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.

“Lemon”, the story of an ex-con who wins a Tony Award

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen is an accomplished spoken word artist, but he’s also a champion at hurdling obstacles. He went from growing up in a Brooklyn gang and being a thrice convicted felon, to a Tony-Award winner for “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.”

On March 3, he’s having his story be told in a documentary, “Lemon,” at the Miami International Film Festival.Laura Brownson saw Andersen perform for the first time a little more than three years ago. She was so moved by how he conveyed his painful past through his poetry, that she and her partner, Beth Levison, decided to follow him around with cameras to document his personal and professional life for the next three years.

“He won a Tony Award and then at the heels of that had a hard fall living with 13 people in the projects, and he said to me, ‘I’m going to write my life story and get out of here. I’m going to get out of here for good,’” says Brownson, the filmmaker of “Lemon.”

And he did.

The half-Puerto Rican, half-Norwegian Andersen, says he now lives in artist neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and three kids. He enjoys spending his days getting up early to do research on his newest play, reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and writing in his neighborhood cafe.

Andersen, whose birth name is really Andrew, got his nickname “Lemon,” because he was the whitest kid in his Sunset Park neighborhood. He grew up with drug-addicted parents who died by the time he reached 15 from AIDS. The only way he knew how to support himself was by stealing and selling drugs.

“I’ve come a long way. Today I feel, I am a working artist,” he says.

It all started when he got out of jail for the last time at 19. He says his life sucked as it was hard to get a job with a criminal record, and one day at barber shop someone handed him a flier about a poetry reading.

“I didn’t even have a poem,” says Andersen. “I wrote it right on the spot, and I got on stage. They asked me if I would be part of the theater troupe, and I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job. And I never stopped.”

Hungry to become better, Andersen started taking continuing education classes at New York University funded through AmeriCorps.

“I wanted to learn all styles,” he says. “I ended up in ‘Def Poetry Jam’.”

Andersen was featured as a regular on HBO’s “Def Poetry” presented by Russell Simmons and then was an original cast member and writer of Russell Simmons’ Tony Award winning “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway”.

“I was imprisoned four years before I was on Broadway,” says Andersen. “I was pinching myself every morning.”

He says he would tell people that he would go to Broadway before it happened.

“I had a dream I’d perform my poetry on big stage, he says. “I know the smell still. I relive it in my play ‘County of Kings’.”

Andersen tells his own story through his solo spoken word play “County of Kings,” which is produced by Spike Lee. He has been performing it in many New York theaters since 2010.

“It’s like outer space, because I’m really out of my space,” Andersen says, and adds that his own family has never seen him perform, even on Broadway.

“It wasn’t easy for people to take it when I was on the cover of TheNew York Times,” he says about the people from his childhood neighborhood. “It’s like putting a mirror on them. But hey, sometimes you gotta be ‘F… that’. Piri Thomas from ‘Down These Mean Streets’ taught me that.”

He hasn’t even seen “Lemon,” the documentary about him.

“I don’t think I will ever see it,” says Andersen. “This film is not my film, it’s about me. I’m a different kind of story teller, but I’m really rooting for them.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com