On Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West

By Daniel A. OlivasAugust 25, 2012

On Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West

I FIRST MET RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ three years ago on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles, which hosted the Latino Book & Family Festival that year. I moderated a panel called “Latino LA: The City of Angels Through Fiction, Poetry and Journalism” that included Rubén as well as Héctor Tobar, Julio Martínez, Marisela Norte and Gustavo Arellano. A dream panel, without a doubt: lively, hilarious, and often poignant. What I remember most about Rubén was his intense desire to engage and provoke the audience with both humor and detailed exegesis. It was clear that Rubén not only loved the written word, but he embraced his audience with his entire being.

That day, I also watched Rubén openly wrestle with the complexities and contradictions engendered by his mixed cultural identity: someone of this country, but not quite. He is, in fact, a native Angeleno. But Rubén is also the son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. As an award-winning author, he has written much on the immigrant experience as well as the political penumbra cast by that volatile subject, including The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond, Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, and The New Americans. His heart, mind and soul thrive and struggle in the borderlands.

His latest book, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, published by Metropolitan Books, brings us to the next stage of the Martínez journey for truth and meaning. This book will challenge every idea you may have formed about life and death in our western deserts, and it will make you question whether we, as sentient beings, have the ability to truly belong to any community other than that within which we were born and raised. It is a compelling and daring book, one filled with equal parts confession, history, and politics. Despite a busy travel schedule to promote his latest literary offering, Rubén kindly agreed to an online interview to discuss Desert America.


DANIEL OLIVAS: Your new book is quite a balancing act: to use your own words, “it's a book of reportage, memoir and criticism, an interweaving of radically different narratives: high-end art colonies, and deadly migrant trails, the boutique desert and the desert of addiction and poverty.” Did you constantly remind yourself that you were writing in three genres so that the book didn’t drift too far in one direction or another?

RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ: The book developed over a very long period of time. I first thought of writing about the desert probably within a year of arriving in Twentynine Palms, around 1998. My original vision was a book about water in the desert. I was obsessed with it. I’d hike to remote springs and seeps, pored over highly detailed technical maps in search of the miracle of water on trickling down rocks or bubbling up from the sand. It was going to be a book about water rights — but not just about the Colorado River and who steals its water. What about the rights of migrants crossing the desert to the water that would save their lives? Initially it was going to be straight reportage. But all along I was also journaling about “cleaning up” in the desert — slowly leaving behind the addictions that had brought me out to the Big Empty in the first place; that’s how the memoir starting taking shape.

The criticism component of the book is essentially an argument about the unholy alliance between artistic representation and speculation in Western art colonies like Taos and Santa Fe (and, much more recently, Joshua Tree, where I also lived), which resulted from the fact that everywhere I turned there seemed to be an old art colony or a new one springing up, during the “boom” years before the crash of 2008. I’ve always wanted to write across genres, have the self meet the other and history in the text.

Once I was aware that I had three elements to work with, I consciously tried to strike a balance among them. My editor Riva Hocherman at Metropolitan had a lot input on this — counseling me to cut back on the memoir especially, advice that I mostly heeded. (Like all writers, I pushed back on a couple of cuts she suggested!) I mention the writer-editor relationship because I feel so lucky to have had a close working relationship — page by page, word by word — with Riva, who is a marvelous old school editor. I hear horror stories of manuscripts going straight to copy edit these days because of downsizing and bottom-line bullshit in the publishing industry.

DO: Your descriptions of nature are striking. Did you have a literary role model as you painted word pictures of Joshua Tree in California’s Mojave Desert, rural northern New Mexico, the art colony in Marfa, Texas, and the Tohono O'odham reservation in southern Arizona?

RM: There’ve been innumerable words written trying to describe the desert West, enough canvases painted for everyone in the country to hang one in their living room, untold photographs and films shot. If anything, I was loath to put another book on the shelf in the “Southwest” section of a used bookstore. Libraries are filled with dusty, forgotten tomes trying to capture the peculiar beauty of this place.

During the years that I was researching and writing and burping babies and just plain blocked, I had different ideas about aesthetic models, or anti-models as the case often was. For example, early on I decided that I would write against Cormac McCarthy: I thought his prose was overwrought and that he was politically and philosophically cynical, if not reactionary (in that the dark portraits he paints leave no room for people to imagine a different world). I was also clear that I never wanted the landscape to overshadow the human figures on the land — this was going to be a book about people, not enchanted natural forms.

But those were to an extent quixotic quests, tilting my sword at discursive windmills that are impossible to deny or erase. McCarthy is unavoidable: he’s the Faulkner of the borderlands. Although I still stand by my political and philosophical judgment of him, I ultimately came to grudgingly respect the gnarled curmudgeon. I even borrowed what I consider to be a progressive stylistic trick from him: I’m not sure if he was the first one to render Spanish on the page in roman rather than in italics (thus erasing the border between English and Spanish and no longer “othering” the “foreign”), but he’s the first writer who showed me they could get that past an editor or stylebook in New York. (There were certainly many long conversations with my publisher about it, but they relented — the practice is just about mainstream today.)

And although this is a book about people, I could hardly avoid the landscape; it’s the focus of our desire in the West, with people desiring it at cross-purposes: environmentalists, Hispano loggers, undocumented immigrants, real estate speculators, artists, ATV riders, hunters. My bookshelves are filled with writers and artists and musicians trying to capture the desert. Ana Castillo, the author. Calexico, the band. Obscure monographs from the early 20th century, sketchbooks from the mid-19th century, WPA reports, vintage postcards.

And movies, movies, movies! Two of my favorites: John Ford (The Searchers) and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood). The latter is probably the most important single model I had in the final phase of writing. Anderson’s film and the Upton Sinclair Oil! novel it was based upon tell the story of the desert West as a place of extreme class conflict, capitalism at its most brutal (an apt allusion for the Great Recession). The rendering of landscape in There Will Be Blood is very reminiscent of John Ford — the forms are often brooding, frightening. In lesser Westerns, the landscape is triumphalist, one-dimensional, the Ken Burns effect. I wanted my landscapes to evoke both the beauty we desire and the tension between the sublime and the human drama played out on them.

DO: You recount poignant and sometimes rather humorous encounters with people who have lived in the desert all their lives as well as those who are newcomers to desert life. One of my favorites is your meeting with Denise Chávez’s cousin, Enrique Madrid, who lives about an hour’s drive from Marfa. Enrique, despite ill health, is what you call a “living encyclopedia of border history,” particularly with regard to the mistreatment (often at the hands of the government) of people who live on both sides of the border. When asked, “What do you do with your neighbors?” he answered, in a gentle voice: “You talk to them. You love them. You marry them. You become them.”

RM: Enrique Madrid, historian and activist in the Big Bend region of West Texas, is the moral center of the book, which is an ethical argument about neighbors. Our literal neighbors — the people that live next door to us. And our more symbolic neighbors — the America’s relationship to Mexico, for example, or the relations among ethnic groups and social classes that share the same space. Enrique’s vision is complicated and contradictory. He is bitter about the devastating legacy of American empire building in the Southwestern deserts. He will forever mourn the death of his neighbor, 18 year-old Esequiel Hernández, who was out herding his family’s goats in Redford, TX (pop. 100) when he was shot by a Marine unit performing reconnaissance for the “war on drugs” in 1997. The tragedy was an early warning that the global militarized prohibition campaign against drugs is an amoral abomination that does nothing to reduce drug supply or demand, but in fact further corrupts both sides of the border.

On the other hand, Enrique can also wax eloquently about an expansive, Whitmanesque (or Bolivar-esque) notion of the Americas, a great project of integration on all levels — economic, political, cultural. Hanging out in his house, which is both museum and library (thousands and thousands of books and memorabilia and even archeological artifacts), I felt like I was on a Borgesian adventure, that I caught a glimpse of the Aleph itself: that point in time and space that is connected to every other point in history, a coruscating vision of oneness.

There were many other people that I connected to in my desert sojourn that offered me glimpses of key historical moments, particular points of view that had heretofore been hidden from me. Many of them are in the book, some of them are not. My original manuscript was nearly 700 pages long, and that was edited down to a little over 400. My editor decided, probably wisely, that I should not try to compete with the voluble William Vollman.

DO: You say in the book that you “came to the desert to clean up and heal, like the consumptives once did, following the deep symbolic lineage of the desert as destination of restorative pilgrimage, a place to soothe the soul and cleanse the body.” Do you think that the desert did this for you? Do you believe that living in a big city makes the healing more difficult so that only a place like the desert can offer healing? I ask because, as you describe it, the desert is not free from drug abuse and temptation.

RM: I chose the desert to “clean up” for the symbolic reasons and also for practical ones — the rent was cheap back then (we’re talking the late nineties, before the wild season of speculation). The spiritual symbolism for me came after the fact, by the way. When I first arrived in the desert I could not have said what I was doing there. All I knew is that I was broke, broken, on drugs, and that one of the last friends I could count on, performance artist Elia Arce, happened to be in the village of Joshua Tree, part of a fledgling art colony (of course they didn’t regard themselves that way at all — that only happened later, when the high rollers came into town).

Later on, as I read more and more about the desert, I realized the spiritual context that I’d stumbled into. Of course, it was no accident that I arrived there. The sense of the sacredness of the desert has actually sharpened for me in the last few years — in spite of the fact that much of the book is about addiction, loss and alienation. A lot of that has to do with striking up a friendship with a theologian at Loyola Marymount University, where I teach. Douglas Christie has committed much of his scholarship to the early Christian monastic tradition, which was a literal journey into the desert in fourth-century Egypt as well as a radical spiritual one, an ancient version of “tune in, drop out, turn on.” If initially Doug and I were somewhat suspicious of each other (I judged him a crunchy monk, he thought of me as a hothead postcolonial critic), we found we had much in common. We were both bona fide desert rats. We’ve been teaching a class together at LMU for the last couple of years, combining spiritual and political lenses to look at the place and the people.

As for my own process of getting clean — both a physical and spiritual path — I went from Mexico City, the most populous place on earth, to the Mojave, one of the loneliest places on the planet. As you say, I soon encountered drugs and death in the desert, but that didn’t diminish the potent symbolism of pilgrimage; if anything, it emboldened it. For the last several months I’ve been working with the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered last year in a cartel-related crime. Almost all of Sicilia’s poetry was about the spiritual desert — he was a mystical Catholic poet until his son was murdered and he renounced poetry and translated his verses into activism against the insanity of the drug war, a spark of hope in these, the deadliest days.

The desert is often a phantasmagorical place. And when the storm passes, it radiates unique beauty.

DO: Did you ever reach a point where you thought you’d never finish writing this book?

RM: Oh yes, many. I moved away from the desert, from northern New Mexico to Los Angeles just as I was starting to write, which separated me from my subject. Various life changes occurred, joyous ones like the birth of our twin daughters, Ruby and Lucía. I continued to wrestle some old demons. Luckily, the Lannan Foundation gave me the amazing gift of one month of writing time at its retreat in Marfa. I wrote 300 pages during that time, in spite of toothaches and panic attacks. The hubcaps were coming off, but I made it through. I must say this: a lot is made of the writer’s “solitary” life. For me at least, that’s bullshit. I write in a constellation of supportive relationships. There’s my wife Angela, herself a writer (her Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande shares some narrative with my own book, since we lived together in northern New Mexico while she was researching her anthropology dissertation), is the first responder to all my crises of faith, my editor and publisher; my agent (Susan Bergholz, who has watched my back for 15 years); friends like David Reid in Berkeley willing to read a draft whenever I needed a fresh pair of eyes. And my dog Bear, rest in peace, who walked me every day in the desert to clear my head.

DO: How has your family reacted to your descriptions of your addictions as well as the addictions of some of them?  Do you give family members pre-publication veto power?

RM: No veto power, but of course I care about what they think of my self-portraits and how I write the family. Every act of writing the other (especially an intimate other) is an act of betrayal in that the representation never captures the subject in all its fullness. My father is always catching me on inaccuracies — or rather, my memory conjuring one thing and his another. I write in the book that he screened The Searchers for the first time in Mexico City. Nope, he says, it was here in L.A. But it was much better for the narrative for it to happen in Mexico City! (I am reminded of that classic Joan Didion essay, “Upon Keeping a Notebook,” in which her memoirs evoke challenges from her intimates. “It wasn’t like that at all!”)

I have always written and performed material that has plenty of confession in it. I’d like to think I’m striking a balance between the American “I” and the Latin American “We.” As far as writing about addiction, I am struck by how “American” a trope that is. We do like our addicts, though we can also crucify them if they lie to us (James Frey). I did decide early on that I would write about my addiction with circumspection, didn’t want to get into “too much information” territory, because we’ve heard it all before. I didn’t want this to come across like a VH1 rockumentary about an aging rocker who gets clean in middle age and starts yoga and meditation. And I must say that I come from a family that is very American — in spite of our immigrant roots — in the sense that my parents have been nothing but supportive of my career and accepting of almost everything that I write about. My mother, who emigrated from El Salvador as a young woman, went back to school when I was in middle school and eventually received a master’s degree in psychology and started a private practice in Los Angeles. I think this had a profound impact on the family in allowing a space to speak of our darkness. My father did alcohol rehab and AA. My sister is a counselor in the public schools. And we all lived, of course, in Oprah’s America.

DO: In the end, what do you hope readers get from Desert America, or is that something you don’t worry about?

RM: I definitely want it to be read as a parable about a time and a place: the desert West during the boom and bust of the 2000s. It’s a book about desert capitalism, or rather the desert that is capitalism. And about that other desert, the one in our souls, where our ethics spring from to give us the possibility of opening our door to the neighbor or the pilgrim.


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LARB Contributor

Daniel Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is a playwright and the author of 10 books including, most recently, How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2022), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press, 2017). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press, 2016). His first full-length play, Waiting for Godínez, was selected for the Playwrights’ Arena Summer Reading Series, and The Road Theatre’s 12th Annual Summer Playwrights Festival, and was a Semi-Finalist for the American Blues Theater’s Blue Ink Playwriting Award. Widely anthologized, he has also written for The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesThe GuardianAlta JournalJewish JournalLos Angeles Review of BooksLa Bloga, and many other print and online publications. By day, Olivas is an attorney in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice. He and his wife make their home in Southern California, and they have an adult son.


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