I loved the desert when I lived in El Paso, but as a native, I had no environmental concerns. There was no such thing back then. We were too busy growing up in a vast landscape that could never change.

— Ray Gonzalez,

The Underground Heart

Ray Gonzalez grew up on the Mexican border, in the booming desert city of El Paso, Texas, but left in his 20s to pursue an academic career. Decades later, as a successful poet and a tenured professor, he returned to his hometown to survey the changes. The 15 essays in The Underground Heart include ruminations on the exploitation of the Pancho Villa legend, our macabre curiosity about the atomic era, the contradictions between preservation and tourism at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and many other secrets and lies of the tourist-friendly desert Southwest.

The essays often stray from the traditional form, including historical clippings and other found materials. One of the most lyrical pieces, "El Mercado," is little more than an elaborate list of what’s bought and sold at a border market. Gonzalez sometimes directs his anger at easy targets, savagely caricaturing a heavily made-up tour guide and a crowd of panicky Minnesotans visiting the border country for the first time. Yet his long view of the region, and his poet’s touch, make for a great deal of illuminating reading.

The Underground Heart: A Return to a Hidden Landscape, Ray Gonzalez, University of Arizona Press, 2002. 186 pages. Softcover: $17.95.