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'Capirotada' selected as OneBookAZ

February 02, 2009

What was it like, growing up in Nogales, Arizona, just across from Nogales, Mexico, with an English mother and a Mexican father?

A little bit like capirotada, according to Alberto Rios.

Capirotada, pronounced “Cah-pEE-ro-TAH--tha,” is a Mexican bread pudding made from many ingredients, some so remarkable that one would never expect them to be in bread pudding (like peanuts and prunes).

And so Rios’s life growing up was like that – a mélange of cultures, traditions and experiences – the “peanuts and prunes” of life.

Rios’s memoir of growing up, “Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir,” has been selected as OneBookAZ for 2009, and people all over the state will be reading and discussing the book at events beginning April 12.

OneBookAZ is a statewide reading program, now in its eighth year, that is run by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.

Six books were nominated for the honor, and “Capirotada” was chosen by public vote as the winning title.

Rios, the Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English and a Regents’ Professor in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote the book in the late 1990s and it was published in 1999. It has been reprinted as a OneBookAZ selection.

“Capirotada” is a memoir written as a poet, such as Rios, might tell it. The story is a sort of “magic realism,” but more in the form of reality that’s magic – the magic of childhood seen through an adult’s eyes.

Rios talks about being an altar boy, having his own club named the Vikings of America (whose rituals included drinking whole cans of lemon juice on Fridays and waiting for it to come back up), going to the arroyo when he was forbidden to, eating pig cookies, how he got his name, and much more.

Of course, he and his friends got into a lot of mischief when they were children, such as when he learned, as an altar boy, that he could look down women’s dresses as they knelt for Holy Communion while he followed the priest and held the metal paten under the parishioners’ chins so the host would not fall to the ground.

Rios said he did not sit down to write a memoir of his life, specifically. The book came out of stories he has told at his readings of poetry and prose.

“I don't think you write a good memoir – you live it. The writing is entirely secondary to what living a life has to offer, which we so often tell each other in the form of stories,” he said.

“The anecdotes and stories and places simply found themselves in all the other things I was doing, and it came time to pay heed to the old writer's adage: write what you know.”

In a sense, “Capirotada” is a collection of childhood memories. Rios said, “I think so many of the things in the book are my childhood stories, rendered simply as stories without a particular psychological overlay. I wanted them to stay story-like.

“As a writer, I already have and will undoubtedly continue to touch on all these stories again, one way or another.”

Come April, people all over Arizona will be discussing “Capirotada,” and, of course, Rios will not be able to attend all the discussions to add his explanations.

What does he want them to talk about in these discussion groups?

“So much gets written about the border these days, and so much of it written in breathless, big-lettered neon, that I wanted to show something about the other border, the good place, and how a life lived in such a circumstance can offer as many solutions as problems, as many good stories as bad, as many ways of positively looking at the diversity of the world as negative,” Rios said.

“The border was a good place to grow up. It was not without problems, absolutely, but it was not without joy--equally absolutely.”

OneBook AZ , in its seventh year, is coordinated by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.

To commemorate the centennial of Arizona as a state, OneBookAZ has set a goal of choosing books that center on Arizona topics and themes from 2007 to 2012.

OneBookAZ will kick off Saturday, April 12, with a literary event at the Tempe Center for the Arts. There also will be OneBook events on the Tempe campus with Rios as speaker.

And yes, there is a recipe for capirotada in the book, which is now available at ASU Bookstores.

Rios shares with us his wife’s recipe, which, actually, is an amalgam of recipes from grandmothers, great-aunts and cousins from both sides of their family – complete with peanuts and prunes.