In her 1985 book, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick pondered the reactions to the desert from people such as Mark Twain, explorer and surveyor John C. Frémont, irrigation promoter William Ellsworth Smythe, and art historian John Van Dyke. In her introduction she writes, “While the actual landscape is of considerable importance in this story, the intellectual focus rests on the different appearance and meaning available to different viewers.”
That passage could describe the running theme of Rubén Martínez’s riveting new book, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West (Metropolitan Books). “The notion of the desert as a spiritual and healing place,” Martínez writes, “or Native land, or cowboy cool, or the big Empty—all these are supported by structures of feeling, by human history, by contradiction and desire.”
In Desert America, Martínez—an Emmy Award-winning journalist and a poet, and holder of the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount—allows his gaze to roam over the contemporary Southwest, including Joshua Tree in California, northern New Mexico, Marfa, Texas, and Arizona’s Tohono O’odham reservation. As he seeks differing interpretations of the American West in the 21st century, he deftly contextualizes the stories of “outsiders” and “locals” and their relationships to place—whether that’s the ritzy art scene in Marfa or a drug-plagued village in northern New Mexico. Along the way Martínez asks, “Who belongs here and who doesn’t?”
Wading into the economic, cultural, political, and racial divides of the new Southwest—and offering perceptive musings on how art, literature, history, and film create a framework for the idea of the mythic West—Martínez who is in search of traces of the authentic. Along the way he examines gentrification and the resulting displacement of local populations and how America’s recent economic turbulence has affected the region. “The story of the great American boom of the 2000s and its culmination in the Great Recession is told well as a Western,” Martínez explains.
We talked to Martínez in-depth via email about Desert America and its potent mix of reportage and memoir, and about the region the book attempts to gain a broader understanding of.
ZYZZYVA: Growing up as a boy in Los Angeles you formed your own “idea of the West.” How did popular culture, especially films and literature, infuse your vision of the West?
Ruben Martínez: I grew up in Hollywood’—literally on the edge of the actual place, within a few hundred yards of the locations of some of the earliest motion picture studios. My father worked at a print shop in the heart of Hollywood “stripping” negatives (as they said in the pre-digital days) for movie posters. My father was a huge film buff; he took me to revival houses to see the films of his youth—World War II flicks and Westerns. And of course in the late Sixties and early Seventies the TV was constantly on at home as well—the Marlboro Man and “Bonanza” and the occasional John Ford movie.
The intensity of Hollywood is how its representations rival and shape reality—the overlap, as it were, of reel and the real. The screened image took up plenty of space in our house, but the printed word wasn’t far behind. My mother is a poet and on the bookshelves were volumes of Neruda and Garcia Lorca, novels by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. I grew up on the border between the screen of pop culture and serious literature and the idea of the writerly vocation. All this set up the way I would imagine the West, which I experienced both in TV and film and on our regular family vacations into the actual place. The tension between these imagined and lived spaces became kinetic for me when I took up residence in the desert for almost a decade beginning in the late 1990s.
Z: Can you explain how the ideas of literary critic Raymond Williams—ideas about the problem of perspective and the accrual of images of a place, and how they can be contradictory and create what he calls a “structure of feeling”—influenced your book?
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RM: Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is a remarkable work of criticism published in 1973 that reads very fresh today. My wife, anthropologist and author Angela Garcia, was reading it for her own project based on the years we lived together in New Mexico (and that saw fruition as the book The Pastoral Clinic), and it dovetailed perfectly with both of our experiences of the “pastoral,” especially in the sense of how the city imagines it. (There would be no idea of the pastoral without the urban.) Williams was preoccupied with literary production and the way it reflected class contradictions. That is exactly what preoccupied me as I delved deeper into the American desert West and witnessed the tremendous power of artistic representation in tandem with speculation and the sharp social divides that result. So even as I continued journalistic research, interviewing subjects for the character sketches in the book, I was also, following Williams, seeking artistic representations to critique, looking for the intersection between lived and imagined realms. I discovered the obvious, what I had intuited early on as a child of Hollywood—that they are thoroughly linked, the one productive of the other.
Z: You write about “wildly contrasting landscapes and human geographies” in the West, yet you uncovered similarities among some of them: Joshua Tree, California, Velarde, N.M., Marfa, Texas, and the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona.
RM: I suppose there are more similarities in the end; that is, the big picture remains the same: throughout the desert borderlands there is a “trialectic,” to use the term coined by anthropologist John Bodine, between Anglo, Latino and Native American conceptions of space and history that are rooted in the experience of colonialism. The local histories are very particular, though. Northern New Mexico and southern Arizona and West Texas are very distinct geographically and also culturally. The green chile in New Mexico, the O’odham “waila” music of southern Arizona, the outsider communities of the California desert—these are universes unto themselves. And they are all united through the experience of colonial expansion, the deep roots of the ongoing tensions in the region. The borderlands retain the historical aura more powerfully than many other parts of the country precisely because there are so many borders here—between the United States and Mexico, between Native and non-Native lands, the powerful waves of migration that have brought distinct groups into contact in an often tense dance.
Z: You write how Marfa, a tiny town in West Texas, became a darling of the New York Times, and how the flourishing art scene there was followed by gentrification and speculation, effectively erasing the Mexicans and their collective experience within Marfa. How does this compare with what happened in Joshua Tree, where you lived as a young man?
RM: First I should say that I lived in Joshua Tree as a younger man—I was in my late thirties by then. And utterly lost, which is how the book begins. So I wind up in the desert in the pre-boom days, when it was mostly tourists and outsiders and retirees of modest means and military personnel. Then came the boom. The way I tell the story in the book is that my cohort of scruffy bohemians in search of cheap rents and desert cool unwittingly served as the advance scouts for the army of speculators, replicating the urban hipster gentrification model.
The boom swept across a good part of the Southwest, but in scattershot fashion, like a wildfire igniting several smaller fires with wind-borne embers. The town I first lived in, Twentynine Palms, was passed over—mostly because it was and is and for the foreseeable future will be a military town (it lies at the edge of the largest Marine Corps training facility in the U.S.). There’s just no easy way to make a military town hip, you know? Joshua Tree was the next town over, and the landscape largely hid the military base and the live-fire exercises there. (You could still hear the explosions, though.) So Joshua Tree was the high desert town that was, in the parlance of real estate, “flipped.” As the artists and even haute pastries flooded in, a portion of the old population was simply shoved aside and its history was selectively interpreted by the newcomers. Wherever I went in the Southwestern deserts, there were stories like this—brash newcomers writing old-timers out of the story. It’s a story as old as conquest, which is exactly what it is. Lest anyone think I’m a righteous anti-gentrification crusader indicting artists for their collusion with real estate interests in this displacement, I am very much part of this process. My book, even in its attempt to critique it, is part of the process, whether I like it or not. There is no way to turn back the clock. What I hope for is now that the boom has happened, and the bust, that we can finally face what the desert of capitalism in its current form has wrought. The argument finally is: the desert as place, in its beautiful fragility, is asking us to live a different way.
Z: In your chronicling of the fading of the Old West economy, a fading based on extractive industries giving away to gentrification and speculation and new industry, you use the terms “amenity migrants,” amenity villages” and “migrant magnet.” Could you explain these terms?
RM: I picked up the term “amenity migrant” and “amenity village” from the demographer Kenneth Johnson, who studied the phenomenon of the dramatic influx of people of means from the coasts into the interior West—A-list Hollywood types buying colossal acreage in Montana, New York artists buying up the desert in Marfa or Joshua Tree. The one-percenters, arriving in a land of devastating poverty and in many cases drug addiction. But the imagined landscape serves as wallpaper to obscure what is on the other side of the tracks (literally, as in Marfa, where working-class Mexicans live on one side of the town and the New Marfans have remade the other). The one-percenters think they’ve found paradise. Often as not, there is a rude awakening from that idyllic vision. There certainly was for me— which is why I set out to write this book. I felt myself to be on the border between the disparate realms. The son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, I am also very much a middle-class American. I arrived in the desert by choice. Many of my neighbors had no choice. They wound up there as a matter of survival, or their people had been on that landscape, as the norteños of New Mexico say, “since forever.”
Z: You mention the notion of authenticity in the West at least seven times in your book. For example, you write about making sure your quest in Joshua Tree was “authentic,” or Mexico City being an authentic place to get messed up; or that in northern New Mexico the trailer is quickly replacing the classic rustic norteño adobe as housing for Hispanos while the adobe is becoming an object of desire among new arrivals seeking “authentic” Western living, and so on. Is an authentic life at all possible in the 21st century West?
RM: Claiming authenticity is the first sign of inauthenticity, no? A conscious performance of authenticity, in other words, is a contradiction in terms, like “reality television.” To go out and buy a cowboy hat for the first time in your life because you think the desert is cool and you think you might want to live there—which is exactly what I did—is clearly inauthentic, even though the cowboy hat is a sign of Western authenticity. But what interests me the most is the genealogy of this desire. How did I come to feel so alienated that I needed to reinvent myself as a Western subject by wearing a cowboy hat? It seemed to me that I arrived in a land where alienation was the only common discourse, alienation borne of radically different causes, of course.
Z: How do poverty, race and class erase “the other” in the West?
RM: I think it’s more that money and power erase poverty and race—among the essential markers of otherness in America. At its root the problem is one of representation itself—the frame always excludes, and the people with the means to make frames in the first place tend to be middle class and represent their class interests, even if they consider themselves “liberal” or “progressive” or even “radical.” Even a reflexive turn in the writing—that is, turning the lens around at the subject the writer is, if he or she is nominally writing about the other—doesn’t change that fundamental fact.
So the problem is artistic as well as political and economic, which brings us back to Raymond Williams. This line of critique necessarily leads us to question the hagiographic (uncritical) ways we have received the artistic canon of the American West. That there is artistic brilliance in that canon is beyond doubt. The real question is more about how the art has been used ideologically, at the service of a colonial or neo-colonial project. People think I’m out to convict Georgia O’Keeffe for crimes against the other. But it’s not about Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s the way her work is commodified, sucked dry of its own critical power, and ultimately becomes a postcard that delivers us the unreconstructed Old West, the land beyond fences under wide-open skies. That’s the way the other gets erased.
Z: What effect has 9/11 had on immigration and the people who live on the O’odham reservation?
RM: 9/11 has had a devastating effect throughout the borderlands and nowhere is this more obvious than the Tohono O’odham reservation, which I visited on several occasions, always with O’odham activist Mike Wilson, who became famous (or infamous to some) for setting out water for the migrants along the border trails. Even before 9/11, southern Arizona had become an important smuggling route because of the Clinton Administration’s new fencing policies. The post-9/11 world brought us 800 miles of new fencing and continued to funnel migrants onto the Baboquivari Trail, which is among the most beautiful (and in Native cosmology sacred) as well as deadly places in the entire Southwest. There are very few water sources and it’s a hike of up to 75 miles for migrants to get picked up in that area. When the temperature gets over 90 degrees, people start dying. And they start dying when it gets below freezing in winter, too.
One the one hand, Mike Wilson’s humanitarian project flows from a simple and clean reading of Scripture: the Samaritan gesture. On the other hand, the O’odham have had their homes violated by smugglers, have seen rising rates of drug addiction among their youth (the smuggling of people is thoroughly entwined with the smuggling of drugs today), have had their desert overrun by the Border Patrol, have had their sacred ceremonial routes disrupted, have had the border split apart their traditional lands. The O’odham had lived for thousands of years in a borderless realm. Immigration politics, the drug war, and the paranoia of 9/11 have made the O’odham, whose name means “people of the desert,” pay a terrible price. We need to make amends.
Z: Could you explain why D.H. Lawrence figures in the writing of “Desert America”?
RM: Lawrence is a complicated figure and he looms large over northern New Mexico—the story of his arrival there is one of those texts obscuring the “other,” that is the Native American and Hispano narratives of the region. I related to him on some level because I, too, arrived in northern New Mexico as an outsider and found myself on the border between disparate communities. He was ambivalent about New Mexico. And sometimes terribly ignorant—particularly in his writings on Native Americans, which replicate most of the stereotypes of the time. But he also had a keen and hungry intellect, was a visionary writer, and his gaze tells us much about the Western gaze, or the gaze upon the West. I knew I was going to get into trouble writing about him, and I’ve already heard from critics from both sides—those who think I waxed romantic about Lawrence, and those who think I was disregarding his genius.
Z: What are you reading right now?
RM: I’ve been writing for performance of late and very concentrated on early 20th century Los Angeles history—the story of Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, who agitated in Los Angeles at the outset of the Mexican Revolution. The story is epic, like Reds, and takes place in three countries and across half the United States. There are sensational trials and riots, and a magnificent love affair, and the biggest of all dreams of a better world—the anarchist dream, that vision that has been so misconstrued and misunderstood across the decades and that yet inspires—indeed, that returned to us as a way to talk about class divides in this country (the “one and the ninety-nine”). I’m thinking historical novel … or some crazy pastiche of texts on the theme…
Z: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think it’s important for people to know about your book?
RM: Let me make the grandest of claims: I think it is in the desert that we can find our way. I mean politically and morally and spiritually and ecologically. I think our salvation is out there, in that lonely, heartbreaking, scary, sacred place.