Sunday, January 20, 2013

Barrio Songs: An Interview with Richard Ríos

Interview by Nancy Aidé González

Richard Rios spent years writing his autobiography, Songs of the Barrio:  A Coming of Age in Modesto, California.  His autobiography spans several decades.  He explores the contours of memory and the barrio.His stories take a look back at life with thoughtfulness and a sense of humor.

Our interview took place on a quiet winter day in his house in Stockton, California.  We met in his reading room which was surrounded by beautiful objects:  framed black and white pictures of his family, a stained glass lamp with purple flowers, and a portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe.  On his small table lay several books organized neatly in a pile.  
Richard Ríos

We sat on two comfortable chairs facing a large window, which displayed a view of the front yard.  The front lawn was neatly cut and had several small bushes.  White angels on columns looked down on the garden.  Richard Rios was dressed casually in a gray shirt and slacks.  He carefully contemplated each question before answering in a quiet yet knowledgeable tone.

Nancy Aidé González:  Thank you for sitting down with me today to talk, Richard.  When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

Richard Ríos:  I started writing in 1965.  I was in the military and stationed in Germany at the time.  In those days you were required to serve in the military for our country.  During that time, I began to write.  I don’t know that I was thinking in terms that I wanted to become a writer but I began to explore the idea of writing.  I wrote poetry and stories about myself and my life.  My letters were very creative and unusual.  They were composed in a very experimental way.  I had read a lot of authors and great writers in college and I imagined that I could be like them.  I think the genesis for my becoming a writer was during my time in the military.  I would continue to keep journals and jot down my thoughts for years.  I set a goal, that once I retired, I would write a book.

Nancy Aidé González:  Are there any authors or poets who have influenced your writing? 

Richard Ríos:  Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and many other American writers had a great influence on me as a writer in some way.  Ultimately, I have to give also a lot of credit to José Montoya.  We were in college together at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  It was in the late 50s when we met.  José was already writing at that time.  I remember José reading some of his poems to me.  I really enjoyed his writing.  His poems really moved me and touched me in a special way because he wrote about the Chicano experience.  He wrote about the barrio experience:  pachucos, La Raza, and working in the fields.  He validated many of the experiences we all went through as Chicano.  In the years that followed, I began to write about the barrio.  José Montoya opened that door for me to write about myself and my own Chicano experiences.  His work had a huge influence on me. 

Nancy Aidé González:  Let’s discuss your book, Songs from the Barrio:  Coming of Age in Modesto, California, which has garnered some great reviews.  What is it about and what inspired you to write the book? 

Richard Ríos:  Once I began writing about my childhood, I started to compose the stories and put them in order.  I gathered a new perspective for what I wanted to do in the book.  I wanted the book to be a historical document.  I wanted the book not to be just an autobiography about me.  I wanted the book to be about the people, the gente in the barrio.  I wanted to show why they were and what they were like.  I hope the book could be a historical capsule of a time period.  The generation that came from Mexico after the Mexican Revolution.  I wanted the book to give them acknowledgement as Mexican immigrants who were the foundation for us as Chicanos in the United States.  They sacrificed and worked hard for future generations.  My family was part of the impetus for the book.  I wanted the book to be about them.  I wanted to tell the story of how they survived living in poverty and without an education.  I wanted it to be about my mother.  I also wanted to write the book for my own children.  I hope they will read my book one day and know where I came from.  I have told my sons some stories, but not everything contained in the book.  I wrote the book for my grandchildren.  I want my grandchildren to know about my past and know their roots.  I have a few surviving brothers and sisters, and of course, it is for them too.  In the bigger picture, I want my book to be more than an autobiography, but a crossover book.  I want people from other cultures and backgrounds to read my book.  I think all people can connect with the themes and topics I have written about. 

Nancy Aidé González: Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing your book? 

Richard Ríos: Yeah.  One of the struggles that I had was how intimate the book should be.  I wanted it to be real and I wanted it to be honest.  I struggled with the idea of revealing too much about myself, family, and friends.  I use real people’s names in the book.  I had difficulty deciding if I should change the names of my friends in the book.  These stories happened over 50 years ago.  Another problem was to remember the details of each event.  I utilized my brothers and sisters in the writing of several stories.  I gleaned many of the details in the stories from my brothers and sisters.  I’m the youngest in the family.  My brother Jesse was very helpful in helping me fill in lots of details and memory gaps.  The editing was a real challenge.  I self-published and self-edited most of the book.  There was a lot of back-and-forth communication between myself and the online publishing company.  I would make changes and wait for the publishers to make the change.  I had to read every story and poem several times.  I decided that I wanted Spanish phraseology throughout the book.  I felt like using Spanish was like putting salsa on a taco.  I use Spanish words and phrases throughout my book.  I didn’t want Spanish to be a hindrance in anyone’s comprehension.  When I use Spanish in my book, I follow it with a sentence or two that tells and English-only speaker the meaning.  In several of my poems, I put footnotes.  Including footnotes was an extra challenge in putting the book together. 

Nancy Aidé González: What was your writing process like while working on Songs from the Barrio:  Coming of Age in Modesto, California?  Was it difficult to relive certain memories? 

Richard Ríos: I enjoyed the entire writing process.  In certain stories, I took liberties to create drama.  One of my favorite stories in the book is called “A Rite of Passage,” which tells the story of the day my mother sent me out to kill a turkey.  That story had been written and rewritten a few times.  I tried to relive as much of the story as I could while I wrote it.  There is no question that distance gives you another perspective.  When it happened, it was one way, but now looking back 50 years later at some of the incidents, I dramatized a bit to make them more exciting.  However, I want to be as true to the events as possible.  There were a few stories that were difficult to relive.  One example is my mom’s death and the events leading up to her passing away.  I wanted to be vulnerable.  I didn’t want to portray myself as some kind of hero in the stories.  Actually, many of the stories are about my failure to meet my responsibilities and the stupid things I did in my youth.  I wish I hadn’t done some of the things that I did.  I made some mistakes.  There were some failures and victories.  It was hard to admit some of those failures.  At times, I failed my mother and I treated her badly.  I wanted to include the failures anyway, because I know readers will be able to relate to me as a human being.  I write about my dad and he was not a very good dad.  While writing, I had to think about how much I wanted to reveal about his drinking and his abuse of my mom.  Maybe I had told too much.  I have that little feeling inside of me that I have told too much.  It’s in print, and I can’t take it back now. 

Nancy Aidé González: When you wrote your stories, did you revise a great deal?

Richard Ríos: I look forward to the revision process.  At first it seemed tedious to me.  I was like a lot of writers who write something, and they think it is good.  I went through that phase where every story I wrote, I thought was great.  Then I began to transpose my stories and type them into my computer.  I had writing scribbled on napkins and the backs of envelopes.  I had boxes of papers and stories.  I began to transfer them to the computer and put them into files.  That’s when I first began to look at these stories and decided to improve them.  I began to see how much better they were once I revised.  I actually spent several years doing nothing but revision.  It was an exciting process improving stories and poems that I had written.  There was no question in my mind that it was really a worthwhile project.  There is no question that in revision, each story and poem becomes better.  As a writer, you are never done revising, but you have to get to the point where you have to stop revision. 

Nancy Aidé González: Many of the stories in your book focus on your mother, Guadalupe A. Rios.  What was your mother like? 

Richard Ríos: What I most remember about her is that she was a plain, simple, woman.  She came from poor people in Mexico.  She was a very strict person.  She had values and morals.  She “ran a tight ship” as a single mom.  My dad left the family when I was a little boy, and she held our family together.  She raised the six of us by herself.  She was a very kind and loving woman.  She had empathy for people that were impoverished.  Whenever there was a family in the barrio that needed help, she would fill up a plate of beans and rice.  She would have me take food over to the family in need.  She took in families that had no place to stay when they came from Mexico and were here illegally.  My mom was hard-working.  She worked all her life at a cannery in Modesto.  Like a lot of Mexican parents, she was strict and not very affectionate in a sense of hugging and kissing.  But we all knew deep inside she loved us all.  She was a very religious person.  She never went to church, but she was in constant prayer.  She was named after the Virgen de Guadalupe.  She had a home altar and candles lit for all of us.  I remember her telling stories about the Santos.  She amazed me with her faith.  She had a living faith and she passed it to each of us. 

Nancy Aidé González: You were one of the first in your family to go to a university.  Why did you want to attend?  What did you study?

Richard Ríos: I never had any plans as a kid to go to college.  It never entered my mind.  In the 1940s and 50s, we grew up knowing no one who went to college.  In those years, people graduated from high school, got a job, got married, and had kids.  I assumed that was the way things were.  It wasn’t until high school that the idea even entered my mind.  It happened accidentally in a way.  I was always interested in art.  I considered myself an  artist even in grammar school, junior high, and high school.  My teachers thought I was a talented artist.  I never considered that I could ever have a job as an artist.  When the possibility came in that I could go to college, it intrigued me.  A couple of my art teachers convinced me that I had to go to college.  Luckily, there was the perfect college waiting for me.  The ideal was the California College of the Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  It is one of the elite art schools in the country, but it was also one of the most expensive.  My teachers convinced me that scholarships were available.  I began to apply for scholarships while I was in high school.  I earned enough scholarships to pay my first year of tuition.  Then the college itself offered scholarships for incoming students to based on a portfolio of your work.  I quickly put together a portfolio with the help of my teachers and earned my first year of college tuition free.  My mother was against my going to college.  I was the last of her children to be home with her, and now she would be alone.  She did her best to convince me not to go to college.  I went to college, and I enjoyed the experience.

Nancy Aidé González: Did you enjoy teaching Chicano Studies and English at San Joaquin Delta College?  What was the best part about teaching?

Richard Ríos: I wanted to teach art at the university level.  However, everywhere I applied, I was rejected for lack of experience.  When the opportunity arose for me to become a Chicano studies teacher in 1972 at Delta College in Stockton, I took the job.  Chicano literature was the first course that I taught.  I knew in my heart I could teach.  I had a strong academic background and I had many experiences as a Chicano, which I shared with my students.  I enjoyed teaching Chicano literature and history.  I immersed myself in research regarding Mexican history, and culture.  I had to create curriculum for the Chicano studies classes I taught.  I took several trips to Mexico during that time period.  I went to all the sites.  I saw Teotihuacán, Chitiniza, Monte Albán, and other historical sites.  I photographed them and took notes.  I would bring this knowledge about Mexico’s incredible history back to my Chicano studies classes.  I loved learning and teaching about my culture.  The best part of teaching, was seeing my students learn and grow as individuals.  I wanted my Chicano students to learn about their culture and get turned on to learning.  I wanted them to read books and literature.  I wanted them to become lifelong learners and take courses in their disciplines.  The most exciting part of teaching was seeing my students achieve.  Many of my students went on to become administrators, college presidents, lawyers, teachers, and doctors.  I have students come up to me and tell me my courses changed their lives. 

Nancy Aidé González: What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Richard Ríos: My advice for aspiring writers is to begin to share with others.  When you share your work with others, ask them for feedback.  You need to know if your stories are good or need improvement.  You need to know if your work is reaching, touching, and connecting with people.  When you see people react to your work and respond emotionally, you will feel inspired to continue writing.  Don’t worry if you never publish anything, or if you will ever see it in book form.  I would tell an aspiring writer, don’t be afraid to imagine that your writing will one day be published because that’s certainly a possibility.  The Internet and self-publication has made it much easier for writers to publish their own work.  I would tell aspiring writers to keep writing.  Also, try to look for things to write about on a daily basis. 

Nancy Aidé González: Are you planning on writing another book?

Richard Ríos: I am toying with the idea of writing another book.  I have written one book and I am sure writing a second book will be easier.  I actually have a title for my next book.  I have jotted down ideas for stories.  It will be a book about my experiences at California College of Arts and Crafts.  The book will begin where my first book left off.  It will be about the intellectual awakening of a young man from the barrio reading Shakespeare, learning about the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and other civilizations. The world opened up to me in college.  I met several artists from all over the country and the world.  There were 600 students at the college I attended, so it was like one big family.  It was a utopia of intellects, thinkers, poets, and weirdos.  I think my second book will make a good read. 

Richard Ríos is a retired English and Chicano studies teacher.  He taught at San Joaquin Delta College for 33 years.  Born in Modesto in 1939, son of Mexican immigrants, he graduated from Modesto High School in 1957.  He went on to study art at the College of Arts in Oakland, earning a Master's Degree in 1962. In 1985, he received a Master's Degree in English at California State University, Turlock.  He was inducted into Stockton's Mexican American Hall of Fame in 1992 and received the S.T.A.R. (Stockton Top Artist) Award in 2008.  His book is available on amazon (click here), Barnes and Noble (click here), and at create space (click here).  

Nancy Aidé González
Nancy Aidé González is a Chicana poet who lives in Lodi, California.  She graduated from California State University, Sacramento with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature in 2000.  Her work has appeared in Calaveras Station Literary Journal, La Bloga, Everyday Other Things, Mujeres de Maiz Zine, La Peregrina, and Huizache:  The Magazine of Latino Literature.  She is a participating member of Escritores del Nuevo Sol, a writing group based in Sacramento, California which honors the literary traditions of Chicano, Latino, Indigenous, and Spanish-language peoples.  She attended Las Dos Brujas Writer's Workshop in 2012.  

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