“Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West,” by Ruben Martinez, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, $28.00, 352 pages.
Ruben Martinez’s “Desert America” is an odd – and wonderful – book. Much like the polarity-riven frontier he writes about, the text is a mix of things, blurring the lines between memoir, investigative reporting and social history. But although it has weaknesses, “Desert America” works, painting a kaleidoscopic picture of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas – locales that, since time immemorial, have been mythologized by spiritualists, shysters, realtors, writers and people in the arts.
Martinez arrived in New Mexico in 1997, when he was looking for a place to get clean from drug addiction. He also knew that he wanted to write. At the time, he says, “migrants were arriving from the south, from the east, from west of the West, a motley cohort that would transform the demographic profile of the region. All this movement meant extraordinary wealth for some and darkening prospects for many others.”
Martinez was drawn to both groups – and to everyone in between – but as he began to solicit people to interview, he discovered that those who had been in the area “since forever” were, for the most part, less than welcoming. He also found drugs – heroin, crystal meth, cocaine and weed – in abundance.
Indeed, despite tourism brochures touting a “three cultures model” of Anglo, Native American and Hispano coexistence, Martinez noted more than a few indicators of tension in the “land of enchantment.” On a personal level, he writes, he had never felt so “other.” “I felt more out of place than I’ve ever felt in Latin America – or even in truly foreign places, like Boston. For many Hispanics, there is a clear line between locals and outsiders, a divide rooted in centuries of invasion, occupation and resistance, exacerbated by notions of historical authenticity that inform local politics.”
That Hispanos were themselves once invaders and occupiers seems long forgotten.
What’s more, this “here since forever” mentality has led to overt racism against the recent influx of Mexican immigrants who have flocked to cities and towns throughout the state. “In 1990, immigrants made up 5.3 percent of New Mexico’s population,” Martinez begins.
That number nearly doubled by 2010, the vast majority from Mexico. Like Mexican immigrants across the country, they were overrepresented in low wage jobs concentrated in the service and construction sectors … Hispanos do not see Mexicans as long-lost brothers [sic]. They see them as Mexicans.
It’s a horrifying, maybe even shocking, conclusion, with deadly consequences. Martinez reports numerous incidents of Mexican business owners being gunned down, execution style. In addition, he writes that new students at Espanola High are frequently bullied and make easy targets for gangs and other miscreants. Martinez himself has had several close calls, as has his wife.
This ugliness is even worse on the Arizona-Mexico border. The growth of militia groups like the Minutemen who patrol the desert border are fueled, Martinez continues, by “Republicans conflating al-Qaeda operatives with undocumented nannies and busboys.” The end result? “Landlords, schoolteachers and hospital attendants are turned into de facto immigration guards.”
“Desert America” is at its best when zeroing in on these conflicts. In addition, interviews with activists who defy the law to leave water in the desert – the borderland between Arizona and Mexico – are riveting.
Likewise, Martinez’s scrutiny of the ways immigration policies have been manipulated to meet economic need:
“At the peak of the housing bubble in January 2006, when the annual pace of new home construction hit a blistering 2.29 million units, an estimated 14 percent of laborers in the construction sector were undocumented immigrants, including 20 percent of carpet, floor and tile installers, 28 percent of drywallers and 36 percent of insulation workers,” he writes.
“In September 2007, housing starts were down almost 50 percent, prices had tumbled and tens of thousands of migrants had lost their jobs. By the end of the decade, an estimated one million undocumented immigrants had returned to their home countries.” Nonetheless, immigration has not stopped and thousands of desperate souls continue to make the trek north.
Martinez’s heartbreaking and vivid description of the terrain they travel is gripping; but as sympathetic as Martinez is to immigrants and those who help them, he also presents sympathetic portraits of the gentrifiers, New Agers and creatives who have moved west.
While some of these people seem oblivious to everything but the region’s natural beauty – unaware that they live within striking distance of extreme poverty and want – many of the others he introduces are simply looking for a more tranquil existence, far from crowds and the hustle-and-bustle of urbanity. That they have the cash to establish studios, galleries, restaurants and other businesses is a given, something that allows them to wax ecstatic over their ability to buy houses and buildings for a fraction of what they’d cost elsewhere.
Martinez captures the resentment of longtime residents to this turn of events extremely well; at the same time he does not vilify newcomers, perhaps because he, himself, can be counted as part of the yuppie invasion. Nowhere is this conflict more blatant than in the ongoing tensions between largely-white environmentalists and largely-non-white locals over the issue of logging, and once more, Martinez offers a nuanced look at all sides of this contentious issue.
Then there’s Texas, where he again interrogates the ways development has impacted several small towns including Marfa, “discovered” by artist Donald Judd in 1979, and later featured in The New York Times. The town now boasts the Marfa Book Company, numerous exhibition spaces, and several high-end eateries, all of which cater to a growing population of well-heeled retirees, artists, writers and hangers-on who think of themselves as pioneers. The fact that near-destitute Hispano ranchers have populated the land for centuries has yet to cross the radar of these newbies, Martinez concludes.
And therein lies the crux of Martinez’s desert, an exquisite multi-state landscape where addicts, drunks and the impoverished live in uncomfortable proximity to those seeking spiritual solace, some of them rich, and all of them chasing something indeterminate. It’s a place of flourishing arts and meth labs, low riders, Indian casinos and Los Alamos – the largest employer in the Espanola Valley. It’s also home to 29 Palms, the largest Marine training ground in the country, used to prepare recruits for conditions in Afghanistan.
To suggest that the southwest is a land of contradictions is an oversimplification that defies the many layers of simultaneous existence that Martinez presents. That said, Martinez’s denouement is simple: “Locals have been displaced by newcomers during the birth of art colonies and other spates of gentrification, but Native Americans are still here, as are Mexicans and every other variety of westerner.
If anything, the West also shows a long, steady arc of becoming ever more demographically complex, Arizona’s most recent nativist turn notwithstanding. This, in the context of desert gentrification, means that integration and segregation are occurring simultaneously. That is, there is more of everybody out here.”