Writer Rubén Martínez

The Emmy-winning journalist offers insight into how the West could tip the scales in the 2012 presidential election and shares how immigration is changing the narrative in the U.S. and lessons learned while writing his text, Desert America.

Rubén Martínez is a writer, performer and Emmy-winning journalist with two decades of experience in print, broadcast and online media and on the spoken word and performance art scenes. His essays and opinions have appeared in major U.S. publications, and his books include Crossing Over and, his latest, Desert America—a portrait of the 21st-century West. He also co-wrote the documentary, When Worlds Collide. Martínez, a native of L.A. and descendant of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, teaches at Loyola Marymount University and is an artist in residence at Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts.


Tavis: Ruben Martinez is an award-winning journalist and writer who serves as the chair of the literature and writing department at Loyola-Marymount here in L.A. His latest text out this month is a timely new look at the issues and cultures that shape the American West. The book is called “Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West.” Ruben, good to have you on this program.

Ruben Martinez: It’s great to be here, Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: I want to jump right in because you essentially argue in this book that what used to be regarded as the great frontier has now become the harbinger of everything that seems to be wrong with America these days, so let me start by asking when you say “boom and bust,” what’s the boom and what’s the bust?

Martinez: Well, we can talk about the history of the West, the big booms, gold and oil, cattle ranching, the big frontier stories that were part of our Old West mythology. Well, and then you can talk about the latter-day booms – tech bubbles in Denver and Phoenix, the housing bubble.

Everything that happens in America happens in the West writ large. Over the last generation we have seen a tremendous economic engine churning in the West, but in the shadow of that engine there’s been tremendous poverty.

When the boom was at its peak, it was already a bust for a lot of people. In the same place where you have Taos and Santa Fe, the ski resorts of Colorado, you also have devastating poverty and addiction on the Native American reservations.

You have migrants crossing the deserts, paupers crossing searing sands, many times dying before they get to their destination, to jobs and the interior of the country. The West is a place of hope. It’s a hard-won hope and many times, of course, that hope isn’t reached at all, it just turns into a phantasmagorical nightmare.

Tavis: Was I overstating at the top of this show the fact that some of these issues that you just mentioned might, in fact, factor into the race for the White House this time around, or is the West pretty much already – they know who’s taking what state out here?

Martinez: No. There are scenarios in which the West could tip the scales one way or the other. New Mexico is not a big, populous state, but you look on the electoral maps, even right now as we speak, in New Mexico we don’t know exactly which way it’s going to go.

Colorado is a little bit in play, and the demographics are changing. So it’s not just this election but it’s the future elections, the blue and the red. Right now we’ve seen it shifting over to the blue. The demographics have changed.

Arizona right now makes headlines with Governor Jan Brewer and SB 1070, the anti-immigrant legislation there. But the demographics of Arizona, the future of Arizona, is not Jan Brewer. The future of Arizona is brown and black and every other color of the American tapestry, and that you see happening throughout the West too.

So when I say “Boom and Bust in the New Old West,” that’s the subtitle of the book, we’re looking both at the economic prospects that have turned into a bust for many, many people, and we’re also looking at the mythology and the way it’s been turned on its head over the last generation too, with this huge infusion of population into the West that’s remaking the way the West looks.

Its face has changed, the color of the West is not, if I can say it one more time, is not Jan Brewer’s face.

She is the past of the West. The new West is us.

Tavis: How does that new reality, “us,” change the order politically, socially, economically, culturally? What’s the impact of that new face on those various dispositions?

Martinez: I’m hoping – let me wax optimistic for a moment here.

Tavis: Okay.

Martinez: Because a lot of what I describe in this book is dark. There’s death by drugs and violence. The drug war has gotten out of control in the last 10 years in the borderlands. Mostly in the South, but the devastation of drugs crosses the border in terms of addiction on this side, and I tell that story in the book as well.

But the West also, in its changing demographics and its changing culture, I believe is introducing a much more hospitable America. In the desert, and I really use this metaphor a lot throughout the book, you can’t survive a journey in the desert without hospitality of people along the way.

The desert is a place of pilgrimage. There’s a longstanding metaphor going way back to the Bible – what are we going to the desert for? We go to find ourselves, we go to heal ourselves, we go to purge our demons. Forty days, Jesus in the desert, right? Canaan is on the other side of the desert.

The migrants today are facing that kind of mythology as they cross the desert themselves, and there are more and more people, I believe, even in Arizona, in the shadow of the anti-immigrant politics of that state there’s a burgeoning movement of politics and culture that is opening up the West to be a much more hospitable, welcoming place.

That West has always existed, but it’s been in the shadow of that frontier rugged individualist West. Over the last generation writers and painters and photographers and filmmakers have been introducing us into that new West, bit by bit, and I hope this is a little grain of sand, if I can use the desert metaphor, on that.

Tavis: I want to pick apart a few issues that you raise in the text, and I want to come to the memoir parts of the book, if I can. But with regard to issues, how is the issue of immigration, and you’ve kind of intimated this already, but more specifically, how is the issue of immigration rewriting the narrative about the West?

Martinez: In many different ways. Over the last generation there’s been several migrant waves. I think most people would think “Immigration? Mexicans, Central Americans, Asians,” right?

The West has received all kinds of migrant flows. We’re in Los Angeles right now. Los Angeles has sent a lot of people into the interior West. We’re in L.A. L.A. is part of the West, but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, we’re west of the West. The interior West, L.A., when it had all its problems in the ’90s, the riots and the fires and the earthquakes and the floods, it was apocalypse over here, right?

Where were people going? My parents were part of the exodus from Los Angeles. They went to Sedona, Arizona, thinking they were going to find their retirement Shangri-La up there, and to an extent, they did. They got a house with red rock vistas, it was beautiful.

But they also found anti-immigrant politics, and this was a bitter pill for my father to swallow, because he kind of grew up on the Old Western and found his way into a place in that western. But then when he was on that landscape that he so loved which recalled his childhood, well, there was the Old Western posse looking for people with the color of his skin.

Ultimately, that Old West drove him back to Los Angeles, where we have slightly more hospitable politics at the moment. But that’s the way the West turns, from one cycle to the other. The migrant flows are African Americans in an exodus from Los Angeles to Lancaster to Phoenix to Denver to Las Vegas.

The Asian population is booming throughout the West as well. It’s really the rainbow West, is what we’ve got going on right now, and by and large the West is turning blue in terms of party politics. It’s turning democratic. But there’s still a tension between those new and old wests.

Tavis: There’s an old adage that what happens in California either casts a long shadow or a long sunbeam across the nation.

Martinez: Right.

Tavis: Let me tweak that a bit and ask whether or not what happens in the West can cast either a long shadow or a long sunbeam across the rest of the nation.

Martinez: That’s beautifully put. That’s exactly what I’m trying to argue in the book, that the West writes these stories large, that the boom and bust of our generation, the Great Recession, everything that was wrong with that boom, the real estate bubble, the unscrupulous speculation, those mortgages that were written in such a way that were going to crash down on people’s lives.

Everything that went into creating this false sense of endless horizon of expansion, that occurred in the west in a way, in a more extreme way, than it did anywhere else in the country. The foreclosure rate was higher out here.

Go to San Bernardino County. There are blocks in San Bernardino County where nine out of 10 houses had weeds in the front yard and for sale sign. That’s a suburb of Phoenix. That is Albuquerque, that is throughout the West.

At the same time, you saw also during this whole period, the diversifying population changing our philosophy of what the West really could be, for hopefully a more sustainable west, not based just on speculation but on – tourism has sustained the West for many generations, of course, but most of it has been Old Western tourism.

Cowboys and Indians kind of thing, postcards of Ansel Adams kinds of vistas, Georgia O’Keefe. I think can have a new kind of tourism in the west where we can tell the history, the complicated tangle of histories that come together – Native American, African American, Anglo American. In this book, all those histories are colliding.

They’re braided together and I think that could drive a new kind of tourism that could sustain the West a lot better than the Old Western.

Tavis: Speaking of the new West versus the Old West, let me see if I can play now with the inverse of what I just suggested. A moment ago I suggested what happens out here matters to the rest of the nation.

Disabuse me of the notion, if you can, that in the minds of those on the Eastern Seaboard – I made this reference at the top of the show here – that so much of what happens west of the Mississippi so often does not seem to matter to anybody east of the Mississippi, save maybe two things: Hollywood matters to the nation, and now Silicon Valley, of course, matters to the nation.

Help me, if you can, think of something else out west that matters to those in the Eastern Seaboard. I raise this because I always have an axe to grind about this because the financial centers, commerce is in New York and the politics are in Washington and so on election night, as we know every four years – they’ve gotten better about it now. They used to call elections before our polls even closed out west.

Martinez: Right, exactly. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m getting to the point, of course, of whether or not the west really does matter to the rest of the nation.

Martinez: The West is the future. Just as (unintelligible) –

Tavis: That’s a bold statement.

Martinez: Just as manifest destiny ends in the West, our empire-building, as bloody a story as it was, and that’s going back to the metaphor of the long shadow, manifest destiny cast a terrible shadow over the entire country. That, and the original scene of slavery, those two stories together make up the shadow part of American history.

The new West, which is on the West Coast, looking all the way across the Pacific to Asia, the encounter with Latin America, those two encounters alone are the economic present and future of our country. Migration, of course, now for several generations has been based out of Latin America and Asia, and to the extent that the cities of America are going to be sustainable, the Black and Brown coalition, or lack thereof, is a huge issue. It has been for 20 years.

I’ve been living in Los Angeles and writing about Los Angeles most of my life, and that one point of encounter, which is a classic Western encounter, it has become, because the demographics have pushed us together, in Las Vegas, in Phoenix, in Denver, in L.A., that encounter is also going to tell us so much about the future of America.

So there’s great opportunities for turning back or lifting the veil, lifting the shadow, the heaviness of that past, that bloody past, that painful past, but there’s a long way to go. We’re still in the shadow of this Great Recession, and this book is telling, essentially, that dark story.

I do try to end on a note of hope wherever I encounter that darkness in the book, and I think that hope – and I came across it everywhere I went in the travels throughout the West during the 10 years I was writing the book – is hospitality, people receiving me.

People talk about southern hospitality. Out West we also – we have to be hospitable to one another. We have to receive one another. Because if we don’t, the country will not be sustainable, ultimately.

Tavis: Tell me why, if I am an immigrant, I resonate with that point at all, because one could argue that if you look a certain way you are anything but treated hospitably in this part of the country.

Martinez: Right.

Tavis: So unpack that for me.

Martinez: Yeah. Immigration is a kind of pilgrimage. That’s the way I see it. Just to go back to the desert, biblical metaphors, that’s the story of great migration right there, the Old Testament.

Tavis: Oh, sure.

Martinez: That’s being played out again, and it’s being played out in the desert, so all those biblical metaphors are present. When I say hospitality, I’m invoking it the way philosophers and theologians have invoked it across centuries. It’s a deep ethics, without which we can’t survive. The immigrant calls upon us to open our doors. It’s the greatest ethical challenge, I think, of our generation.

That, and the overall economy, the 1 and the 99, those two things. But immigration and the 1 and the 99 come together in the West. Who was helping us inflate the bubble? The bubble was subsidized by cheap, undocumented labor. That’s hardly ever talked about.

It seems like the bubble was inflated by real estate agents and artists helping pioneer, gentrify parts of town. It was subsidized by undocumented labor. Those laborers, those human beings, were asking us. They were just knocking on the door like Joseph and Mary on Christmas.

They’re knocking on the door and saying, “We’ve come a long way and we’d just like a little bit of water. Don’t want to take anything; we could work for our water.” That question of receiving the immigrant is an ethical issue that becomes a political issue.

Tavis: To your point of the ethical becoming political, earlier on this week on this program we had Ralph Nader as a guest, the long-time consumer advocate, and we had a wonderful discussion, really a master class, if you will, from Mr. Nader on the history of the labor movement and the present-day conflict that labor seems to have with who it really is, whether or not it still matters, is it going to grow, is it going to find its spine or its backbone.

So it was a wonderful show. If you missed it on Monday night, go to our website, PBS.org, and check out the conversation with Ralph Nader. But I’m raising this now because you were talking about labor a moment ago. So much of what happens in the West revolves around labor – immigrant labor and beyond, but it revolves around labor.

There is a devaluing, a level of disrespect, that’s been afforded labor in this country for quite some time. I can make the same argument about the teaching profession.

Martinez: Sure.

Tavis: Everybody wants to bash – and you’re a professor, of course – people want to bash the teaching profession. But talk to me, contextualize, if you will, the labor being on the outs, as it were, these days, with the storyline, the burgeoning storyline out in the West.

Martinez: Absolutely.

Tavis: Does that make sense?

Martinez: Sure it does. I happen to be working on a project right now that’s looking at Los Angeles 100 years ago, and it looked so much like America today. One hundred years ago, robber barons, the 1 and the 99 existed. They didn’t call it that.

By the same time that Los Angeles was an open-shot town, run by one newspaper, “The Los Angeles Times,” a monopoly, by and large, with vast real estate holdings, a town where wealth was super-concentrated; there was a burgeoning labor movement.

Los Angeles was one of the labor hotbeds of the United States. People think about New York as being the birthplace of the labor movement with the Eastern Europeans arriving.

Tavis: Sure.

Martinez: Well, Los Angeles was receiving also people from Mexico at that point. It had revolutionary ferment. The ideals of labor activism were coming across the border too. L.A. was a place where labor was facing off with big money and Los Angeles came within this close, 300 votes, I believe it was, of electing Job Harriman in 1913 as mayor.

He ran on the Socialist Party ticket. That’s Los Angeles in 1913. Flip 100 years forward, you have exactly the same situation. This boom-and-bust cycle has been going. The wheel’s been spinning and spinning and spinning. Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a world where that circle stops spinning in that crazy way? Because that’s a huge wheel that’s crushing people’s lives, real people’s lives, families.

Right now we’re in one of those moments where that wheel has turned, and it’s turned and it’s ground a lot of people under. But there’s a whole network of people, labor activists here in Los Angeles, right here, that are trying to open up the door to that other future, where we don’t have these extremes, where we don’t have the 1 and the 99 and we don’t have that cycle crushing us.

Tavis: I referenced earlier in this conversation at least two of the things, maybe the only two, but certainly two of the things west of the Mississippi that folk on the East seem to care about – Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and maybe not even in that order anymore these days.

Martinez: Yeah, I (unintelligible).

Tavis: But if you’re talking about a certain segment of our population, one could argue that even those two industries that the rest of the country seems to appreciate aren’t telling a full story or aren’t providing, pardon the pun, equal opportunity.

So assess for me those two exports, as it will, that come out of the West – technology and entertainment – and how that plays into the kind of storyline that we want to write over the next 100 years.

Martinez: I happen to be commuting right now between Oakland and Los Angeles, because my wife just took a job at Stanford. So I’m getting a crash course in Palo Alto, and –

Tavis: The two sides, yeah.

Martinez: Yes. I grew –

Tavis: East Palo Alto, yeah.

Martinez: There are two; there is a huge division in Palo Alto.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. A huge divide, yeah, sure.

Martinez: That’s the thing. What we broadcast from the West, as you’re saying, is the surface gets broadcast out there. We know Palo Alto, but not East Palo Alto, for the viewers who don’t know East Palo Alto, it’s a largely Mexican barrio, right, and the socioeconomics, you can imagine what they are. It’s the 1 and the 99.

Los Angeles still tends to broadcast out to the rest of the world the celebrity stuff, right? When you go online, there’s a million things that drag you in that direction, all right? We’re branded so powerfully. The West overall has been branded in the same way, with that Old Western notion.

I humbly offer this work as part of picking apart those myths, and trying to reveal just the dynamics of our complexity in terms of identity, in terms of how the economy works, and that beneath the Hollywood glitz, beneath the Facebook melodrama of the moment, the real story is happening that most people live in the West.

That story is a life-or-death struggle, oftentimes, with the migrants coming across, and unfortunately, it gets played out as cheap politics in terms of immigration, swatting it back and forth, even in New Mexico, where I spent several years living.

Immigration’s become a hot issue in New Mexico, and not along the lines of what you might imagine. In New Mexico, there’s a brown-skinned governor, her last name is Martinez. How did she get into the governor’s office? Playing off of the fear of the immigrant.

Tavis: A Republican, I might add.

Martinez: A Republican.

Tavis: Who follows a Democrat governor, who is of the same origin.

Martinez: Exactly.

Tavis: Yeah.

Martinez: Yes. So everything in the West is not as it appears on the surface.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question. So we’ve talked about the storyline in the text vis-à-vis the West, but it’s also part memoir. In the time I have left, let me just ask this question. What did you learn about yourself, since it is part memoir, in the writing and the retelling of this story?

Martinez: I arrived in the desert under difficult circumstances. I was in Mexico City, past deadline on a book. I was broke, and I was doing drugs. I was out of control. I destroyed my life. I came to the West, like many people before me, to heal. When I arrived in the West I found there was a lot of other people out there just like me, and I found that drugs had suffused the sand, as it were.

So I felt called upon, ultimately, as I healed, to render in words what is going on out there. So what did I learn about myself? I learned that it’s not so simple to just walk into the desert and cleanse your soul like some new age, snap your fingers, it’s all done.

It was much more difficult than that, took a lot longer, but what sustained me was people opening their doors to me and telling me their stories and sharing. They were listening to my story as well, because we were all in the same boat. So this landscape is one ultimately for me of healing. It’s a place where we go to find ourselves.

Tavis: The book is called “Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West,” written by Ruben Martinez. In case you’ve been watching this conversation trying to figure out why do I know that name, he’s the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Crossing Over.” Came out some time ago. Ruben, we’re glad to have you on this program.

Martinez: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thanks for your work, man. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: August 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm