half-dozen cruise ships daily that spend the day in San Miguel. The southern side of the island, the windward side is scantily developed with mostly restaurants here and there. The temperature was in the mid to low 80s but still quite balmy, especially after the rains; it's their rainy season. During the second week, the water muddied a little from the rain's runoffs.

In all, it was another memorable trip to Paradise, one that I especially wanted for my wife who has undergone so much pain and hardships with her ailing back. And she loved it. For parts of the days, she was pain-free or on a pain scale of 1-10, a 3 for several days! Normally she scores herself on the scale at home 7 or above.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Farewell to Don Jose Montoya: Artist, Poet, Teacher, Musician

The Chicano community has lost one of its icons, a pioneer who forged the way for new generations of artists, teachers, writers and students. He died quietly, at 81, in his Sacramento home on Wednesday, September 25, after a long illness. The last few times I saw Jose, he had grown “drawn and thin”, perhaps like Louie, the character in his infamous poem “El Louie.” Jose was a humble and amiable man with a quick wit (always stroking his goatee), and a way with words that put everyone at ease,  a seasoned “veterano” from the barrio, un “vato de atolle”, a first-class dude.

I met Jose back in the late 50’s when we were students at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland. We were among a handful of Chicanos, five or six of us, including Esteban Villa, his compadre, in a population of 600 plus. It was natural that we gravitated to one another.. He was always astonished at my artistic ability but Jose had talents of his own, ones yet to be born. We ran together on campus, drinking coffee in the snack bar, and cheap wine at a bevy of bohemian parties, and played our guitars, he, his compadre and I, singing old Mexican corridos and rancheras late into the nights. We were from the barrio, the real stuff, a big hit with many of our white, middle-classed, peers.

I remember the day he pulled out a stacl of his poems and read some to me; I was impressed, even shocked. Was it OK to write about the barrio, Mexicans? About Vatos? Pachucos (Zoot-Suiters)? Farmworkers? Was it acceptable to mix Spanish and English together – what he devilishly termed Pochismo (Pocho was a disparaging term used by Mexicans to mock their counterparts in the US who had forgotten their language and culture) - in the same sentence?  Was it right to use slang and Caló – the idioms used by the Pachucos in the 1940s? But this would be the hallmark of his writing, despite the criticism he received, especially from his own people that his bastardized Spanish was shameful, that he should make up his mind to either write in Spanish or English, period! Jose just laughed it off. Instead, he forced us to accept the world of “los de abajo” – the lowly from the barrios, the “jodidos”, the“arrastrados” , those dragged along by poverty and lack of education. He forced us to look, to see this, with the language of the barrio, even to see the poetry in it.

In the 60s and 70s, Jose would go on to become a highly respected high school teacher, then professor or art and ethnic studies and CSUS, Sacramento for 27 years. He would become a noted poet laureate, painter, muralist, musician, and co-founder, along with his compadre, Esteban Villa, of the RCAF (Rebel Chicano Artists Front), later donned the Royal Chicano Air Force, a coalition of Chicano artists from the Sacramento region, inspiring a new generation of artists, many of who made names for themselves, taking into the barrio to teach chavalitos (children) and their jefitos (parents). Their vivid murals still grace the streets Sacramento, trumpeting images familiar to La Raza, pyramids, eagles, farmworkers, Aztec warriors. With the Farmworker movement, Jose, Esteban and others put their silk-screen talents to work, printing and designing posters in support of Cesar Chavez, farmworkers and other social issues.

But to me, Jose was foremost Montoya, the poet.  Who can forget his classic poems, “El Louie”, an homage to Louie Rodriguez, a barrio warrior who has it all: looks, courage, talent, but who like too many of today’s barrio youth, loses it all, dying “alone in a Rented room,” a victim to “booze y la vida dura” (a hard life), and “La Jefita”, a tender poem to his “little mother”, who is the first one up in the tent they lived in, “slapping tortillas” before sunrise … y todavia la Pinche noche oscura,”, barking out orders for the young ones, and making the lonches for the family before a grueling day of picking cotton, where she would join the men in the field “pulling her cien libras de algoda” – 100 lb. sack. She was the last one to bed ironing clothes, and cooking the frijoles del oya, for another day of toil.

Farewell, amigo, colega, maestro…. for you ran the good race. 

(Photo taken by Rudy Cuellar, of Montoya reading my book)

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Magic of the Written Word

It's close to a year now since I've written and published my book "Songs From the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, Ca." and it's been a blast getting out to share it with all kinds of audiences, children, young people and adults, old-timers like myself.

The Literary Experience, whether reading to oneself, or hearing someone read a story or a poem is absolutely magnetic, a captivating journey of the mind and the imagination. I love to sneak peaks at the audience when I read and the expressions on their faces tell it all: bored, curious, doubtful, skeptical, entranced, or tickled. The nods of heads, the raised eyebrows, smiles and outright guffaws are catalysts which make me read with even more intensity.

While the writing, editing and publishing of my book was a wonderfully creative venture, the marketing and sharing of my book has been equally fulfilling. I love to hear people's comments on my book, on individual stories which moved or touched them; and everyone is different. There are, of course, stories which connect universally with readers, but others seem to connect specifically, like a young woman who told me she found my story "The Three-Legged Cat", hilarious, and another the story "The Red Dog." Most comments so far concern how much the stories in my book connect to their own families, their own experiences growing up as a Mexican, or Chicano in the U.S. It is amazing to me how similar our experiences have been. But now and then I hear from people who are not Chicano or Mexican who find similarities to their own experience, as in this review on Amazon from one reader:

"My entire family is reading "Songs From the Barrio", and we're enjoying the memories of life in Modesto in the 1950's. Richard Rios has captured the time and place splendidly. As a self-proclaimed West Modesto Okie, I found that Rios' memories of his childhood in a poor Mexican family in a Mexican barrio very much mirrored life in a poor Okie family in a poor neighborhood, and, perhaps, many lives in similarly situated poor, often directionless families. While the stories in this fine book touched my siblings and me because of the memories of Modesto fifty to sixty years ago, it will also touch those who wish to understand the culture and challenges of that time. Oh, and I think everyone will find Rios' book to be a fun, sad, informative, and entertaining read."
(The Huey Family, Modesto, California) 

And another who writes "This work is an incredible collection of short stories and poems which gives the reader a unique insight into what it was like to grow up in California in a world in which one was neither Mexican nor American. With humor, love, and personal insights, Rios takes the reader into the home he grew up in: a one bedroom shack near the Tuolumne River in Modesto, where he lived with a family of 6. The author paints a uniqu picture of California in the 40's and 50's, as he grew up and assimilated. The dialogue in Spanish is all either translated or footnoted so that everyone can read it. Riveting! I could not put it down. Fun! I'm reading it for the second time in a week. Heartfelt! It will make you laugh and cry with tears of joy as you gain a new perspective on what it is to be American!

In a way, I view my book as a historical document, as a memoir tends to be. Any analysis of American life in the 40s, 50s and 60s is a telling view into an incredible time in our country. Things were different in a world without electronics, the internet. "Reading Richard Rios' book was like listening to a character out of a Steinbeck novel, tell his OWN story. Rios' brilliant use of colloquial "Chicano" Spanish was important in truly capturing the lives of Chicanos in California's valley. This book should become essential reading for those in search of a historical, social glimpse into the Chicano culture."

In case, you haven't read my book you can purchase a copy at, or get a Kindle edition. Moreso, I would love to hear from you after you read it by posting comments here on my Blog or by posting them on Amazon. If you contact me, I can mail you a signed copy ($10. plus envelope and shipping - usually and extra $3.50). I also have a companion CD with selected reading from the book that sells for $5.00).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Let Me Get This Straight: You Wanna Build a Wall From Texas to California?

The Great Wall of China, which is 5,500 miles long, 25 feet high, 12-30 feet wide at the base and 9-12 wide at the top, was built by the first Emperor of China between 220 to 206 BC, as a means of “border control” designed to keep out hordes of nomadic invaders from Mongolia to the north at an enormous cost. It was paid for by “heavy taxation” - and the deaths of over a million workers.  But you know what? It didn’t work! The wall only served to slow down the invaders as they simply went over and around it. Sound familiar?

The border between Mexico and the US is a rather recent thing. Before 1846, there was no line in the dirt between the two countries. The line was a product of the Mexican-American war in in 1846-1848, when as a result of Mexico’s defeat, it was forced by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to cede to the US Mexican held territories in New Mexico, Arizona, and of course, California. Before this, native peoples traveled and traded freely between what we now call North, Middle, Central and South America. It is Therefore, it is not uncommon today for people of these places to refer to themselves as “Americanos” or “Americans.”

In my tiny barrio in South Modesto during the 1940s, we grew up surrounded by "Mojados", or what we commonly called, "Wetbacks", a reference to how they crossed the border by swimming the Rio Grande.  They seemed normal enough to me: families, young kids, old men whose only dream was to work the summer seasons in the fields or the canneries, send money to their families in Mexico, and return home for the winter – until next year. Most had absolutely no intention of staying in the US.

As a kid, I even worked alongside them in the fields, picking apricots, peaches and grapes. I remember the dreaded cry echoing through the trees: "Ahi, viene La Migra!!" – “Here comes the immigration!!” And them scattering across rows of fruit trees, over fences, and into irrigation ditches. Those caught were deported, and most, in a matter of days or weeks, simply waded back across the Rio Grande, at great personal sacrifice, to pick again until the next time.

In the Woody Guthrie song “The Deportees”, he sings of a tragic plane crash in “Los Gatos Canyon” on January 28, 1948, in Fresno County near Coalinga, California, that resulted in the deaths of 28 migrant farmworkers who were being deported from California to Mexico. Guthrie begins his ballad by denouncing the inane practice of deporting illegals during harvest time: “Oh the crops are all in and the peaches are rotting; the oranges are packed in the creosote dump. They’re flying em’ back to the Mexican border, to spend all their money to wade back again.” Creosote, a coal tar mix, rendered the fruit inedible and some believe, was used to drive up prices. Of course, as Cesar Chavez uncovered, these kinds of practices were sometimes done by some unscrupulous ranchers to avoid paying workers: simply call the immigration department just before payday.

More importantly, Woody’s song sought to humanize the plight of illegal aliens in the US by noting of the plane tragedy that the 'radio said they were just ‘deportees'”.  But he has real names for them as he says his farewells: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria, you won’t have a name when you ride that big airplane; all they will call you will be ‘deportees.’”

Today’s immigration debate is highly complex, divisive and contentious and it appears to have no one solution that makes everybody happy.  President Obama’s policy of mass deportation has split families in two. Children of illegal immigrants, born here, US citizens by law, are left behind, though some Americans would like to change the constitution to deny them this right to citizenship.  American employers, addicted to cheap labor continue to knowingly hire undocumented workers. Americans insatiably addicted to drugs, help fuel Mexican drug trafficking. Children of illegal immigrants have lived here all their lives, graduated from our high schools and universities, speak flawless English, are fully Americanized - who know no other country - are being denied citizenship and jobs.
Yet, the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today are embedded into our way of life, and to remove them is like cutting off an arm or a leg to save oneself.  Every Hispanic knows someone who is here illegally, an uncle, a brother, a neighbor. Some of them have lived here illegally for generations, undetected, having raised their grandkids among us. They are our brothers, fathers, wives, sisters and neighbors. We go to school with them. We work with them. We break bread with them.  They pick our fruits, our vegetables, cook and serve our food in restaurants. They pay taxes too. Each time they buy food and clothing, or purchase a car, and depending on which study you rely on, either cost US tax payers in social services or wind up paying their way or even helping to build our economy. If they are illegals or criminals who have broken the law, shouldn’t it be “illegal” too for us to collect taxes from them? “Notice: Illegal Aliens do not have to pay sales taxes on any items purchased in this establishment. Thank you. The Management.”

In the popular imagination, Americans today picture hordes of Mexicans, poised at the borders ready to rush into U.S. to get a “free ride”, and take away people's jobs (most which Americans would never condescend to do anyway.) Ironically, many of our own Hispanic Gente also embrace the myth. The truth is that most Mexicans are perfectly happy in Mexico and never even think about emigrating to the US. They go about their daily lives, working, toiling, and surviving with no intention of ever leaving their country, and yes, occasionally fantasizing about visiting Disneylandia or Las Vegas sometime. After all, the U.S. comes to them: Walmart, Costco, Burger King, MacDonald’s.
Sadly, the Nativist chants: “round em’ all up and ship em’ back where they came from”, “increased security of our border”, and “build more fences”, abound. 

In a recent Letter to the Editor of our local paper, an outraged writer says “We simply need to build a wall along the Mexican border from California to Texas that is impenetrable.” What appears impenetrable is this guy’s warped mind! Does he know what that would cost? Has he ever seen the impenetrable terrain that the 1500 miles of rugged mountains and desert between the two country’s poses? “It would not be difficult to do”, he continues. “And [it] would cost less than what American taxpayers spend on the ‘finger in the dike’ system we have now.”

I would suggest this guy go on Wikipedia and read up on the Great Wall of China. Look on the bright side: If we build our wall and it fails to stop illegal immigration, as it probably will,  we can always use it as a tourist attraction like the Chinese do?  “Get your Tacos. Hamburgers. Popcorn here! Barato!!”

Friday, March 1, 2013

It's a Take: Life in the Studio

I'm no stranger to the recording studio. During the 1980's, my friend Richard Zapata and I, recorded numerous episodes of "Cho & Lo", at the University of the Pacific's KUOP-FM, an NPR affiliate, a street-savvy duo from the barrios who through satire and humor addressed issues of culture, language, education, and gangs. (A CD of actual recordings from this period is in the works).

So the recent production of a companion CD of selections from my newly-published book, "Songs From the Barrio" was certainly familiar with the exception that the recording industry has come a long way since the 1980s: completely digital. I clearly recall the "dubbing" process during the production of each "Cho & Lo" episode, the ability to record new "takes" each time we made an error, and the reel-to-reel squeals of the fast-forwards or rewinds, and the actual cutting and splicing of the tape! At first, we did the episodes "live" over the air which was plain riveting, complete with errors for all to hear!

Working with Mike Torres, Jr. in his recording studio in Stockton was a bit different. Familiar was the masses of wires leading to and from computer monitors and the stacks of  machines, but the process was completely new for me. Mike made certain to include me in every decision as to the quality of the recording, intonation and pace of each story or poem I read. 

New takes were easy: stop/pause/and re-read and re-record the entire story, or just a single line or passage . No more reel-to-reel machines; all was plainly visible on the computer monitor and fast-forwarding or rewinding was done at the click of a mouse. His enthusiasm for the project was simply infectious.

Once the tracks were laid down we discussed adding sound effects to certain parts of the pieces and again, all it took was to go to YouTube, type in the kind of sound desired, a passing train, water pouring into a glass, a flushing toilet, a woman screaming and scroll through the links to find the one which would work. 

Mike then downloaded the sound and dubbed it in at just the right place! We could manipulate exactly where to place it - before, just after or during a certain word or passage, then its volume could be adjusted, louder, fainter. We could also add echo or reverb to the sound!

As with the designing of the front and back cover of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire creative process, aside from the writing and the self-publishing experience on my PC. Working with my friends, graphic designer, Roberto Radrigan, photographer, Arturo Vera and of course, Mike Torres, Jr. was special. It felt like "familia."

As I have learned from years of teaching Literature, the Literary Experience, that of reading a story or poem is a silent and private journey into the imagination which readers cherish, but the "listening" to of a poem or "story" read aloud by an animated reader, is another, completely different one. Notice how children love for adults to "read to them." No matter how noisy or boisterous they might be, once the reading begins: silence. Adult audiences are the same. They have just forgotten how to use their imaginations until someone, a poet or an author, re-awakens it in them.

As you might suspect by now, I am making a "pitch" for my new CD! It is not available on any sites, so If you would like to purchase one contact me personally and I can make arrangements to mail one to you. The cost of the CD is $6.50 + shipping and handling.
You can also contact me on Facebook by visiting my page "Songs From the Barrio."

Give it a "listen" and become a child, again. 


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Raving Review

 Please take a moment of your precious time to read this generous review of my book"Songs From the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, Ca." written by author Rosa Martha Villarreal. Makes a man, well... feel good.

Poem "Para Los Tres Grandes" (For the Three Great Ones)

When I was in high school, I wrote my first term paper in a Junior Composition Class on three of Mexico's greatest artists, muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. To that point I had no idea that Mexico had artists, let alone great ones.

I wrote this poem, wrote and rewrote it over the years, refining it, and finally decided to include it in my book. It is an homage to these three great ones who tell of Mexico's tumultuous history in graphic images, fixing them on enormous walls and ceilings throughout Mexico... for all to see.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Yo Soy Latino Poem From My Book "Songs From The Barrio"

This is a poem I wrote several years ago and it departs a little from the kind of poems I normally write, which are free verse with little or no rhyme. I always enjoy the "sound" of words, word-play and I try to capture some of this when I read.

I love to incorporate Spanish words and phrases into my work because the Spanish language has its own intrinsic beauty in the vowels, and multi-syllabled words. The poem sets out to define what a Latino is, to destroy myths and stereotypes. It is one of the poems sprinkled between the stories which make up my book.

Monday, January 21, 2013

La Bloga: Barrio Songs: An Interview with Richard Ríos

La Bloga: Barrio Songs: An Interview with Richard Ríos

The following interview was conducted by my friend, Nancy Aide Gonzalez on the writing of my book, "SongsFrom the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, Ca."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On The Peddling of a Book

The other day, my neighbor, a humble, weathered man, uneducated, but street-smart, with all the scars to prove it asked "What you been up to, Richard?" "Not, much. I just published a book." With a look of astonishment he shook his saying "I never knew anyone who wrote a book." "Yeah, now I have to go out a peddle it", I continued. He was amused by the word "peddle" and laughed out loud. A couple of days later, he commented "You been busy peddling you book? Who buys books anyway?" he asked incredulously. "Anybody I can trick into it", I said. He laughed out loud again.

And there you have it. Now that my book is published I have been busy "marketing" it. Actually, this is the best part of the whole thing. Writing, especially the editing was an exhausting and tedious process. But the peddling has been fun.

In a college I had an English professor, Mr. Noyes, an ivy-league clad, bespeckled man who taught us the love of Literature by reading to us. I loved kicking back, not having to take notes and just "listen" to the poems and stories come to life as he passionately read them to us! In a way, I felt as we were being cheated out of something since I had grown up listening to lectures all my life.

I love reading to people. Poems, stories mine or those by other writers. I love the audience response, the frowns, the smiles, the laughter, the tears which in turn make me read with more passion. The kids along with the old-timers listen with earnest intent as I take them on a literary journey into the mind, the imagination. I read for a 7th grade class the other day and they loved the stories and even rushed me at the end of the session for my autograph on little slips of paper they had torn from their binders. A couple of weeks later, four of them gave their teacher some money to purchase a book for them. I was honored.

So I am busy doing local readings and book signings and tricking people into buying my book. On Facebook I have gotten dozens of "Likes" from my "Friends", but few have actually purchased a book. Who needs "likes" or "friends" like this? But hey, I'm not into it for the money, mind you; but damn it, I had to pay a small bundle to publish it, and I also have to pay for each copy I sell. Have pity on me. Some people actually expect me to give them a copy for free! And I have handed out several freebies, too, asking them to help me spread the word on my book if they "liked" it. But for the ones who do buy a book, and actually read it, I must confess I am dying to know if they "liked" it, and in that department, so far, things are going well with many positive comments.

I called the principal from my old high school the other day, Modesto High School, which I graduated from in 1957, to tell him about my book, offering to do a presentation for the school or English classes (free), and finally got a response from an English teacher who scheduled me to do presentations for five sections of her Senior English classes! I will tell those students that I once sat in the very seats they are sitting in, walked the very hallways they walk, went to the same Friday night "Panther's" games just like they do, but that I began running with the wrong crowd until two of my art teachers discovered me, and put me on the path to a college education, a degree, a teaching career, becoming an artist, and now and author, and I will read them stories from my book, one titled "Los Tres Grandes", about how I discovered I could write after a Junior Composition assignment for a term paper, led me research the life and art of three of Mexico's greatest muralists, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco, and got an "A" on it and the teacher read it to the class.

More readings and booksignings are on the way and I am looking forward to each one, especially one I will be doing as guest author for National Poetry Month in April, at the college where I taught for 33 years. A homecoming, of sorts. And I will continue to peddle my book.

In fact, while I am on it, would you like to buy a book?