Boom and Bust in the (New) New West
By Rubén Martínez
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2012 Rubén Martínez
All rights reserved.
MORNINGS IN NEW MEXICO
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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Desert America by Rubén Martínez. Copyright © 2012 Rubén Martínez. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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