Best Of :: La Vida
Alberto Alvaro Rios is a writer with a keen eye and an open heart who knows how to get out of the way of his own material. And the man's got some material. Born in Nogales in 1952, the son of a Mexican father and an English mother, he chronicles the real and imaginary borders that divide us as well as the unlikely things that bring us together. Regarding his childhood, Rios once said, "Spanish was all around me, but my mother was there, too — with a British accent. I had a zoo of sounds." His memoir about growing up on the border, Capirotada (it's the name of a popular Mexican bread pudding), won the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award, and was designated the One Book Arizona choice for 2009. He's also written 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is this year's The Dangerous Shirt, and three collections of short stories.
If you've been to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, you've probably seen his poem "The Museum Heart" engraved on the wall in the building's lobby. In 2005, when Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, visited Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano asked Rios to write a poem commemorating the occasion. He did, in English and in Spanish. The poem concludes: "Let us turn the map until we see clearly / The border is what joins us / Not what separates us." For over 27 years, students at Arizona State University have had the benefit of his instruction; these days, he's a Regents' Professor there, with an endowed chair in English. He's also tried his hand at playwriting, and he hosts Books & Co., the locally produced PBS show featuring interviews with contemporary authors. Rios has lived all over the state, and now resides in Chandler. Fittingly, the Arizona Historical League has bestowed its lifetime achievement award on him, designating him an Arizona HistoryMaker. Gracias, Alberto. Thank you.
To paraphrase an old saying about a dead cat, you could swing a baseball bat in this town and hit a piñata. Many grocery stores sell them, and you can easily cruise 16th Street in central Phoenix and find a wide selection. But would it be wide enough? This year, our little princess didn't want a princess piñata. She wanted a piglet. And not just any swine would do; she wanted Piglet — you know, from Winnie-the-Pooh. After exhausting our brick-and-mortar possibilities, we got online and found Arizona Piñatas. We called, and a cheerful employee complied, agreeing that Piglet would be ready by Friday. And would we like it delivered? What? We just about dropped the iPhone, we were so happy. Yes, absolutely. And, sure, throw in the matching stick to whack the thing with. This endeavor wasn't cheap, we'll warn you. But, boy, was it worth it. Piglet arrived on our front porch on time as promised and was the life of the party until, well, until he wasn't.
People often refer to Phoenix as a young city, but our burgeoning metropolis has a pretty old soul. That's why our hearts delight when we have the opportunity to drive past what used to be the El Mural bar in west Phoenix. It's been years since anyone's hoisted a drink there, but the outside is still emblazoned with the beautiful work of Victor Caldee. Though of Cuban origin, the artist (with the help of Miguel Dominguez) brought together a bevy of Mexican icons: music and entertainment heroes Beatriz Adriana, Lola Beltran, Vicente Fernandez, and Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The spirit of old Phoeniquera barrios is further connected to a past long gone via the depiction of a Mayan figure and pyramid surrounding El Mural's entrance.
For the past several years, the Desert Botanical Garden has thrown the best Dia de los Muertos party in town. This year, the festivities — held Halloween weekend and the first week of November — promise to be grander than ever, with performances, food, and hands-on crafts for the kids. Oh, and a mercado! We'll be sure to stop by to check out the wares offered by Bets and Nancy Nenad, two adventurous Phoenicians who travel through Mexico to bring back a fine, fun selection of skeletons in many forms — from plastic to papier-mâché. Hey, it's a living.
The Hispanic equivalent of the bat mitzvah or "Sweet 16" party, the quinceañera marks a Latina girl's coming of age. It's easy to find a respectable dress for the event, but only at a true tiendas de bodas can you get service to fit a quince's exact needs. Owner Ofelia Martinez understands the Hispanic market and, more importantly, understands young Hispanic women. Her shop carries a wide range of colorful gowns and specializes in "plus sizes," which means girls with curves won't have to stretch and tug their way into a stick-girl dress. Fluffy, traditional quinceañera dresses in shades of peach and robin's-egg blue are plentiful. If the quince is a modern gal, perhaps a more contemporary sheath dress — in ivory white to please la familia. The shop also does in-house alterations and carries latilla veils, rosaries, crowns, and gloves to accessorize the little princess. Whether the quince wants to look like Cinderella or J-Lo in The Wedding Planner, Ofelia has her covered.
At one end of this cavernous, winding mishmash of spaces is a room packed with all kinds of crosses — metal, tin, wooden. At the other end, there's a room full of hand-tooled gun holsters. In between is just about any Mexican tchotchke you can dream of: small wooden guitars, leather wallets, ceramic pots, embroidered dresses. We felt like we'd died and gone to Nogales. Beware: The neighborhood, across the street from the Arizona State Hospital, is in a rough part of town near Van Buren Street. Obviously the owners are aware of their surroundings. The place opens at 9 on weekdays, but whatever the time of day, you'll need to ring the bell before they'll let you in.