Book Review: Rubén Martínez’s Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West

A street sign on the bottomland along the Santa Fe River. Photo by Eric Shultz
A street sign on the bottomland along the Santa Fe River. Photo by Eric Shultz


The mayordomo and I agree on many things. The other day we agreed that a lower-cholesterol diet should include burritos de chicharrones, at least occasionally. We created such an occasion down at the Parasol in Pojoaque. And my anticipation of a delightful luncheon was heightened by my intended topic of conversation: I had a Spanish question to discuss.

Back in the summer some of us went to help the mayordomo set up for his annual fiesta. His buddy Manuel was there. Manuel likes to remind me that he worked for my mom and dad when I was a little boy. As he tells it, one scorching day he came to the door for something cold and I brought him a bowl of ice cream. Anyway, he mentioned that he now lives on the other side of the mountains in a place called la Jolla (I’m using the familiar Californian spelling as a temporary convenience). I had recently learned that the big meadow you enter as you top out onto Borrego Mesa is called la Jolla de Córdova. I’d made a point to find out about this word, which isn’t in the dictionary, so I asked Manuel. His answer, easily taken for just plain wrong, turned out to hold the key: he said jolla comes from huella, meaning footprint or animal track.

An internet search turned up another informative near miss. At a website called Span¡shd!, someone with the screen name “amykay” inquired: “There is a very nice community in Southern California (San Diego area) called La Jolla. It is not in the translator tool here, the dictionary, or my paper (gasp!) dictionary. Any clues as to what it means?” She was answered by “Echoline” who quoted a passage from Wikipedia that dutifully reported how popular culture considers it an alternative spelling of joya, Spanish for jewel, hence the nickname Jewel City. To its credit, Wikipedia qualified this derivation as “disputed by scholars” and noted further that local Native Americans had called the place mat kulaaxuuy meaning “land of holes.” To this news “sagila” chimed in: “Interesting that hoyo, the word for hole or pit or concavity, also has a similar sound.” Coming oh so close but no doubt feeling exposed on a website dedicated to Spanish language aficionados, “sagila” quickly took cover behind a rampart of doxa: “Obviously I realize that the h is silent.”

The doctrine of the silent h is not so much a rule as a prejudice affirming the supremacy of Castilian among the Spanishes. As others before me have noted, Quevedo raised the issue in his 1626 Historia de la vida del Buscón. When his fictional rover Pablos drifts from Castile to Andalucía, a local advises him on how to talk like a sevillano by making “de la j, h, y de la h, j; y diga conmigo: jerida, mojino, jumo; pahería, mohar, habalí y harro de vino.” Philologists trace the “aspirated h” (as in aha!) back to when Dark Ages Europe met the first Arab Spring. By Quevedo’s day the tide of civilization had turned and Christian Europe was overrunning the world. Case in point, the pícaro Pablos was only in Seville in order to embark for the Indies. And about the h and j reversing lesson, he said “Tomélo en memoria [I took it in memory],” as apparently did many flesh-and-blood characters who came to this side of the Atlantic.

Discussing “speech mannerisms” in his introduction to A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Professor Rubén Cobos illustrates “the aspiration” of the h with “jervir (hervir)” and “jumo (humo)” from among several more examples in the dictionary itself. But he runs up against the dual nature of spelling, which on the one hand serves to transcribe speech, and on the other reflects the “fossil record” of writing. Both aspects are valid and important, and to favor one often hinders the other. In the case of the aspirated h, Cobos opts for phonetic spelling and places his examples in the j section. This approach treats joguera as a word derived from a different word, hoguera. To favor the conventional spelling (hoguera) as dictionaries usually do, then to note that h may be silent or sounded depending on social geography, would contradict the doctrine of the silent h (note how Cobos affirms the heresy expressly, but only in the seclusion of a technical introduction, which the most vulnerable among us are unlikely to peruse). In contrast, Spanish qua institution has long accepted that z can represent two sounds and does not require the invention of new words such as sapato or plasa to accommodate Spanish as spoken south of Despeñaperros. The reader who wonders whether these spelling issues have practical consequences would do well to remember poor “amykay” out in cyberspace who looked for La Jolla in the dictionary but didn’t find it (or as we say in the Chupadero valley, no la jalló).

When Manuel said that “la Jolla” comes from huella, which he pronounced juella, his erroneous etymology nevertheless provided the key to the puzzle in the form of an aspirated h. Although locally pronounced as jolla or joya, the word in question is hoya, which my tattered old Appleton defines as follows: “hoya,  f. hole, pit; grave; valley, dale, glen; basin (of a river).” And my wonderful María Moliner (thanks to Jim Dunlap at Allá bookstore for hooking me up) says (my translation): “hoya (from the Latin fovea, hole) 1 large concavity in the land. 2 grave. 3 extensive plain surrounded by mountains. 4 seed bed.” I haven’t seen where Manuel now lives, but the Hoya de Córdova that I recently visited fits the Moliner definition number 3 almost exactly (the mountains don’t quite go all the way around).

When I asked the mayordomo about the meaning of hoya at our luncheon, his explanations and examples involved both concavity in the land and the openness of a park or clearing. When I brought up Manuel’s derivation, it occurred to him that in our own valley, where Manuel grew up, down below the village is a place called la Hoya del Venado, which an Anglophone might render as Deer Hollow. Because that place name includes the phrase “of the deer,” small wonder for a child growing up here to confuse it with the common phrase la huella del venado and end up thinking the place was called Deer Track. From there it would be no great leap to generalize that hoya in other place names was also a variant of huella. As the mayordomo and I were exploring our undeniably laberynthine topic, a fellow at the next table (whom we took for mejicano) interrupted. Out of limpid good will to help two people obviously lost in a linguistic wilderness, he explained – in pretty good English – that in his language joya means jewel and when a person or thing has extraordinary quality or value, one might say “es una joya.” Then the stranger left the restaurant and we never saw him again.

Which brings me to Rubén Martínez’s new book Desert America. With his wife Angela Garcia, a medical anthropologist studying heroin addiction among norteño Hispanos, Martínez lived in Velarde for several years. Telling of a conversation he had with village elder Wilfred Gutiérrez, he writes:

“Right here.” Wilfred points out the living room window. “This was la plaza de La Joya,” he tells me, invoking the old Hispano name for the strip of land alongside the river—literally, the “jewel,” the fertile bottomlands.

Before we take up “La Joya” it bears noting that Martínez seems not to recognize our specific usage of plaza, which in the context of Gutiérrez’s statement would mean not a town square but the village itself. Now, in light of the lengthy preceding discussion, I would venture that “La Joya” here has nothing to do with the Spanish word for jewel, but that hoya itself literally means bottomland (Appleton: “basin (of a river)”). Transposed into the idiom of present-day developers, la Plaza de la Hoya would read something like Bottomland Village, certainly a letdown from romancing the Jewel of the Rio Grande.

At the risk of seeming to judge Desert America on the basis of one little misunderstanding, my point is rather to suggest a tendency to view reality through preconceptions. And we find this at the most fundamental level of the very inclusion of northern New Mexico in a book about the desert. Martínez strains to make his case: “At the lower elevations, there are sage plains and hills of juniper and piñon. Geologically speaking, it looks like the desert; the soil is loamy and there are plenty of mesas and even some modest buttes.” To his credit, it is not entirely without irony that he ends that discussion: “it is desert enough for me.” And while he admits to some willful violence as he shoehorns northern New Mexico into his pre-existing prospectus, the violence he does to Wilfred Gutiérrez’s words is, I believe, unconscious.

Here we have a language barrier, but not of the usual kind. Evidence elsewhere in his book suggests that Martínez’s command of Spanish is excellent. But as with the fellow in the restaurant whose linguistic competence was also beyond reproach, and as with our erstwhile neighbor Manuel, knowing that you know Spanish is what sometimes gets in the way. The point is not that New Mexico Spanish is a strange and ancient bug in amber. No, the point is that Spanish is so vast and so varied that what any one of us knows, however adequate in our valley, may get us into trouble al otro lado de la loma. And it is precisely when we know something with certainty (i.e. that /joya/ means jewel) that we are most at risk for being blindsided: I see, so why should I look?

*                  *                 *

Martínez recounts his sporadic and limited contact with his neighbors in Velarde and his more extensive interactions with some of our brightest norteño lights such as Estevan Arellano, Ike de Vargas and Miguel Santistevan. His verbal portraits of these three are sympathetic and insightful and make a welcome contribution to New Mexico letters. And he does a fair job interpreting their interpretations of the norteño predicament. But it is part of their role as public intellectuals to talk to outsiders and in fulfilling that role they inevitably set themselves a bit apart from the others in their communities. Three or four years is not a lot of time to get to know a place and its people (it can take years to really know even one person, after all) and at no time does Martínez claim that earning the norteño Hispanos’ acceptance was his goal, so it would be wrong to see his perennial lack of entree as a failing. But in light of his effort to explain how the U.S. territorial takeover marginalized Hispanos, stripping them of land and status (he even uses this history of loss to explain the prevalence of heroin addiction), their repeated representation in Desert America as a menacing presence behind tinted glass or the alleged perpetrators of foul crime is both disappointing and a bit surprising.

Among the millions of recent Latin American immigrants into this country there have been some vicious criminals, as there are in any large group of humans, and Martínez gives no quarter to “nativist” fear-mongering that generalizes “illegals” into bogeymen. In fact, one could say the chief purpose of his book is to neutralize such stereotypes by humanizing those who cross from Mexico into desert America. It is a worthy purpose and Martínez does it well. In this context, the prejudices of New Mexico Hispanos with respect to “mojados” can be a nativism every bit as reprehensible as the organized racism of whites in Arizona and elsewhere. But Martínez’s stand in solidarity with the border crossers does not explain his equanimity toward entitled gentrifiers of Hispano villages or environmentalists who have no compunction about extinguishing the norteño way of life in a kind of vigilante enforcement of the ban from Eden. And the squalid affair with which he ends his book, since the ending of a book is also a summation, completes his misanthropic portrayal of the Hispano as a horrible other though not without exceptions.

Some of the best writing in Desert America is not reportage but a memoir of Martínez’s own picaresque sojourn in the California desert town of Joshua Tree. Wishing to re-purpose a drug-addicted life, he found himself part of a low-rent “boho” scene that grew into a fashionable artist colony. This experience gave him a vantage point from which later to view another dwindling desert town’s transformation into an arts center and playground for millionaires. The “pioneer” who started the Marfa, Texas colony was art world superstar Donald Judd, whose libertine lifestyle suggested to Martínez a kind of wave/particle duality: the artist as free spirit and the artist as lout. This is an insight the reader might fruitfully employ in a reappraisal of the famous 20th century art colonies in Santa Fe and Taos. Apart from the history of swindlers, exploiters and bullies, could the loutishness of our otherwise sanctified artists have contributed to the Anglo’s poor reputation among the preexisting populations in these parts? It is a question deserving of honest reflection, and an insight to Martínez’s credit. But to the loutishness of one colonist in particular, the author seems oddly blind.

“I feel his beard scratchy on my neck early each morning in Velarde,” Martínez writes. “I have been reading D. H. Lawrence, and we’ve grown quite close.” He describes developing an intimate, personalized sense of the man. “I find myself liking Lawrence as I read more and more of the voluminous material, most of it hagiographic, written by others about his time in Mexico and New Mexico.” By far the finest volume within that region of Lawrenciana is Santa Fe transplant “Hal” Witter Bynner’s ­Journey with Genius, of which Martínez makes no mention. And although the title suggests hagiography undiluted, the figure Bynner renders is most unholy. Not only will the reader cringe at Lawrence’s vicious abuse of Frieda, as did everyone else within earshot, but we witness him acting with cruelty upon his racist fears and predilections in the Mexican resort town of Chapala. His quasi-paranoid suspicions toward the housekeeper in his rented villa had comic qualities, but a less laughable example concerned homeless children – orphans and runaways – who gathered at the better hotels to shine shoes, run errands or beg for coins. Seeing how one bunch had entered a dining area in defiance of “the rules,” Lawrence complained with enough energy to get the harmless and humiliated lot thrown into jail.

In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence idealized Mexican Indians to indulge his belief that humanity needed to reconnect with its savage roots to counteract a fatally enfeebling effect of Western civilization known as liberal democracy. In the decade following his death, the world came to recognize just such an impulse among the Italian Fascisti and the German Nazis. An American academic and fascism booster in the 1930s, Stebelton H. Nulle, considered Lawrence the virtual prophet of his cause: “Just as Robespierre was Rousseau’s finest pupil, one might say that Adolf Hitler is bringing into Western consciousness something of the insight and idealism of D. H. Lawrence.” And Frank Waters, a writer of the Southwest with Native American ancestry decried “a ghastly prophecy…. The Plumed Serpent has no parallel. Indeed, on close reading, it might well seem more Hitler’s original blueprint than Mein Kampf.” Either the “more and more of the voluminous material” that Martínez read about him did not include such observations, or that side of Lawrence just does not bother him. I encourage the reader to consider Martínez’s appreciation of (which depends upon his paintings as well as his writings) and identification with Lawrence: “I am not just feeling D.H.’s beard on my neck. I’m wearing it.” I accept that his intention may be pure provocation, but in my view his pomo analysis of free-moving desire obscures more than it reveals about the things that matter.

*                   *                   *

As Martínez tells it, he developed his sense of politics—se concientizó—supporting the Central American national liberation movements of the 1980s, back when Washington justified dictators, death squads, torture and invasions as necessities of an existential struggle with Communism. A political coming-of-age that he and I have in common. We both became adults in the Reagan era, and have both lived to see the War on Terror replace the Cold War as the rationale for our country’s extraterritorial atrocities.

Once as a guest of some Texas gazillionaires, or so he recounts in Desert America, Martínez opened up about that formative period in his life: “I was inspired by liberation theology, you know, the priests who married Catholicism and Marxism….” He characterizes this remark as the wagging of a tongue loosened by too much wine, and certainly his book is not a social history of Central America, but the statement’s casual glibness bothers me.

It contains a grain of truth, like any stereotype. But when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently censured outstanding liberation theology exponent Jon Sobrino, it was not for espousing Marxism but for his heterodox Christology. During my years of contact with the Church of the Poor, more than once was I reminded that the Romans did not crucify Jesus and persecute his followers because they were Marxists. Jesus had validated the marginal, the colonized. With words and by example, he had posed a “preferential option for the poor.” In societies typical of Central America where a few amass farmland and force poverty and starvation upon the many, and where the few defend that arrangement with deadly violence, even merely to condone such a sinful situation would itself be sin. In such a society, the sincere Christian must endeavor to liberate the poor to eliminate that sin. But if the “why?” of liberation theology derives from Gospel, the “how?” of actually transforming a given society is a different matter.

Though I never met him, one particular interpreter of liberation theology nevertheless had an impact on my life. Father James “Guadalupe” Carney, S.J., after years of ministering to the Honduran poor, joined a tiny guerrilla unit and was “disappeared” following a massive joint U.S.-Honduran mop-up operation in 1983. He had earlier reflected on his own “metamorphosis” in a memoir that situated his experiences within the larger context of Central America’s revolutionary times. As he delved into the practical challenges of social justice, he came upon labor and campesino leaders who were Marxists. “They had more courage and, it seemed to me, more love for the poor than most Christians,” he discovered, and this “made me very curious to learn more of their doctrine.” He gradually became convinced that the injustices he confronted were structural, and could only be erased through socialist revolution.

“If being a Christian demands being a revolutionary and a socialist, and to be a revolutionary and a socialist one has to use the Marxist-Leninist science of analysis and transformation of the world, then a Christian needs to understand Marxism.” So far, the notion of Catholicism married to Marxism may seem plausible in Fr. Carney’s case, but my use of italics in the passage just quoted should become clear in light of what follows: “The other part of Marxism, the global, philosophical vision of the universe that rejects the transcendental, that rejects everything that the natural sciences cannot study, that rejects the existence of God, the immortal soul, and the resurrection of the body, is clearly in contradiction with Christianity. I fully reject this part of Marxism as every Christian must reject this part of Marxism.” The italics here are Fr. Carney’s. To fulfill what he understood as liberation theology’s mission, he adopted some aspects of Marxism while rejecting others. He may have committed himself to a more radical praxis than did other liberationist Christians, but I believe the thoughts just quoted would have resonated widely.

I get Martínez’s joke (priests perform marriages) and one could argue that marriage often involves some contradiction and rejection, still to say that proponents of liberation theology “married Catholicism and Marxism” seems to me a simplistic conflation that friends of the Church of the Poor would be as scrupulous to avoid as its enemies would be blithe to accept.

After blurting out his remark, Martínez realized he had been injudicious, not for affirming a deadly stereotype (government security forces reflexively applied the label of Marxist to the numerous people including priests, nuns and lay religious workers they tortured and murdered in El Salvador, Guatemala and across Latin America mostly in the 1970s and ‘80s), but because his reference to Marxism might cause his rich and powerful hosts to think less of him:

A dim self-awareness: I’ve just used the M-word. But maybe that is precisely what my hosts want of me: to show them the margins, bring them a whiff of the authentic life out there on the far plain where the water jugs run empty, touch some troubled place in their consciences.

He manages to put a comforting spin on his indiscretion: perhaps his hosts had wanted him to give them a little shock and he had managed to please them after all. He is able to shrug this off as an example of epater [to scare or shock] la bourgeoisie. But searching that phrase for its spelling (my second language is Spanish not French), I learned something. Rather than originating with the political left or, as I might have guessed, the surrealists, the phrase was a battle cry of the decadents. Knowing this opens a new prospect on Martínez’s book.

There is plenty in Desert America to remind the reader of literary decadentism, as represented both by settings of decay (ruins, in the nineteenth-century European paradigm) and by the slide of character into self-indulgence and dissipation. Latter-day desert booms, we learn, begin with communities in decay, just as urban gentrification invades the deteriorated neighborhood. Martínez describes being part of such a process in Joshua Tree, California. Attracted by ridiculously cheap rents, he and other colonists—mostly musicians and other artists out of Los Angeles—moved into the down-at-heel town and its dilapidated buildings. He describes sifting though illegal desert dump sites to furnish his home which, like the homes of his fellow newcomers, was a monument to deferred maintenance. By this point in his life, he had replaced his political commitments with drug addiction and other licentious hedonisms, and now was looking to abandon these for something more sustainable. His move to the desert was for the purpose of working through an impasse. So let me be the first to recommend Desert America as an excellent basis for understanding the new neo-decadent entertainment Seven Psychopaths.

And as a basis for understanding northern New Mexico? As kids these days might say, not so much. In one instance after another, Martínez may put himself far enough out there to shock the bourgeoisie, but not far enough to grasp la joya.

The book is Desert America: boom and bust in the new Old West by Rubén Martínez, 2012. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York.



    • Eric Schultz’ book review on Ruben Martinez’ “Desert America” begins with 7 nearly incomprehensible paragraphs before he refers to Martinez’ book, a sure way to kill any interest on Martinez, his book, or Schultz’ book review. I will look for the book, anyway, because I am interested in New Mexico and New Mexican writers, even those who immigrated across the river and over the body of water which so many foreigners have crossed before they invaded New Mexico, i.e., the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. As the son of a father from Talpa and a mother from Mora, and a descendant of Pablo Montoya who was hung in the Taos plaza in the aftermath of the Taos rebellion and execution of territorial governor Charles Bent, I truly hope that someone with a Martinez surname would finally decide that writing about D.H. Lawrence [and/or Georgia O’Keefe] does not really tell us about New Mexico or its history as much as it tells us about one of the many disastrous consequences that began with the American takeover. “La Jicarita” somewhat fills the void left when Betita Martinez and Riqueta Vasquez ceased publication of “El Grito del Norte,” and I merely hope that Schultz was having a bad day when he wrote his review.

  1. In the late 40’s and 1950’s I learned Gramatica Castellana in Buenos Aires. Most, if not all, Latin American countries and in Spain, the grammar was Castillian Grammar. I don’t know what children study today but languages change as regionalisms develop. If anyone wants to know about the use of the H, J and G in Castellano should look mostly into Arabic and possible Hebrew, two languages used in southern Spain before the ascent of the Castillian crown. These two languages have guttural sounds probably represented early in the process of empire building and colonization by the above letters. Jews who escaped Spain kept the Spanish language of the 14 and 15 hundreds mixed with Hebrew. It is call Ladino and was spoken even in Greece and Turkey well into the 20th century. A newspaper written in Ladino used to be published in Israel. See one of many links:

    Nice article.

  2. “…The region’s tourist imagery (aided by the artistic brilliance of the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams) has proved extraordinarily resilient in spite of what lurks just beyond the edges of the frame. Take, for example, the Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine that is one of northern New Mexico’s most popular destinations. Entrenched poverty and heroin addiction exist within yards of the old church and its pit of holy dirt, said to hold miraculous healing powers. The tourist is shielded from that sight by the living diorama of the Old West.”
    “Now the Desert Is Just a Desert” by Rubén Martinez, NYT Op-Ed, Feb 25th 2013 (

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