When Alberto Rios was completing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona, he was called and warned that he might not graduate because his work included Spanish words and encompassed topics others wouldn’t understand.
But he didn’t change anything.
More than 30 years later, in 2013, Rios was named the inaugural poet laureate of Arizona, meaning he is "the representative poet of the state and demonstrates the issues and sensibilities of what it's like to grow up here."
In addition, he is also an ASU English Regents' Professor and director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.
On March 22, Rios was announced as the 2018 Shelley Award recipient, which is part of the Arizona Citizens for the Arts Governor's Arts Awards and is the highest distinction the state offers in arts advocacy within the state.
"I just kept doing what I was doing,” Rios said. "I had faith that I was doing something that was important and stuck with it.”
Rios, now 65, grew up in Nogales, an Arizona city bordering Mexico. He said he was shaped by the two cultures and ways of living surrounding him.
His literary work focuses on the border and the state's culture as well as the desert and environment. He has published multiple books, mostly consisting of poems and short stories.
His father was born in Chiapas, Mexico, and his mother is from Warrington, England.
"(Being bicultural) just simply says more choices." Rios said. "We don't need to be limiting our choices. We don't need to build up walls between each other and certainly not inside ourselves."
Rios said despite growing up with differing cultures, all these experiences have helped make him who he is today.
"It all counts," he said. "Don't let go of any of it, even the pain. It all comes back to forge you into a singular human being."
Tyler Meier, executive director at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, said his work with Rios has helped him imagine what it's like to grow up in Arizona and respect the people who live in the state, even though Meier is new to the area.
"His poems are like maps or special ways of understanding the magic, the richness and some of the challenges and the pain of living in the border region," Meier said.
Before coming to ASU in 1982, Rios participated in a program called "Poets in the Schools" and taught poetry to students throughout Arizona for a week at a time. He later became a writer in residence for Pinal County.
At the University, Rios primarily teaches creative writing and special topic courses like magical realism. He emphasizes Latin American literature like "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Pedro Paramo."
Jenny Irish, assistant director of creative writing at ASU, took Rios' magical realism class around six years ago when completing her Masters of Fine Arts at ASU.
"From the very first class, he was full of energy and so excited to be in that creative learning environment," Irish said. "He wants students to take what they're learning inside of the classroom and share it with a much larger audience who will benefit greatly. There's absolutely no ego in anything that he does. It's about service."
Last year, Rios was part of a year-long project at Dunbar Elementary School, which merged different art forms such as music, photography and writing.
His future plans for the Piper Center include a project that translates journals and other documents into different languages. He said students who are proficient in other languages could become part of this project and help create an archive.
“You don't just write for yourself," Rios said. "You live in a community and it's got to mean something to people. That's what I've been trying to do, and it feels like a good life lived."