Existential nomad: A profile of author Ruben Martinez

  • Julia Dillon

In Rubén Martinez's new memoir, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, the author examines the fertility kit that he and his wife had ordered, taking particular interest in its clean hypodermic syringes and needles. It is 2007, and the couple is living beneath northern New Mexico's famed Black Mesa, in Velarde, among Hispanos, descendants of 16th century Spanish colonists who now mostly live in crushing poverty with some of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world. It is late winter; their beloved dog has just been found mysteriously dead on the road; the landscape has become forbidding, the isolation torturous. And Martinez, who admits that he's "experimented with most every substance deemed controlled by the DEA," ponders how easily he could use the kit's contents to shoot up.

"That's an intense place to start," he chides when I ask him about it, moments after we sit down at a coffee shop in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood. "There's no real way to prepare for that." I've known Martinez for more than two decades as a man of many identities: In the early 1990s, we worked together at the LA Weekly, where he reported from Central America, Mexico City and sometimes just the restless streets of Los Angeles; later, I caught him onstage in Joshua Tree, Calif., and discovered he has a resonant tenor to match his gifts as a writer. Today, at 50, he teaches literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University, and looks properly professorial -- dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans, his short graying hair artfully windblown. But in Desert America, he reveals yet another self: A cultural nomad, roaming the desert like so many before him, searching for home.

"Alienation was a productive place to write from," says Martinez, who grew up in the "in-between" place of Los Angeles, the son of a Mexican-American fan of John Ford Westerns, and his Salvadoran wife, a poet and psychologist. At 24, after he heard the Clash's Sandinista! -- the epic three-record vinyl the British punk band named for the Nicaraguan resistance -- he left Los Angeles for El Salvador with the intention of becoming a poet. He switched to journalism, he says, "because there was a war on, and I didn't think I could find an audience for reporting through poetry." His life as a foreign correspondent cemented his developing voice as that of an outsider -- a stance that, he realizes now, also absolved him of responsibility for the people around him, including his neighbors in Velarde. "I feel like I failed them," he says. "And those failures stand for something big."

He did not use those fertility-kit syringes. Looking back now, Martinez remembers that moment mostly as a yearning for "communion with my neighbors" -- the drug users next door, Rose and José, whose domestic disputes tore through the night. "I was looking out at the Black Mesa," he remembers, which, after months of isolation and loss, "had become this funereal sight to us. And I saw Rose, sitting in the sun, in the window. I thought, 'I can't get close to you. I can't talk to you. It's too scary. But we share (addiction).' " Martinez's wife, HCN contributor Angela Garcia, discussed this same phenomenon in her 2010 book, The Pastoral Clinic, "about how using together is a bond that can be the saving grace of someone's life," Martinez says. Getting high together is a way of belonging.

Desert America asks more questions about belonging in the desert West -- not only about who belongs there, but about what belongs to whom. It's as if Martinez is holding court for everyone with a case for native status (or, as he puts it, "indigeneity"), as well as everyone who claims rights to a place and its resources. Neither the Hispanos nor the Forest Guardians nor the East Coast artists colonizing the Mojave emerge from his analysis unscathed. All identities turn out to be suspect -- Martinez's self-assigned position on the margins, the perennial outsider, most of all.

"In this book, I finally wrote myself out of my outsiderness," Martinez says. Though he remains a nomad, at least physically -- he and Angela split their time between Oakland and Los Angeles -- "existentially, my home is all these different places. My home is the West, my home is the desert, my home is the border fence. Wherever I go, somebody could say 'Hey, I have a deed from King Carlos V that says I've been here 15 more generations than you.' And I'd say, 'That's cool.' But I'm still from here."

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