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'Desert America' examines the boom and bust of the West

Cover of Ruben Martinez's book
Cover of Ruben Martinez's book "Desert America: Boom And Bust In The New Old West."
Metropolitan Books

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Ruben Martinez is a native Angeleno who's spent decades writing about immigration and Latin America. His previous books have chronicled everything from the music scene in San Salvador to the meat packing industry in Kansas.

In his new book, he turns his attention to the deserts of the American west: Joshua Tree, Northern New Mexico and Marfa, Texas. It's called "Desert America: Boom And Bust In The New Old West." 

Interview Highlights:


On how the tech bubble of the 1990s reshaped the desert landscape:
“The pressure was on coastal cities, they were pushing people out, often times it was poor whites, working class African American, Latino, Asian, and that very diverse cohort started winding up in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Tucson, Albuquerque, the way I describe it in the book is kind of like a re-opening of the frontier in a reverse manifest destiny, in which the migrants that are arriving are actually refugees from the city of the coast, what do they start doing to the desert? Well the desert starts taking on a very different demographic look, its gets more diverse not that it didn’t have that before hand. Look at Las Vegas. Look at the politics that start changing along with the demographic change."

On the affect this has on the people who have lived there for generations:
"The indigenous cultures. There are three, the first peoples Native Americans, the Hispanos (Latinos), after 500 years I think they qualify as permanent residents of the area, and plenty of old Anglo ranching families… Each of these conquests deposits a new kind of migrant on the landscape, and there is no going back to what it was before. Now this new cohort with the new boom is really diverse socio-economically too. There are a lot of the people that are working class, and then there is the sort of one percent that is arriving in the desert as well. So there is working class family that moves into the cookie cutter subdivision on the outskirts of Albuquerque, but then there is the second home New Yorker who wants to winter in the Southwes. There is a huge gulf between them, talking about the one and the ninety-nine is completely applicable. We have perfected the one and the ninety-nine in the Southwest. Desert capitalism. The distance between the really rich and the really poor is so vast and the communication is non-existent.”

So what happens to the old culture, does it disappear?
“No. Absolutely not. It resists, it survives, it abides. In northern New Mexico the indigenous Hispano culture alongside the indigenous Native American culture is vibrant, it survives, it even thrives, because the stakes are so high now. The conquest via real estate speculation and the establishment of public lands like national forests is one thing, but cultural memory is something else. Cultural memory resides in a people’s soul. And they have held on and they have resisted and a lot of the resistance is cultural as well as political. A lot of the political class of the Southwest is Latino.”

On the different experiences between the city dwellers and immigrants from South of the border:
“Irony, if I arrived on this landscape thinking I would be received as a long lost brother to my brown-skinned Spanish surnamed brethren. Immigration in New Mexico became tremendously politicized, just in the last few years. The election of governor Susana Martinez heralded a completely new wrinkle in the immigration story. She has sponsored legislation kind of like Arizona SB1070 light, not quite as extreme, but still, wanting to row back everything. How did that happen? Why did she get elected on an anti-immigration wave by a huge Hispano population? It has to do with completely different experiences of being Latino on the landscape. We are not all the same, we diverse among ourselves too and Hispanos tend to wax conservative on issues like immigration and other things too. Hispanos voted for George Bush in 2004 strongly in New Mexico. We saw tremendous tension between the Hispano population and the recently arrived immigrants. One Spanish speaking one is English speaking, the food is different, the music is different, we saw fights breaking out in the high schools, very reminiscent of L.A. in many ways. Very complicated landscape for many people who would assume we would all just get along if we all have names like Garcia and Martinez."

On what happens to the people in the area if the real estate bubble bursts:
“The real estate boom never reached everybody. The riches. The new gilded age, the gap in income was growing throughout this period. The ninety-nine and the one, the distance between them was growing. The people were working harder for less money. The middle class was slipping down. There were blocks of foreclosures even in the working class areas, four or five houses on a block foreclosed. When the bust arrived we felt it. It reached into every corner of our lives. And the book tries to carve out the idea; do we really have to do it this way? Do we really have to have a boom and bust cycle over and over again? The “Desert of America” tells us that story, the cycle of boom and bust and how people are starting to dream of a way beyond that. We don’t need the desert of capitalism. The desert also offers wonderful traditions of hospitality and neighborliness in which people live together in harmony on a harsh landscape. That’s the thing about the desert, you can’t make it across the desert without the help of other pilgrims and the people who live there, and their knowledge of the place. That’s the story about the desert ultimately. It’s a place that is inhospitable in many ways, only made hospitable by the people that live there. The desert of the west tells us both how difficult it is to live but together we can survive it.”

On what's next for the desert cities in the American West:
“I am filled with a sense of hope for the West. We’ve bottomed out, the recovery is slow and uneven, and the country has been addicted to this cycle. The West knows that so deeply. The old boom economies were based on extractive industries: mining, oil, cattle ranching. And these led to huge run ups of speculation and then huge crashes. There is a new generation that has experienced this and it is a West whose demographic profile has changed profoundly. That in turn has had an impact on the political, the ideological landscape of the west. Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, all voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and those historically were huge turn arounds; for a democratic candidate to recapture those states was truly a reflection of who is living here now. Arizona, well yeah, it is representing the old West. Jan Brewer and SB1070, that is the last dying gasps of the old order. That is John Wayne riding off into the sunset and we are not gonna see him again. Arizona will turn blue within 10 years. There will a democratic governor and the state will vote blue in a presidential election within 10 years.”