It can be a harsh landscape; reaching triple-digit temperatures during the day and dropping within hours with the first streaks of pink sunset, a border desert with a complex history that encompasses so much more than kitschy representation could ever convey.
This is the Wild West.
It’s not exactly the stuff of sweet cowboy tales made popular by the small screen, but Rubén Martínez’ “Desert America” – a sensitive, intricate perspective on the boom and bust cycle that characterizes the dry landscape of the American Southwest – is certainly dramatic in the way that only real life can be.
“My own history with the desert is very personal,” explains Martínez, a professor of writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “My grandparents are from desert Mexican land and my father always had a fascination with the desert, bequeathing that history of Western pop culture to me as a child. It’s a place that has always held a special appeal to me.”
As an Emmy Award-winning journalist, Martínez covered the dark and often deadly odyssey of border migrant crossings and drug warfare – a world that he discovered was hardly the idealized, romantic West he had grown up on. And yet, persisting with the notion that the desert could be his oasis, Martínez left Los Angeles and retreated to New Mexico to recover from his cocaine addiction. There, he discovered that chain link fences and the manicured lawns of new suburbia were a telling metaphor for “the growing American experience of inequality.”
“The desert became a retreat for me – a place for me to cleanse and rebuild myself,” says the 50-year-old. “But it made me realize that my ties to the landscape went beyond Latino-ness; it was a universal story about addiction, boom and bust, relationships and something much larger than my single narrative.”
And so “Desert America” reads very much like a history book of sorts, a carefully written story that places the 21st century real estate boom within the context of the drug war and its impact on the people who live within its perimeters. With its publication, Martínez hopes that readers will gain a deeper understanding about the people rising to life’s challenges in the American southwest.
“My hope was to convey the desert’s heart-wrenching beauty and how horrific it can be to the body of the migrants crossing it,” says Martínez, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and Oakland, California but still counts the desert as his ongoing inspiration.
“There’s challenge and crisis, sure – but there also a life-affirming element to the desert and that’s what is so beautiful about it.”