Tales from the Desert | - August 3, 2012

Rubén Martínez signs and discusses his new book Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, Aug. 7

One of my earliest reporting jobs was in the mid 1990s for the venerable Rio Grande Sun newspaper in Española. At the time, I was just grateful to have a newspaper job, but that gratitude quickly grew into fascination and amazement at the people and stories of Rio Arriba County.

Several years later, during my tenure as editor of The Santa Fe Reporter, I met writer and musician Rubén Martínez, who was living in Velarde, but came into Santa Fe where we had lunch and talked about the book he was writing that would explore the cultural contrasts and history of northern New Mexico.

That book is the recently released Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. I will be part of a public conversation with Martínez at his booksigning at 6 p.m., August 7 at Collected Works Bookstore.

The book is a collection of stories from the desert, told through the trajectory of Martínez’ personal experiences in these places: Velarde, NM; Joshua Tree, Calif.; Marfa, Texas; the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona. In each of these communities, Martínez explores how the myths and realities of the west manifest, as well as the cultural and class dichotomies of these communities. He does so through multiple lenses: history, politics, film, culture. The result is a textured tableau that is both informative and provocative; descriptive and imagined.

The new west Martinez describes is the one in which, to a degree, we all live, where poverty and wealth uneasily co-exist, and old narratives flow through new stories.

In his introduction, Martinez describes the shifting demographics and emergent boom/bust cycle with a nod to the same propulsive themes of the country’s beginning, writing:

“As surely as the bloody scrim of Manifest Destiny swept across it, the West tells Americans about themselves. It is a place writ large with desire over many generations—for water, for silver and copper and gold, for timber and oil; as the place where consumptives came to soothe their lungs, where environmentalists see sacred space, where multinational corporations beat back environmentalists to exploit the land. The story of the great American boom of the 2000s and its culmination in the Great Recession is told well as a Western.”

While the book in its entirety is compelling, the stories in New Mexico are particularly poignant, at least for this reader. Addiction, as both a hard fact and a working metaphor, is ever-present in Martínez’s story. His wife, Angela Garcia, a writer and anthropologist, is author of PEN Center USA Award-winning book, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande. Addiction, Martínez writes toward the end of the book, is a byproduct of the desert’s boom/bust cycle, a response to what he describes as “the subjective experience of alienation from places and relationships and representations shaped by power—that is, by the way power violently and unevenly distributes wealth, determining who lives in the trailer and who lives in the adobe chalet and assigning not just the corresponding real estate value but the value of human lives across the social geography.”

The desert, Martínez says, “knows this process intimately, having been conquered and colonized over and again.”

Author of several books, including Crossing Over and The New American, Martinez holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. An Emmy-award winning journalist for his work as host of Life & Times, Martínez’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, Spin and Mother Jones. His is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Lannan Foundation Fellowship in Non Fiction.