STOCKON — Richard Rios was sharing one of his stories about the time he was sent to kill the family's turkey for Thanksgiving dinner with a group of seventh-grade students, and they broke into laughter.
Readers of his new memoir, "Songs from the Barrio," could have the same reaction when they reach the description of Rios entering the turkey's pen, ax in hand, being squeamish about the whole thing, only to have the turkey take flight and fall to the ground.
"Sure as hell the bird was dead," Rios wrote.
The book, which mixes stories with some of his poems, is full of funny moments, along with some that are sad, poignant or heartwarming. It's 154 pages are filled with a portrait of life, of growing up in Modesto with his Mexican-born mother and five siblings, of finding a way out of the barrio through his art, and coming to understand his mother's call to "never forget you are a Mexican."
Rios will hold his first book signing Wednesday at the Mexican Heritage Center, 111 S. Sutter St., Stockton, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The book will be for sale, and is available at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble. com.
"I had it on my mind, since I've been with them for so many years, I kind of wanted to make sure they would have the first crack at it," Rios said of the Mexican Heritage Center, which he co-founded with fellow artists Raoul Mora and Rudy Garcia in 1998.
A painter and sculptor who earned a scholarship to Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, where he was the valedictorian of the Class of 1962, Rios began writing poetry in 1965.
Finding himself reading his poetry as often as he displayed his paintings or sculptures, the San Joaquin Delta College professor of ethnic studies and English began writing stories he could share along with his poems.
"Several of the stories in the book, and some of the poems, I wrote many years back," Rios said. "They were written as individual stories with no thought of connecting them in any real way. When I started writing the stories, I had no intention of publishing a book."
The stories proved to be a hit with poetry-reading audiences, and a few years back, Rios pondered putting them in book form.
"There was some talk, but I thought I better not talk about it too much, because I might not do it. I complain about people who talk a lot and don't do much, so I talked quietly about the possibility of a book," he said.
Chose to publish himself
A fellow blogger self- published a book, and when Rios saw the quality, he realized he could create a book without publishers' rejections or editors' rewrites, so he opted to do it himself.
Rios, 74, had a rich, colorful landscape with which to work.
He was the last of six children born to Jacinto and Guadalupe Rios, who moved to Modesto, where family lived, in the late 1920s.
Guadalupe Rios had grown up poor during the Mexican Revolution. She married at 15 and had her first child at 16. After waking up one morning to find a scorpion in bed with her and her infant third child, she announced to her husband that they were moving to the United States.
Jacinto Rios, his son says, was an alcoholic and abusive. Guadalupe Rios, who worked in Tillie Lewis' cannery, later kicked him out of the house and raised her children by herself.
Though poor, Rios' childhood in the barrio was rich. Everyone looked out for the children. There was no crime; people didn't lock their doors.
One by one, his siblings grew up and started families of their own. The same was expected of Richard, but his Modesto High School art teachers, Isabelle Barnett and Dale Thorsted, envisioned a different path for him. Rios had always loved to draw, and while other Mexican boys in his school were shipped off to auto classes, he signed up for art.
Barnett and Thorsted recognized his talent. He also wrote a research paper for a junior English class about "Mexico's Three Great Ones," Diego Rivera, David Alfarao Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. In doing so, he was exposed to the art of his culture, his people.
That, and the efforts of his art teachers, who took him to Oakland to see the arts college and helped him apply for scholarships, led him to leave home in 1957 for the college.
He later returned to the barrio and worked for a florist after marrying Graciela, the sister of a friend from college. In 1972, he was hired to teach Chicano literature at Delta College, and that led to earning a master's degree in English and teaching English for about half of his 33 years at the college.
He hopes the book will encourage young people, such as the seventh-graders he recently visited, to ponder the possibilities that lie ahead, and to reflect on their life experiences.