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To Arizona’s first poet laureate, ‘the border is what joins us’

Across his life, Alberto Rios has seen enormous changes throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region, and its culture and language have shaped him as a writer. Now as Arizona's first poet laureate, Rios has a platform for his "poems of public purpose" on all that the border means to the everyone on both sides of it. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

    This week, the president went to California to inspect models of what a new border wall could look like.

    As debates over the wall and immigration continue, artists and writers close to the border are trying to depict the realities on the ground.

    Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Arizona, where he spent time with a writer and poet whose work has been shaped by the region.

  • Alberto Rios:

    The border is a line that birds cannot see. The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Alberto Rios’ 2015 poem “The Border: A Double Sonnet,” 28 lines, each, he says, its own mini-poem, and a doubled format that represents the two sides of a place often depicted in terms of conflict.

    But Rios sees more.

  • Alberto Rios:

    I don’t try to write a story about the border. I try to write a story about the 28 versions of the border, 28 things, and let them, in that fragmentation, try to work together, try to become something.

    The border used to be an actual place, but now it is the act of 1,000 imaginations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rios, a professor at Arizona State university, and now Arizona’s first poet laureate, was born in Nogales, son of a Mexican father and British mother.

  • Alberto Rios:

    The border for me has very little to do with the wall or a fence. The border is everywhere and in everything every step of the way in my life. My father was a very brown man. My mother was a very white woman. And right away, they embodied a border. And that we lived in a place that had a geographical marker called the border added to that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He’s seen enormous changes throughout the border region, even as its culture and language have shaped him as a writer.

  • Alberto Rios:

    The border smells like cars at noon and wood smoke in the evening.

    So many people are dictating what the border ought to be, should do, and have never visited. The border is many, many things. We want to characterize it. It’s like the word for pen. If I hold this pen up and I know that it’s a pen, but that’s all I can call it, I own it. That’s it. That’s the end of the story. I can move on.

    But if that pen is also a pluma, and in another language is also a plume, if it’s got three names, it must have six. And if it has six, it may have 1,000. And, suddenly, this thing is wild in my hand.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Language does that. Culture does that.

  • Alberto Rios:

    And language does that, because I have to choose at any given moment how I’m going to think about this pen, how I’m going to think about the food I’m about to eat or the person I’m about to see. I have to choose.

    In a curious way, living on the border was the most American of experiences, because it always gave me the coordinating conjunction or, which is the great American word. It suggests choice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean between two between two cultures, between two languages?

  • Alberto Rios:

    Between two cultures, between two languages.

    And it also meant I had — every day of my life, I don’t get to just presumptively say, this is a pen. I have to choose to say, this is a pen, because I also know it’s a pluma, and it’s other things. So I have to choose constantly.

    And I think people who grew up on the border are doing that all the time.

    The border is an equation in search of an equals sign. The border is the location of the factory where lightning and thunder are made.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rios now has a very public platform as the state’s laureate. He works with young people and writes what he calls poems of public purpose.

  • Alberto Rios:

    Something in me understands that I’m not always writing for myself, that sometimes I, curious as this might sound, need to lend myself out to others who also need to speak.

    I can tell people what to do or what they — what I think is happening, but taking the other tack of sharing stories, moments, things that have to do with border solutions works.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And now Alberto Rios’ words directly reach many crossing between the two countries. His poem “Border Lines” is etched at Mariposa port of entry in Nogales.

    It ends with these lines,

  • Alberto Rios:

    We seem to live in a world of maps, but, in truth, we live in a world made not of paper and ink, but of people. Those lines are our lives. Together, let us turn the map, until we see clearly the border is what joins us, not what separates us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Phoenix.

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