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Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West

Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West

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by Rubén Martínez

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A brilliantly illuminating portrait of the twenty-first-century West—a book as vast, diverse, and unexpected as the land and the people, from one of our foremost chroniclers of migration

The economic boom—and the devastation left in its wake—has been writ nowhere as large as on the West, the most iconic of American landscapes. Over


A brilliantly illuminating portrait of the twenty-first-century West—a book as vast, diverse, and unexpected as the land and the people, from one of our foremost chroniclers of migration

The economic boom—and the devastation left in its wake—has been writ nowhere as large as on the West, the most iconic of American landscapes. Over the last decade the West has undergone a political and demographic upheaval comparable only to the opening of the frontier. Now, in Desert America, a work of powerful reportage and memoir, Rubén Martínez, acclaimed author of Crossing Over, evokes a new world of extremes: outrageous wealth and devastating poverty, sublime beauty and ecological ruin.

In northern New Mexico, an epidemic of drug addiction flourishes in the shadow of some of the country's richest zip codes; in Joshua Tree, California, gentrification displaces people and history. In Marfa, Texas, an exclusive enclave triggers a race war near the banks of the Rio Grande. And on the Tohono O'odham reservation, Native Americans hunt down Mexican migrants crossing the most desolate stretch of the border.
With each desert story, Martínez explores his own encounter with the West and his love for this most contested region. In the process, he reveals that the great frontier is now a harbinger of the vast disparities that are redefining the very idea of America.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It's hard to imagine a more engaging and illuminating chronicle of the contemporary West.… A nuanced, conflicted, poetic meditation on an endlessly elusive subject.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Deeply moving and insightful… A memoir that also manages to be an excellent work of reportage… Martínez treats all the people he writes about, and the places where they live, with the kind of profound respect all too rare among the legions of Western writers who have preceded him. The result is an emotional and intellectually astute portrait of communities long neglected and misunderstood by American literature.” —Los Angeles Times

“A compelling and daring book, one filled with equal parts confession, history, and politics… This book will challenge every idea you may have formed about life and death in our western deserts.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Unflinching… A sensitive, intricate perspective on the boom and bust cycle that characterizes the dry landscape of the American Southwest.” —NBC Latino

“A savage journey into terror, cacti, drugs, desperation and all-around anomie in the superheated atmosphere of the desert Southwest… A necessary chronicle of a weird corner of America.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Martínez offers reportage beyond the simple binaries of the immigration issue or the drug war. He delivers a lively, compassionate intervention into our collective conception of the Southwest… This thoughtful and well-written account intimately explores the convolutions of racism and class conflict that have come to define a divided America.” —Publishers Weekly

“After burn-outs in LA and Mexico City, Martínez flees to the desert in the hope that fierce, simplifying landscapes will cure his urban addictions. But he quickly discovers that the desert, far from a bohemian alternative, is actually the crisis of working-class American life reframed in the starkest existential terms. At this crossroads, where other writers would have surrendered to the darkness, Martínez instead looks toward the light. While the narrative is always honest and hard-headed, no book that I've read in the last twenty years has inspired so much genuine hope for the future of the West.” —Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

“Desert America is an uninsulated wire running through the hard-bitten, right-now, rough-edged Southwest, a land still being born. Go ahead and grab hold: first comes shock--maybe of recognition, maybe alarm--then you keep buzzing for page after electric page. You can't let go.” —William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness and River of Traps

“Most people experience the desert by car—they drive, stop to get gas, drive on, and after a while, they don’t see it anymore. Now the big plan is to cover the desert with solar panels and in ten years or less, it will all be gone, just like that. Maybe then, Rubén Martínez’s testament will be as close as you can get to the living feel of this beautiful land. After reading, I bet you’ll want to drive out there and take a look. But you better hurry.” —Ry Cooder, guitarist, singer, composer, and author of Los Angeles Stories

Desert America is a thorough, heartfelt, must-read for anyone investigating the West's state of economic and spiritual shambles.” —Ana Castillo, author of The Guardians

“Rubén Martínez offers a vision of the mythic West, complete with cowboys and drug mules, vistas and tract developments. But the desert sand under Martínez is constantly shifting, and his writing is fluid enough to capture this shift--he knows that all he can seek is the idea of the West.” —Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

“Rubén Martínez comes at his topics through side doors. He surprises. The result here is a disturbing and moving book. Searing, erudite, evocative, gritty, and funny are not adjectives I often apply to a single book, but there are few writers as singular as Martínez.” —Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Kirkus Reviews
A savage journey into terror, cacti, drugs, desperation and all-around anomie in the superheated atmosphere of the desert Southwest. Go east of Los Angeles 100 miles and you're in downtown Tweakerville, an area full of meth labs, bad vibes and bad attitudes. The desert runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and Martínez (Literature and Writing/Loyola Marymount Univ.; Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, 2001, etc.) makes it his beat. The narrative begins in Albuquerque, a city that "cannot imagine itself a city because to do so would negate its reason for being." It moves, subtly and without much fanfare, from the Southwest of the boom years, when the population of the region grew by 25 percent in just a decade, to the Southwest of today, a place of abandoned suburbs and forgotten hopes. Some of the ports of call are familiar--Joshua Tree, El Paso--and others not, but what sets Martínez's journey apart is its philosophical underpinnings, the governing question being, "Who belongs here and who doesn't?" By that reckoning, the adobe shacks, tattered palm trees and sun-bitten desert flats are all perfectly at home, whereas such things as the Santa Fe Opera, and most of Phoenix, and walls and fences that run parallel to the international line…well, not so much. As for the people, Martínez finds room for the likes of Mary Austin and Charles Lummis alongside the Native Americans and Latinos who have made the desert home for centuries. It is the latter people who are forgotten; toward the end of the book, for instance, the author quietly contrasts the well-heeled confines of Marfa, Texas, with the rest of Presidio County, half of whose people live in poverty. Less self-absorbed than Luis Alberto Urrea, less cynical than Charles Bowden, less otherly obsessed than William Vollmann--and right in the pocket, a necessary chronicle of a weird corner of America.

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Desert America

Boom and Bust in the (New) New West

By Rubén Martínez

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2012 Rubén Martínez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9561-6




I came to live in New Mexico like an old-school anthropologist, an adventurer in a remote land. I had visited a handful of times as a tourist. Long ago, there was a lover. I was barely out of my teens and was drifting. She was in her late twenties, drifting and practicing the healing arts. She was from Los Angeles, had moved to Albuquerque for more space, cleaner air, fewer of the ills associated with the city—and for the imaginaries of the West as a place of history and restorative powers that can heal the modern, alienated urban psyche.

Albuquerque is not a city, even as its metropolitan-area population approaches one million. That is, it cannot imagine itself a city because to do so would negate its reason for being, its biggest draw for tourists and refugees from Los Angeles and other large cities. Despite the sprawl, it thinks of itself as a town, a provincial way station set between a mountain and a mesa, bisected by the Rio Grande and its verdant cottonwood bosque.

My lover and I were each other's other: I stood in for Latin American poets and revolutionaries. She stood in for heroic Jewish intellectuals and activists.

Our cause was the revolution in El Salvador and the refugees amassed at the U.S.-Mexico border. Ronald Reagan did not call them refugees; he called them Communists. Along the line in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, faith-based activists guided the persecuted pilgrims across the desert and into their churches and homes. The first wave of punk was in the air back then (the Clash had recently released Sandinista!), and my own existential desire found its home among the exiled militants and working-class heroes that transformed MacArthur Park in Los Angeles into a Little Central America. I imbibed and imitated Salvadoran bard Roque Dalton's revolutionary verse ("Poetry, like bread, is for everyone ..."), declaiming at solidarity events and proselytizing Hollywood liberals. It was a melodramatic Cold War affair, and a sexy one. The passion of solidarity meetings and anti-intervention demonstrations spilled over into bedrooms, and suddenly it was cool to have a brown-skinned boyfriend with a scruffy Che beard.

My lover and I had met at a transformational seminar in L.A. in the summer of 1984, and reunited under the Albuquerque sky, a cerulean vastness I'd seen only in the films of John Ford. We picnicked under the rasp of cottonwood leaves. We drove north—my first visit to northern New Mexico—to a rustic adobe for our rendezvous.

We visited Chimayó, the Lourdes of the American West. She dressed me in vests of wool woven with Native designs. We crouched at the pit of holy dirt said to hold restorative powers and smudged our bodies. I had no idea that within a few yards of the sanctuary there were Hispanos, as Mexican-Americans refer to themselves here, shooting up heroin.

When we drove back down I-25 to Albuquerque, the thunderheads billowed up and two rainbows joined above us. Really.

So New Mexico, to me, was a place where difference became desire and our desire was consummated on a landscape that stripped us of difference, welcoming us back to Eden. Even then I knew it was a lie, but I indulged the magical mystery tour because I was in love.

Twenty years after my New Mexican affair, my wife-to-be, Angela García, and I begin scouring the rental market in the Española Valley—the heart of the Upper Rio Grande region between Santa Fe and Taos.

The reason we've decided to move here is, simply, addiction. Angela, a medical anthropologist, is writing her dissertation on the social and historical dimensions of heroin addiction. She's chosen the villages of northern New Mexico as her site of research because the area comprises a particularly acute node of the problem. The Española Valley, in fact, has a rate of heroin addiction and death by overdose greater than that of any American city. Angela and I are very familiar with the theme. Among Angela's relatives in New Mexico there is alcoholism and heroin and coke and pills, and then there are Angela's own habits, which I have only a vague notion of at this point. She, in turn, doesn't know much about my past. Part of the reason she's fallen in love with me is my passion for the desert. She isn't yet aware that my drug abuse had brought me to it, to get clean out here beyond the temptations of Mexico City and L.A., my own private Sodom and Gomorrah. But the problem with recovery in the desert is that there are a lot of drugs there, too. Meth produced in remote labs, human "mules" trudging along the burning sands carrying backpacks filled with contraband. Planes, trains, and automobiles carrying it across the border and across the West. Along every route the cargo is shipped, the dealers, just like pharmaceutical company reps, drop off samples to open up new markets, revive old ones.

I have been getting high since my first year of high school, have experimented with most every substance deemed controlled by the DEA. I am the son and grandson of alcoholics, a child of 1970s California, a writer, a bohemian in search of "experience." I dropped out of college to emulate Kerouac and, like him, was utterly confused as to where the road was taking me even as I snorted up its white lines. By the time I met Angela, I had been on the wagon a few times and fallen off just as many, alternating periods of abstinence and bingeing that lasted months or years.

Angela does not know that I am still occasionally using as we prepare to live together for the first time. The addict prides himself on his discreetness. Or perhaps Angela has turned away from an obvious truth too terrible to admit, or turned toward me because at some level she knows that I, too, am the subject of her research.

We need a house with enough square footage for two home offices. We need a yard for my dog, Bear. And beyond the practical, we both want to live in an adobe. Not a simulacrum, mind you—not in a subdivision of recently built homes with street names like Rising Moon and Camino Cielo; we want one with roots deep in New Mexican history, a real one. We are seeking an authentic western life, after all.

Our first appointment is in the village of Cordova, nestled just above the Española Valley in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. "Perfect for an artist's retreat," reads the ad in the real estate section of the Rio Grande Sun ("News from the Heart of the Pueblo Country"), the valley's weekly newspaper.

We drive north on I-25 from Angela's mother's place in Albuquerque, blowing through Santa Fe's peculiar mix of Whole Foods, Indians peddling to tourists, Spanish folk kitsch, and jet-set fashion. We pass Camel Rock Casino and then its namesake, the natural sandstone formation perfectly representing a head and hump. Soon after comes our first glimpse of the Española Valley. Just past a bend in the road, it suddenly opens up before us, an immense yellow bowl flanked on the east by land wrinkled with innumerable barrancas, alluvial furrows draining the Sangre de Cristos down to the river. To the west, the mass of the Jemez Range, sections of its immense flanks barren still from the great Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, which overran Los Alamos National Laboratory. To the north, the high country of the San Juan Mountains, which disappear into Colorado on the horizon. In this view, there is something of virtually every landscape that defines the American Southwest and northern Mexico: arid scrublands, hills of juniper and piñon, dense mixed-conifer forest, highlands of aspen, and even alpine meadows. Everything else about the drive from Albuquerque to the north will become numbingly familiar over the next few years, but the moment the valley appears will always astonish—even after I become well aware of the human devastation hidden by the sweep of the landscape.

We aren't the only ones house hunting in northern New Mexico. We don't realize it yet, but we are part of a massive new rush on the West, the latest wave in almost two hundred years of American migrations in the region, from the trappers of the early nineteenth century onward through several boom periods of varying intensity and longevity—among them gold and oil speculation, the early artist colonies in Taos and Santa Fe, the hardscrabble folk lured by the Homestead Act, and the exodus into the West spawned by the Great Depression. The rush that Angela and I join will quite possibly signify the greatest period of western upheaval yet.

In the 1990s, the interior West (which includes all the states that share the Rocky Mountains—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) had the highest growth rate in the country, marking an overall population increase of 25.4 percent, not just in urban centers like Denver and Phoenix but in the exurbs and rural areas as well. This was the culmination of a process that spanned the better part of the twentieth century, from the closing of the frontier to the eve of the millennium, which saw a gradual decline of the traditional population corridors in the East and Midwest. More recently, large numbers of migrants from the West Coast arrived in the interior, too.

The influx only increased during the boom years of the early 2000s. In 2003, the top five fastest-growing cities were split between Nevada and Arizona: Gilbert, Arizona (a Phoenix suburb that logged an astonishing 42 percent population increase in a single year); North Las Vegas, Nevada; Henderson, Nevada; Chandler, Arizona; and Peoria, Arizona. (In the same time frame, San Francisco lost over 4 percent of its population.) The New York Times' story on the Census Bureau's report attributed the following breathless quote to Rachelle Iadicicco, who'd moved to Gilbert from St. Louis two years before with her Lutheran minister husband to start a church: "They say there are two kinds of roads here, under construction and not enough lanes."

Multiple streams were simultaneously propelled into the West by the fundamental force of an economy fueled not by gold or oil or ranching but mostly by the housing boom, which, in turn, had its roots in the tech bubble of the late 1990s, when a good part of California's urban white working class was forced to flee the cities because of inflated property values. Families that a generation before would have lived in the inner city or perhaps in one of the old suburbs moved east into the desert, searching for affordable housing. ("Starting in the mid-100's," read billboards advertising tract homes on the outskirts of Albuquerque, while single-family middle-class homes in Los Angeles were edging up to $1 million.)

A new gentry arrived as well, seeking second homes or turning its back on the urban altogether in favor of telecommuting from a rustic chalet in Montana. At one time in America, the country house was imagined mostly on a beach or a cape, perhaps a cabin in the woods or on a lakeshore. But in the late 1990s and well into the new century, the house in the country moved west.

Then came the middle class, having discovered McMansions, subprime housing loans, and the lure of a tiny patch of grass with a playarea for the kids (the group that came to personify the great mortgage collapse of the late 2000s).

The new money drew ever more immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, with construction and service-sector jobs. These workers built and renovated the houses of the boom, washed dishes in the new eateries, swept casino floors, folded linens in luxury hotels. Thus immigration became a political issue throughout the West, with renewed debate over illegal status and the browning of the desert, its skin and its tongue, which increasingly pronounced the vowels of Spanish.

Add to that a dramatic African-American out-migration, a displacement partly related to the arrival of Latin American immigrants to formerly all-black urban neighborhoods. African-Americans arrived in parts of the West with historically modest black populations—Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as the California desert satellites of Lancaster, Palmdale, and even Needles, an extreme outpost on the Colorado River that regularly bakes in 120-degree heat during the summer. In one study, historian Andrew Wiese called this movement "as large as the exodus of African Americans from the rural south in the mid-twentieth century."

All the movement accompanied a general turn away from the Old West economies based on mining, logging, and grazing and toward tourism, recreation, telecommuting businesses, and the service sector. (In the late twentieth century and through the first years of the aughts, this created a new subgenre of amenities for the leisure class, a growth industry catering to "amenity migrants.")

The transformation of both economy and population, especially the nonwhite minority, has its origins in long-standing global economic trends, and in recent years these changes reached a kind of critical mass. The West's increased ethnic and racial diversity coincided with a notable change in its ideological character, a cleaving in opposite directions. On the one hand there was the "New West," with several states (Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada) moving from the "red" to the "blue" column, a pivotal factor in the election of Barack Obama. On the other hand, some red states became redder—notably Arizona, which took a radical nativist turn with SB 1070 and the antics of "America's toughest sheriff," Joe Arpaio, rounding up the "illegals," a classic Old Western performance.

While the economy drove all this movement, the force shaping the cultural trimmings of the boom resided in the imagination—the idea of the West. After having been declared dead or moribund many times before, the western (in the broadest possible terms) made a vigorous comeback, with most of the old tropes intact and enhanced with a couple of postmodern variants. Patricia Nelson Limerick, the author of the foundational New Western history The Legacy of Conquest, noted several, including the West as a place of "authenticity" relative to the "alienation" of urban space, the West as place for manly men (reacting to their sense of postfeminist displacement), and the West as repository of whiteness and the destination of white flight from the diversity of the late-twentieth-century American city. There was also the enduring West of natural grandeur or, as environmentalists portrayed it, the last redoubt of nature—ironically, a campaign so successful that it lured urban dwellers to the interior for the greatest "amenity" of all: nature itself, open space, a sound track of coyotes howling and desert wrens whirring on your very property.

Although historians had spent over two decades assiduously deconstructing the mythic Cowboy West as racist, homophobic, misogynist, and imperialistic, these tropes flourished, too, aided by the literary establishment and Hollywood. Cormac McCarthy became the Faulkner of the borderlands, Joel and Ethan Coen were schooled in the western by McCarthy, and the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007 went to No Country for Old Men. It did not matter whether you lived in Manhattan or Malibu; Sunset magazine was hot, and National Geographic turned from Africa and Brazil to pictorials of sand and sky accompanied by texts in which the writer battles dehydration in the American desert on the trail of rare animal species.

Different actors employed the same images at cross-purposes. Developers selling ranchettes in Colorado invoked "pristine" nature just as much as environmentalists battling the developers and, for that matter, Al Gore fighting against global warming. In the process, each erased the human presence from the landscape. And as the new cultural class—filmmakers and writers and photographers and painters—moved in, they took up the old representations, which fueled the real estate boom and lured ever more migrants.

These forces had the power not just to inflate real estate values but also to displace the people who were living here when the new comers arrived. As with the overall national economy, the new money did not necessarily produce wealth for the local population. If anything, the new money brought business that sucked the air out of what remained of the old regional economies. The boom on one end of the economy often meant a bust on the other—the displacement of a ma-and-pa operation by a corporate brand, for example, or the subdivision marching across old ranch land. The social and personal fallout of this could often be seen—if one was willing to look—in the shadow of the new Walmarts, artists' lofts, vineyards, gated communities, and boutique hotels.

It was in this context that Angela and I arrive in Cordova to see the first house on our list of prospective rentals. We get to the property under a late-winter gray sky and are met by a middle-aged norteño, or "northerner," as the Hispanos of northern New Mexico often call themselves. He sounds like he's made the pitch to outsiders before. "The last tenant was an artist from New York," he says. The house is a one-story with a large attic, from the late nineteenth century or earlier. The twenty-four-inch-thick walls are in great shape considering their age, but inside everything made of wood is crumbling—doorjambs, window frames, the massive viga crossbeams of ponderosa pine. Outside the temperature is mild with a hint of spring, but inside the air pinches our skin like an ice-water bath. Apparently, the woodstove hasn't been fired up since the New York artist left, months ago. It is a dark, cobwebby house (usually only refurbished or newer adobes are "light and airy," with picture windows facing mountain views). The interior space is what in today's market is referred to as an open floor plan—living and dining rooms and kitchen flowing into one another without walls or doorways. At the far end is a cramped bedroom and bath. The attic is nearly as big as the living space below. Here the family once hung meat for jerky or dried ristras of chiles. There is a large hacienda-style patio outside. Angela imagines us sitting at a table there, writing in the morning sun—D.H. and Frieda Lawrence in the mountains above Taos, in 1924—gazing up at the Truchas Peaks, the snow-capped pinnacles of the Sangre de Cristos.


Excerpted from Desert America by Rubén Martínez. Copyright © 2012 Rubén Martínez. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rubén Martínez, an Emmy-winning journalist and poet, is the author of Crossing Over and The New Americans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.

Rubén Martínez, an Emmy-winning journalist and poet, is the author of Crossing Over and The New Americans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.

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Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Sickboy84 More than 1 year ago
First off, I truly enjoy historical and current events reading. From reading the synopsis of this book, I figured I would be in for a treat of current stories and colorful characters that the writer encounters on his look in to the new old west. Boy was I wrong. It seems that the writer has just decided to create a long winded soliloquy in regards to his experience and avoid any sort of creative writing. The few characters encountered are ho-hum and his writing style leaves much to be desired. I could not even finish this book which is rare for me. I felt that I was dragging myself through the narrative to make up for the $16 I wasted. I should go back to using the library so that when I encounter tiresome writing as this I do not feel cheated out of money.