The first time anybody paid Alvaro Saar Rios for his words was when the Houston-based playwright won $27,000 for spelling out "Totally Blew Me Away" on Wheel of Fortune. That wasn't exactly poetry, but the winnings did give him enough money to live on for the next two years while he worked on becoming a writer.
Rios is one of the 50-plus Hispanic writers appearing at Houston's first Latino Book and Family Festival this weekend.
Rios was acting in bit parts when Talento Bilingue founder Richard Reyes asked him to sit in on a nearly empty 1998 writing workshop. Reyes was just trying to fill seats, but the experience launched Rios's career as an author and playwright. Over the next four years, Rios managed to earn a B.A. from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program and win commissions from Houston Community College and Express Children's Theatre, working with Edward Albee and Tony Diaz along the way.
He helped launch the Latino Boys Writing Group at an inner-city middle school, and churned out a slew of slightly off-center stage pieces such as The Crazy Mexican Show and Santa Shops at K-Mart. (The latter was a comedy drawn from Rios's childhood memories of Christmas presents eerily similar to the clothes his mother made him try on while window shopping.) A Crazy Mexican chapbook is currently in the works, and Rios recently added directing credits to his lengthy résumé.
Not quite the typical Latino writer, Rios grew up in a mixed white and Hispanic neighborhood and is just now learning to speak Spanish. That's not the atypical part. Along with exploring Hispanic themes, Rios sometimes strays into color-blind subject matter and happily confronts the Latino writing community's self-appointed cultural police, who would criticize his work as a less-than-authentic reflection of Hispanic life. His signature poem is Brown Enough, which notes: "According to your Mex-o-meter, / I'm not brown enough / because my music doesn't remind you of / the country my grandparents ran away from."
Produced by actor and advocate Edward James Olmos, the mega-event is equal parts book festival, health fair, home show and travel/career/technology expo, with everything from writers' panels and concerts to home-buying seminars and grant-writing workshops. Joining Olmos for the opening ceremony will be actor Cheech Marin. The short half of the dope-smoking Cheech and Chong comedy duo is hawking his book Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, a result of his passion for art collecting.
Olmos has turned Latino culture into something of a cottage industry with art exhibits, books, documentary films and now this nationally touring festival. And while it'll be his name on the marquee, it's Tony Diaz who's responsible for setting the stage. Diaz's ceaseless promotion of local Hispanic writers through his reading series "Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say" has helped transform Houston into a powerhouse on the Latino literary scene. The reading series has since grown to include a performance troupe, a radio show and a collection of development workshops. It was his success that helped attract Olmos and his book fair to town.