Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate talks life on the border

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Renowned poet and professor Alberto Rios has recently been selected by Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona’s Commission on the Arts as the state’s first poet laureate.

“It’s been a wild ride so far,” says Rios about his life, ever since he got a call from the Governor’s office last week informing him of his new appointment. “It was a special feeling…I grew up in Arizona — on the border — so to be a kid from Nogales, in a state that has so many issues regarding language, and so many things — it’s a pretty good story.”

Rios, has published a total of 10 poetry books, three story books and a memoir called “Capirotada.” His memoir about his youth along the Mexico-Arizona border won the Latino Literacy Hall of Fame Award, and he has also received many other recognitions for his work, including the Walt Whitman Award in Poetry. As English professor at his alma mater, Arizona State University, he reached the highest faculty rank when he was named Regent in 1989, and his work is often taught in college curricula.

“Being a professor, I have a lot to say about who we are, and why are we here,” says Rios, 61. “If it’s so bad, why don’t we all leave, but there’s lots of reasons why we don’t.”

Arizona became the 43rd state to establish a poet laureate, last year, in honor of its centennial year of statehood. The purpose of this position, according to Governor Brewer, is to “commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona’s values, independence and unique Western history and culture.”

Probably few know Arizona’s history and culture better than bicultural Rios – son of a Mexican father and an English mother. Recounting his parents’ love story, he says his father ran away from his home in Chiapas, at age 14 to join the U.S. Army. Eventually, he got a GED and became a staff sergeant and ended up in England, during World War II, where he met his future bride. When he got discharged, he was given no choice but to return to the U.S., and Rios’ mom followed him. They ended up in Nogales.

“Growing up, I had cultures in my house that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Rios explaining how they gave him two ways of looking at things and helped him become a writer. “I grew up with an open border.”

And speaking about the “real” border, he remembers the Arizona-Mexico border being more of an imaginary line than it is today.

“You didn’t need papers — the guards were reading newspapers — it wasn’t a big deal to cross the border,” says Rios, also explaining that he had kids in his class who paid tuition and crossed the border every day to go to school in the U.S. “Every holiday, whether Mexican or American, there was a parade.”

Rios says he also remembers, as if it were yesterday, when everything changed.

“It was November 22, 1963 — when President John F. Kennedy was shot,” says Rios, who was in the 5th grade. “One of the first things the country did was close the borders.”

He says phone calls started coming in from parents in Mexico saying they couldn’t pick up their kids.

“I’ll never forget this,” says Rios. “One of the kids who got a phone call started to cry. Then other kids started crying…They had kids on one side of the border and parents on the other side of the border crying. It wasn’t until 4 or 5 in the morning they let the kids go through…For me, I think that’s when the border became something else.”

He says slowly the idyllic, bicultural world he knew became something else. The drug trade started, and people could no longer travel back and forth as easily.

“The border is an uneasy place — it’s more tense, it’s more mean,” says Rios, whose wife is a retired librarian and whose son is an immigration rights attorney.

As poet laureate, he wants to do his part to bring beauty back to the border.

“I absolutely want to talk about these issues – work I’ve been doing my entire life. I’ve always traveled all over the state visiting schools and libraries telling the stories of people’s lives and what this all means,” says Rios. “I try to bring the human side to it all.”

Arizona’s new poet laureate is also working on a public art project and is in the midst of publishing a new poetry book.

“It’s about the southwest,” says Rios. “You have to start somewhere.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

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Lucha Libre celebrates its 80th anniversary taking a bite of the Big Apple

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

You may or may not know that the traditional masked Mexican wrestling sport, Lucha Libre, has had a long-time presence in the U.S. in its nearly 80-year existence. It became more mainstream in the U.S. after the 2006 comedy “Nacho Libre,” starring Jack Black, and its presence is only growing. This year, a partnership was announced that will promote Lucha Libre AAA – Mexico‘s largest wrestling league – to the U.S. audience and possibly get a spot on El Rey, a new English-language Latino channel set to launch in January 2014.

This Saturday and Sunday, Javier Clorio, a Mexican-American communications professional originally from California, says he is excited to bring Lucha Libre to New York City in honor of the sport’s 80th anniversary. He raised $5,000 to bring 26 wrestlers from the U.S. and abroad – with secret identities behind their masks – to battle each other (“technicos”/good guys vs. “rudos”/bad guys) to become the star luchador of the Big Apple.

“People around the world recognize Lucha Libre — they go to stadiums, concerts and other events wearing Lucha Libre masks,” says Clorio. “I am also excited, because this event will benefit the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation — they help people accomplish their dream of having their own business by helping them with their business plan…I know currentHispanic business owners who have capitalized from the EHBCC, and I am glad that by doing this event we are raising funds so more people can accomplish their dreams.”

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

The 23-year-old luchador who goes by the name Máscara Celestial is accomplishing his childhood dream of becoming a professional luchador. Originally from Mexico City, he says his parents didn’t believe him when he would tell them he wanted to be a luchador when he grew up, but he’s been practicing since he was 15. Two years ago, he moved to New York to challenge himself to a higher level.

“Life in the U.S. is not easy,” says Máscara Celestial, who works 12 hours per day at Kennedy Fried Chicken and trains in the gym for three to four hours every morning, with only one day off from work to compete. “I haven’t slept for the past three days, but I don’t want to remain stagnant. I want to excel as a luchador.”

He explains he wants his good guy character, Máscara Celestial (“heavenly mask”), to develop a great story line, until his body can’t take it anymore.

“I love my character — a good character in a very difficult world,” he says.

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth says when a luchador puts on his mask, he is also putting on his alter ego identity. He was born and still lives in Mexico City, but in Lucha Libre world, he plays a Puerto Rican. His job as a “rudo” is to get the audience riled up.

“I tell them, ‘Why are you proud to be Mexican if you are dying of hunger?” says Pequeño Pierroth, named the diminutive form of a famous Mexican luchador – Pierroth. “Some people really get angry for real.”

He has 21 years of experience in the ring — a few months of which were with the WWE.

“When I was a boy, I was the little one and other kids would bully me,” says Pequeño Pierroth, who was also poor as a kid, selling candy and singing on corners to help support his family. “Now I travel to Madrid, London, Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia…I’m not rich, but I’m stable and happy. I love Lucha Libre — maybe more than my wife.”

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman is a 20-year-old Puerto Rican from New York. He trains with a Dominican coach at the Bronx Wrestling Federation.

“When I was growing up, my brother and family watched wrestling faithfully,” he says. “Going into high school, I met a girl and she broke my heart. I went through a depressed phase and almost committed suicide.”

His low self-esteem at the time transformed the shy and timid youth into the Caveman today. He says he let his beard and hair grow, forming his version of a mask. He had the urge to become a hermit, but his wrestling coach made him a Caveman outfit and urged him to keep wrestling as the Caveman persona. Today, he says he easily transforms into his character, pretending to pick bugs out of people’s hair and acting surprised whenever he sees a modern object — the most important thing to him he says is to make his fans happy.

“Now professional wrestling is my life,” he says, although he still doesn’t get paid for it. That’s a privilege that comes once your name becomes known in the Lucha Libre world. “I’ve dropped a lot of things because of wrestling, because it saved my life…I’m actually living my dream.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Farm policies should support growing more fruits and vegetables, says study

(Shoppers buy vegetables at a local Farmers Market in Annandale, Virginia, August 8, 2013. Photo: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/Getty Images )

(Shoppers buy vegetables at a local Farmers Market in Annandale, Virginia, August 8, 2013. Photo: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/Getty Images )

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report stating that eating right not only makes sense for our health but for our pockets. It found that if Americans ate the full two cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we could prevent 127,261 such deaths each year from cardiovascular diseases and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is $11 trillion.

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, the senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at UCS says although this news seems like great news, there is a huge problem that needs to be addressed first.

“We need to invest in crops that the USDA guidelines tell us we should eat more of — fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Salvador.

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Currently, he says the USDA and current farm policies offer few incentives to grow fruits and vegetables – discouraging the production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend. Instead, these policies subsidize “commodity crops” such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock and for processed food ingredients — some of it referred to as “junk food.”

“We pay once to a program that makes us sick, and then pay again to cure our diseases,” says Dr. Salvador, explaining these policies require taxpayers to pay for subsidizing commodity crops that become ingredients in unhealthy foods and again through tax dollars that fund Medicare and Medicaid to treat these costly diseases.

He says that these subsidies were meant in good will — to guarantee stable market prices for farmers — but since they these policies were put into place in the 1930’s, they need to be updated.

Although the USDA did not respond for a comment, Dr. Salvador says they do have a lot of programs in place we can benefit from, like “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food” and “My Plate,” which encourage Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re just advocating for the USDA to be more consistent with their own recommendations,” says Dr. Salvador, urging the public to write to Congress to let them know taxpayers want greater access to a healthier food supply and to patronize local farmers markets. “An individual can make a difference, but policy will make the greatest impact.”

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RELATED: The use of GMOs in our food supply – a look at the debate

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

25 years of El Vez, the Chicano Elvis

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.

Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”

At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”

“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.

In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.

“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”

Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”

Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.

“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”

One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”

He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.

“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.