Desert America by Rubén Martínez, published by Metropolitan Books, takes the mythology of “the West” and turns it on it’s head, through a startlingly personal and historic look at northern New Mexico, Joshua Tree California, Marfa Texas, and the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona.
Martínez takes the reader on a journey, not just through the complicated history of displacement, migration, militarization and gentrification in these places, but he takes us through a trip of his own life, as he and his surroundings struggle with identity and addictions.
While interviewing and living among his subject, Martínez questions his own place. Is he participating in the wave of othering residents? Is he contributing to gentrification that is displacing families whose roots go back generations? What is the role that immigration enforcement plays in terms of relationships between people and nations? Martínez enters as both an insider and outsider into the West questioning the very nature of authenticity that so many who have been there for a long time and newcomers both like to claim.
In Desert America we are reminded of what happened in 1997 to 18 year old Eseqiuel Hernández, shot to death by U.S. Marines in Redford, Texas claiming they felt threatened by the teen who was herding his family’s goats when really they were helping to create and perpetuate the stereotype justification for a drug war that we know is failing on both sides of the Southern Border. The book also explores the role of real estate speculation especially in Northern New Mexico and the negative impact that has had on native populations. Travelling in Marfa, Texas we learn about how school desegregation was delayed specifically for Mexicans who were kept in their own “separate but equal school” for a little over a decade after Brown vs. Board of Ed. In the South Valley of New Mexico we enter the world of a different kind of Latin@ identity politics. Where you can be Native, Hispano, Mexican, Chicano or a mixture of all of the above. Martínez questions the roles of artists and literary figures like D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe in exotisizing the West while erasing what existed prior to their discoveries. Martínez describes newcomers to the region as gentrifiers fleeing the gentrification of cities like Los Angeles and this gentrification is likened to recolonization. The segregation, poverty, and drug abuse Martínez recalls makes a strong argument.
This book arrived in the mail just as I was arriving west, in Los Angeles from New York City, and I hoped that as I read it, I would gain greater insight about the idea of the West now that I lived in it. I wasn’t prepared. Desert America forced me to look deeper at myself and the role that I played in arriving to the alleged ghetto of the City of Angels to live in a house that had been flipped by real estate speculators. A house that the family who lived here before probably lost in foreclosure. Was I now a gentrifier fleeing the gentrification of New York City?
Martínez positions the West as a looking glass into the future while simultaneously pointing that mirror on himself, of Mexican and El Salvadorian heritage, and us, readers and members of US society who keep buying into the West as landscape to be discovered when it, like everywhere else, has always been and has a story that preceded the arrival of the new conquistador class.
Check out Desert America by Rubén Martínez. It is such a unique combo of history, anthropology and autobiography that is especially relevant now as Latinos are looked at more closely and as we, hopefully look at ourselves more deeply.