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Arizona's Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos On What Life On 'The Border' Really Means


President Trump sees the U.S.-Mexico border as the country's last line of defense, a fortified divide. Alberto Rios, however, sees it differently. He's Arizona's first poet laureate, and he grew up on the border in the town of Nogales.

Rios says there have been a lot of changes along that contentious strip of land, changes that have inspired his writing. He joins us now from member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Welcome to the program.

ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: In a tweet yesterday, President Trump implored Congress to fund construction of a border wall.

RIOS: Yeah.

CORNISH: And he threatened closing the ports of entries. What does that mean for those who live on this line?

RIOS: The idea of trying to enforce a wall (laughter) is just - it's - it's humorous. I mean, it happens. It's there. It's - it's solemn, and we get it.

I was down there recently with my wife and a friend, but we had not brought our passports. So we couldn't go across what we called the line to the Mexico side. And so we were on a pedestrian overpass, trying to look across into the other side.

There are two Nogaleses - the Arizona side, the Sonora side. The Border Patrol has these lights there that you would see on a highway now if they're working at night - big, tall lights. And they pretend to be temporary. But of course, this is a militarized situation now, and they're there to stay. And suddenly the lights all go on - womp, womp, womp. And we hear these boys start whooping. We look over the side, and there's this thing that just has stayed with me.

They had attached a basketball hoop to the border fence, and they were using the lights from the border patrol to play nighttime basketball. And I thought, that's life on the border. You just go with it. You find your best way to get through this. And life goes on.

CORNISH: In your poem, "The Border: A Double Sonnet," you say, quote, (reading) "the border used to be an actual place, but now it is the act of a thousand imaginations." What do you mean by that?

RIOS: (Laughter) It means everybody has an answer for what we ought to do at the border, even if they've never visited it. If you live there, it's about lunch and the football team. And it's like wherever everyone else lives.

And yet people are saying, do this, do that. Don't let somebody cross. Don't let them do that - without ever having actually called the border or someone on the border or visited it to ask what life there is like.

I think of it as such a - it was - it was a grace for me. It was a great way to grow up. It gave me so many options in language and foods and everything else.

It was an embodiment of the small English word or, which means choice - either, or. Most of the world does not have that word. They don't live that word. There, it was everywhere. And to close that out is the saddest thing I can think of.

CORNISH: We're in a moment where policy-wise, we're not exactly looking at the border in this way. And for someone who grew up in a border community, how have you seen the view change of life there?

RIOS: Well, it's gotten scary. We have conflated the criminal aspects of border - that is to say crossing drugs, general criminal activity, the cartels, all that sort of stuff - with simple human migrations and with the bettering of a life and desperation, pure hunger and things that are attached to the human condition.

It's a human moment, and the world is watching. Certainly, the people there are watching. They will carry with - this with them for a lifetime. We would hope that this is the story our grandchildren will be proud to tell, not - not ashamed to tell.

CORNISH: When there are moments when they are closed even for a short time, what kind of effect does that have, to your mind, on day-to-day life?

RIOS: It is the stopping of conversation. It's when we get mad and we don't talk to each other. There is not a counselor in the universe who doesn't say, you need to talk; you need to talk. And yet of course, when we close anything down - and a border is a whole discourse between two peoples, between cultures, and to shut that down means to stop talking. We're not listening. Certainly, we're not talking. It's a shutdown of everything it means to be human.

CORNISH: That's Alberto Rios, Arizona's first poet laureate. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RIOS: Thank you so much, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYGO SONG, "'CLOUD NINE' ALBUM INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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