Real life on the border
There is a tragedy of people who have never known life on the border. Some even may think there is an actual line in the landscape – just like every map shows us. But walk the thin landscape between Mexico and the U.S. and you’ll find nothing of the sort. Cultures blend in this elusively bisected countryside.
In Alberto Alvaro Rios’ Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir, the border is more than that. It is “places between places,” an experience and not a geopolitical treatise.
“Border Latinos don’t live the border as an intellectualized idea. Instead, it is part of their daily lives. The border is in view; its sounds are in the air. Its scents create lunch. It is a life lived, not a life studied. In this sense as well, proximity creates detail, not generalities. Everything is complicated by details, and so they scare us. But when details are part of your understanding of something, of anything, then you approach the situation as a human being,” Rios explains.
Rios’ own childhood was no simple equation, either. His work is often noted for blending the two cultures and languages that helped form his thoughts – in a border town, with an English mother and a father from Chiapas, Mexico. This bilingual household may have even helped Rios find new ways to see the complex world in which he lived.
“The great gift of language is that it names things, and in this way helps us to remember and understand the world by allowing us to carry it around with us, to examine it outside of the moment and in retrospect. The great gift of multiple languages is that they help us to see that there is always more than one way to look at something, more than one way to understand. When everything, every object and every action, has more than one word to describe it, this lends perspective and dimensionality to the world … summing up a thing in only one way is incomplete at very least.”
A scene from Capirotada sums up a lesson in definitions, and so much more, via the innocent troop of boys discovering “Heaven.”
We were still walking, but we stopped right there, because on the other side of this hill we found Heaven.
We looked at it. It was just what we thought it would be. Perfect. Heaven was green, like nothing else in Arizona. And this was Heaven, not a cemetery which was the only other green place like this, because we had seen cemeteries and they had gravestones and statues that this didn’t. This place was perfect, with trees – so many trees – and birds like we had never seen before, not so many in one place. …
We got down there, we kept laughing, and we kept hitting each other. We unpacked our stuff, then started acting “rich” because we didn’t know what else to do. We knew all about how to do that, like blowing on our nails, then rubbing them on our chests for the shine. Putting our hands on pretend vests. Surveying our very green domain.
We finally got down to business, making our sandwiches, opening our Cokes, getting out the rest of the stuff, the salt and pepper shakers. We had pretty much brought everything. I found this particular hole in the grass and I put my Coke right into it, a Perfect fit, and I called it my “Coke-holder.”
I got down next to it on my back, because everyone knows that rich people eat lying down, and I got my sandwich in one hand and put my other arm around the Coke in its hole. When I wanted a drink, I lifted my neck a little, put out my lips like I was kissing really big, and tipped my Coke a little with the crook of my elbow so that it went mostly right into my mouth. Ah. …
We ate fast, even though we tried to be slow. Sergio started washing his plates when he was done, and I was being rich with my Coke, and this day in summer was right – was a light breeze and a green hum.
Suddenly, two men came from around a corner of trees and out of the tallest grass we had ever seen. They had bags on their backs, leather bags, not like mailmen’s bags but longer, and full of tools.
We didn’t know what golf clubs were, but I learned later. The two men yelled at us. Most pointedly, one wanted me to take my Coke out of my Coke-holder so he could sink his golf ball into it.
As they waved and waved and yelled at us, something got taken away from us that moment. Heaven. We grew up a little bit, almost in a lurch, and couldn’t go backward. We learned, which should be a good thing, but sometimes it’s a little uneven. No one had ever told us about golf. They had told us about heaven. But we had to give it away, and got golf in exchange.
Passage reprinted with permission from University of New Mexico Press, Alberto Alvaro Rios, Capirotada, 1999.
Alberto Alvaro Rios
Bio: Born in 1952 in Nogales, Ariz. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1979, and was a finalist for the National Book Award – one of the top literary honors in the United States.
Career: He has published nine novels, and has taught at Arizona State University since 1982 and has been a Regents’ Professor of English since 1994.
Latest novel: “The Theater of Night”
About Capirotada: First published in 1999, it’s a OneBookAz award winner and reprinted in 2009.