“A historian might very well consider the validity of the Gadsen Purchase, wherein we bought my locale for fifty-two cents an acre from a group of Mexicans that had no right to sell it. The United Nations would question our right to take all of the Colorado River’s water, leaving the estuarine area in Mexico as dry as the bones their people leave up here in the desert. A true disciple of Jesus would say that we have to do something about these desperate people, though this is the smallest voice of all. Most politicians have the same moral imperative as a cancer cell: continue what you’re up to at all costs. Meanwhile the xenophobes better known as the xenoids, merely jump up and down on the border screeching, surely a full testament to our primate roots. Everyone not already here must be kept out, and anyone here illegally, if not immediately expunged, should be made as uncomfortable as possible.” —Jim Harrison, “Life on The Border” (Men’s Journal, July 2001)
Ruben Martinez, award-winning journalist and author of The Other Side, a collection of his journalism and journal entries, is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Frontline, Nightline and All Things Considered.
He has recently published Crossing Over, an engrossing examination of Mexican migration viewed through the lens of the Chavez family of Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico. Three brothers of the Chavez clan were on their way to their work in the strawberry fields of Watsonville, California in 1996 when the overloaded van they were ‘riding’ in crashed, fleeing a Border Patrol vehicle.
Martinez’s book chronicles the family’s multitudinous border crossings and their migrant labors in a meat-packing plant in Wisconsin, the tomato farms of Missouri and fruit picking in California. As part of the more than 7 million Mexican migrants in the US, the Chavez’ and their extended family are a compelling example of migrant culture and, as Martinez suggests, the new culture that is being created that “will alter both Mexico and the United States as the two countries come increasingly to resemble each other.” Ruben Martinez lives in Los Angeles and is currently at Harvard University under the auspices of a Loeb Fellowship.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me why you are at Harvard University?
Ruben Martinez: Not because I’m an architect. Because I’m not. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Gothic and Deco, probably. Well, I probably could, but my background isn’t in design. The Loeb fellowship is designed as an interdisciplinary urbanism fellowship where ten people each year are chosen from various fields to come together and brainstorm about American urban issues. I’m a city boy, grew up in LA, have written about other big cities — Mexico City in particular. And I think that’s why I’m there.
Birnbaum: You had to apply, didn’t you?
Martinez: I was nominated. The reason I was nominated was because I have written about immigration and cities in the United States. A lot of urban studies departments of various colleges and universities have invited me to speak to them. So I’m in that field — in urban studies — I’m relatively well known, especially on the West Coast.
Birnbaum: Is the term ‘urban planning’ still used?
Martinez: They do. UCLA still has an urban planning department.
Birnbaum: Do have a sense of whether urban planners know what they are doing?
Martinez: The new urbanists are catching up to the changes that have occurred in American cities over the years. A lot of people in urban planning — young turk types — started seeing urban planning as being completely divorced from the reality that people were living in cities.
Birnbaum: I’m operating with the bias that urban-planning theory becomes obsolete by the time it is to be applied…
Martinez: Yeah, very much so. I totally agree with that. The people I’ve spoken to in the field are more community-based. They are actually theorizing on the changes as they occur and want planning to be a more democratic and open process. In places like LA, it takes into consideration immigrant street vendors. Or graffiti artists. A bottom-up type thing.
Birnbaum: Are planners divided between dealing with the city as it is and some future utopian intentions, between social policy and design…
Martinez: The new urbanists are more reflective of community dynamics and the interaction of various components of the community.
Birnbaum: You mean, human beings actually having something to do with the city?
Martinez: Yeah. The others are real-estate developers. Public transportation is a huge thing in LA. You get involved in issues like public transportation and pretty soon you get fights between advocates for immigrant workers and real-estate developers who say, “not in my back yard.” Middle-class types and the whole thing kind of blows up. And that’s what the new urbanists are looking at, trying to get everyone involved in a dialogue and not have the decisions made by some small cabal in city hall.
Birnbaum: What? (both laugh) You are also a musician?
Birnbaum: Yes. Are you giving up writing anytime soon, to pursue your musical career?
Martinez: (laughs) I actually just got a new book contract to write another immigration book. It’s going to be a companion book to a PBS series next year. The publisher is The New Press and the series is called the New Americans and it’s by the guys who did Hoop Dreams. It’s a big series on immigration and immigrants coming to America. But I was looking forward to playing honky-tonks in Texas. Somehow, I wind up combining these things. I’ve always juggled genres.
Birnbaum: Doesn’t it take the pressure off? You don’t have to depend on music for your livelihood.
Martinez: Sure, that’s right, I’ve never had to depend on music, thank god, for my living. That’s true.
Birnbaum: It took you five years to write Crossing Over. Is this the book you started out to write?
Martinez: No. The book I started out to write was much more jump-cut and far flung. This book follows one family and a few families around that family. The one I started out to write was going to have MTV-style editing — seen from both sides of the border — not a linear narrative. I wanted to do popular religion and music and sex and drugs and immigration and everything. I wanted to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. I wanted to capture border culture in all its complexity. I think my editor and everybody knew pretty much from the beginning that I was unfocused. I had this totally unworkable vision for a book. Over a period of a couple of years — after following the Chavez family, the book started narrowing down to that family.
Birnbaum: The tragedy that befell the Chavez’ became the catalyst for your focus?
Martinez: I didn’t know that at the time of the accident or the first couple of meetings with them. Probably six months later I thought, “You know what? I could write a book just following this family and capturing this town.” And that’s what ended up happening. Even in the editing process there was still a couple of snippets of things from the road that are not directly connected to the family. The original manuscript was eight-hundred pages and we chopped it down to half that. I still have a lot of travelogue stuff…but I thank my editors for their intelligence. They said, “You know what? The story is really with this family, stay with them.” And so we chopped a lot of text.
Birnbaum: Do you know Barry Gifford‘s Bordertown book?
Martinez: A beautiful book. That was the jump-cut type stuff. It was non-linear…a pastiche book. Paper clippings, text and I’m attracted to that stuff.
Birnbaum: Recently, I’ve talked to Alberto Manguel and Ilan Stavans. Both have given me the impression that their intellectual curiosity and their approach to gathering knowledge is for lack of a better word, “fragmentary.” They don’t seem to be looking for a complete system and are happy to look a different texts and sources and weave something together…Is that a Latino cultural attitude?
Martinez: A friend of mine said that Mexicans were the first postmodernists. Postmodernism goes back to the Conquest — because it’s that split consciousness, that creates a world view that’s a priori fragmented, occupying several spaces at the same time. Just look at the Mexican experience in the Catholic Church, half-Indian and half-European. It’s really just like a mixed mutt of traditions. And so I think that there’s something to that. What we are talking about is a postmodern worldview. There’s something philosophical about this…I hesitate to say…I think there is a cultural element to it, but over the last twenty five years I think this has been how academe and pop theorists have functioned. In that space of fragmentation and not looking for a linear narrative. It’s funny because I started out looking for this fragmented hopscotch type work but it ends up becoming very lyrical with a beginning, middle and end. Despite the lyricism and the epic nature of the story, the experience of the culture in the families is very fragmented. So we get these weird scenes where they are being Mexican in the States and being really American back in Mexico.
Birnbaum: It was very telling that you observed their home in Mexico began to resemble their home in Wisconsin. Do these transplanted people want to stay here in the US?
Martinez: The first generation, the elders as in the Norwalk, Wisconsin family…the parents and even their older children want to return home. But the youngest, Marta — whose English is perfect and has been back in the old country a couple of times — her life is clearly here. This is not unique to Mexicans. Italians came here in the ’20s and ’30s a good number of them did go back. Everyone sent money back home. People complain. “These Mexicans send all their money back home. They don’t invest in the future of America.” The Irish, the Jews, everybody sent money back home when they had family back home. That’s not unique to Mexicans. As far as of dreaming of returning to the old country and building a beautiful house and retiring in peace, that is also part of the generation immigrants’ experience. What is different about the Mexicans is that they are within easy reach of the old country.
Birnbaum: Do Wensie and Rosa want to return to Cheran?
Martinez: I just saw them for the first time in about a year in St Louis. Each time I visited there, they are more acculturated. Where they were when they first got here to where they are now…Wensie has a new car. Nicer than my car. They are dressed much more Americanish than before.
Birnbaum: Have they moved up in terms of the kind of work they do?
Martinez: Yes, most of the family is now working at a t-shirt factory. And not in the fields. They are making $7 per hour as opposed to $5.75. They have a two-bedroom apartment and they have two daughters and the oldest one is going to parochial school. They are paying $2500 a year. There has been a good amount of mobility for them. They are thinking more and more about staying up here.
Birnbaum: Any intention to check back with these people ten years from now?
Martinez: Actually, I found out a couple of things. The meat-packing plant shut down. There are no Mexicans left in Norwalk (Wisconsin). I just found this out. I called a bunch of people…they all left. It was like the circus left town. I don’t know whether the family is in the States or back home in Mexico. It just goes to show you the winds of the global economy. How fast change can come. That town was picked up and dropped by the winds of the global economy in a period of 6 or 7 years. So I would like to look up a lot of these families and see where they are. The Chavez family is a much different relationship. I am close to them and so we are talking constantly. I know I am always going to be in touch with them. I’m kind of like their older brother.
Birnbaum: I was moved by your loan of $500 to Wense.
Martinez: Which he paid right back.
Birnbaum: Did you think he would?
Martinez: Yea, if I had lent an artist friend $500, I’m never going to see it back. You lend a working-class person money, money’s a different thing to people who don’t have it.
Birnbaum: I guess there is some honor involved. Did you see Jim Harrison’s piece in Men’s Journal [July 2001] called “Living On the Border”?
Martinez: No, I haven’t.
Birnbaum: Here, let me give you a copy. That piece is one reason why I was moved to read your book. What’s going to happen regarding the immigration situation between Mexico and the US?
Martinez: Long term? Short term?
Birnbaum: How about short term?
Martinez: Nothing is going to change short term. I was just reading some political forecast, like a beltway forecast…”immigration — nothing until 2003.” We are talking about immigration reform. It seems like that’s pretty accurate. Nobody has the political will to risk their neck right now on a issue that people are so concerned about in a completely different way than they were before Sept. 11. Suddenly, it’s not just those damn illegals. It’s national security and terrorists. The anti-immigration lobbyists on Capitol Hill hold sway right now — the Center For Immigration Studies and those types.
Sept. 11 didn’t do away with the border we share with Mexico. In the most optimistic short-run forecast, it would be really visionary thinking and a public presentation that said, “You know what, if you really want security on our southern border then the US has to work closely with our Mexican partners and develop a border plan.”
It’s such a hard sell right now. People want to think that that border is closed and protected. It’s been beefed up. What I tell people is, “If these terrorists came from anywhere, it wasn’t across the Mexican border. It was across the Canadian border. We spend billions of dollars fortifying this border and succeeded in killing 4 or 5 thousand people in a decade. Meanwhile, the people responsible for 4 or 5 thousand deaths at the World Trade Center — at least a couple of them — slipped in through Canada.”
Birnbaum: Are the southern-border anomalies more complicated than just manifestations of racism?
Martinez: Yeah, sure. It’s hard to disentangle the race issue the bottom-line economic issue. The way the border has been enforced — even with a beefed up border — hasn’t changed the essence of it. Which is that it insures cheap labor for a big sector of the American economy. There is race involved here because those little brown boys and girls are going to be our…they are not slaves but there are cases of indentured-type servitude. And they don’t get the same shot at being middle-class Americans as other people do. It’s race and class combined. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Birnbaum: How permeable are Central American borders? Do people from Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador travel through Mexico to cross the Rio Grande?
Martinez: Sure, that’s why they all hate the Mexicans. Oh yeah. In Central America particularly, anti-Mexican sentiment is really, really strong.
Birnbaum: Why do they hate the Mexicans?
Martinez: That Catholic family joke, you know, at the dinner table the father hits the mother, the mother hits the…it goes around the table. Well, the United States kicks Mexico in the butt. Mexico kicks butt in Central America. So, the border we have with Mexico is the border Mexico has with the rest of Latin America. And it’s a deadly border, too. And there’s corruption and people get discriminated against. But it’s a porous border also. I’m half-Salvadoran on my mom’s side. LA has 500,000 Salvadorans. So is there a lot of mobility from Central America. Yeah, more so from Guatemala and El Salvador than Honduras and Nicaragua. It’s part of the story.
Birnbaum: Why isn’t the diversity that exists beneath the ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ designation more recognized?
Martinez: It’s a very American trait. To not be able to distinguish…can we distinguish between the Hmong and the Vietnamese and the Ky…they are all from South East Asia.
Birnbaum: Yeah, I guess we don’t distinguish Chinese, Korean and Japanese…
Martinez: That’s not just American. Latinos in California, it doesn’t matter if it’s Korean or Japanese or Vietnmese. They call them ‘chinos’. They are all Chinese. Maybe it’s a human thing beyond an American thing.
Birnbaum: So you could say racism is pretty much a universal?
Martinez: Yeah, sure it is. It gets really bad when the people who have power act it out. A Mexican who calls a Japanese a ‘chino’, no harm no foul. What’s it going to do to him? But Latinos want to have it both ways. It’s a contradiction of their presence in the US. On the one hand we want to be counted as Latinos because, “Wow, that makes us big.” 500,000 Mexicans in New York City along the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans. The Salvadorans along side the Mexicans and the Brazilians make up huge numbers. But in practical political terms, these communities aren’t in the same districts and the interests don’t always coincide. The most obvious is the Floridian Cuban middle class and Mexicans in the valley in Texas or the San Joaquin Valley in California. There are even huge cultural differences between California and Texan Mexicans. And political differences as well. It’s not really a community. There is a shared language.
Birnbaum: It’s not one culture. Certainly, not musically.
Martinez: Only in the broadest possible sense. Tex Mex music is very different from cumbia or salsa from the Caribbean. And samba. There is a point at which the Mexican can stand next to the Salvadoran and say, “Despite the fact that we have two flags and two ways of speaking Spanish there is something that brings us together.” Guess what it is? It’s their relationship to the US. “We’re both going to be facing the same kind of bosses and the same kind of wages, the same kind of trouble with the border patrol and the cops.” There is a sense of solidarity among the immigrants. But go one generation ahead, they are very ambivalent about the newly arrived immigrants.
Birnbaum: That seems to be a traditional pattern.
Martinez: Sure. The second generation is reminded of something they don’t want to be reminded of…where they come from. They are embarrassed by it.
Birnbaum: In the book, there were people who wanted to return to their roots and re-enact rituals…
Martinez: That’s the third generation. The Watsonville family is the classic example of that. The mother immigrated thirty years ago and her kids became totally Americanized and were flirting with gangs and drugs. And then the mom sent them back to the old country to be cured of this American disease. It seems like it’s worked, at least in the short term. The kids are indulging in all these traditions and want to speak their Indian language. That’s definitely a Mexican-American thing. In LA you see generation after generation try to rediscover its roots. It’s a quixotic thing, though. Even as these kids are discovering their quote unquote roots. The very fact that you are even looking for your roots is an American trait. You are only looking for them because you don’t have them.
Birnbaum: Apropos of nothing, what ever happened to that rapper Arturo Molino, Kid Frost [Hispanic Causing Panic]?
Martinez: He was so good, wasn’t he? He was great. I liked him. He still does car shows. He’s greeted like a long-lost king. I really don’t understand what happened to his career. That would be a good story…
Birnbaum: His song “La Raza” was great…
Martinez: It was fantastic.
Birnbaum: Oh well. Tell me about your career. Your first book was…
Martinez: Yeah, it was columns and diary…that was trying to do the pastiche thing. Little bits of my diary and poems and even my photographs.
Birnbaum: Have you given up photography? Is that why Joseph Rodriguez’ photos are used in Crossing Over?
Martinez: My eyes…I have a retinal problem. I can’t even distinguish colors anymore. It’s degenerative.
Birnbaum: Writer. Urban planner. Journalist. Musician. Are you going to make movies?
Martinez: My goal when I was a 21-year-old writer was that by the time I was 30 I was going to have a novel, an album, and a produced screenplay. Well, I have a collection of non-fiction and I’m going to have an album in a few months — although it took ten years longer than I thought it would. I grew up in Hollywood. I don’t want to die without having done something…
Martinez: Yeah, absolutely. When you asked me about some authors earlier, ask me about film and I’ll immediately recognize stuff. But literary questions [whispers], “Have I read that or not?” I remember the video, I don’t remember the book.
Birnbaum: Why do you write?
Martinez: Why do I write? (pause) Because I didn’t go to film school. Because…I can do it. But, I really love movies. Yesterday was the first time in several weeks I had a chance to do nothing. I had a stack of books that I bought over the last couple of months. I said, “You know, I want to go see the new Allison Anders movie.” So I did, and I didn’t read at all.
Birnbaum: I don’t get the sense that you had to write, that you have been driven to write, to be a writer. It seems if you were recruited to be an account executive at an ad agency…
Birnbaum: You wouldn’t do that?
Martinez: They have flirted with me. The whole dot-com thing — there were offers in California. One of the most embarrassing ones came from this web-site called QuePasa.com. The joke in the industry was, “Que paso?” What happened? The tense changed because it went belly up really quickly. They approached me with stock options, the typical thing. I just looked at the site and it was so garish and stereotypical. I went, “Oh god, how can I do that?” I still have that old ‘can’t sell out’ voice in my head, somehow.
Birnbaum: Are you to be considered a leading Latino intellectual? Like Ray Suarez, Richard Rodriquez. Who is the Latino spokesman?
Martinez: Most of the media representation of Latinos is coming in the commercial pop realm. Jennifer Lopez is the spokesperson for the culture. And Ricky Martin.
Martinez: It’s not Ilan Stavans. It’s not Richard Rodriguez.
Birnbaum: Isabel Allende?
Martinez: She’s Latin American.
Birnbaum: Even though she lives here?
Martinez: She’s still very clearly Latin American. It’s like an Italian immigrant to the United States speaking for Italian Americans.
Birnbaum: How about Sandra Cisneros?
Martinez: As far as literary voices, the Mexican-American women writers are probably the strongest presence. I think the media has yet to completely open up to Latinos. And I think Latinos have to become much more savvy about their place in the media. There is a need for Latin public intellectuals.
Birnbaum: Would Ilan Stavans fulfill that role?
Martinez: Kind of. Although you mention that name and who’s going to know? Except a few people.
Birnbaum: If you hang around long enough the cable channels will find you.
Martinez: I’m ambivalent about that. I’ve been asked the question, “So, do you consider yourself a spokesperson?” I think anybody would cringe at the thought. Any self-respecting intellectual would cringe at the thought. I only represent a tiny slice of any community. On the other hand there is a political reality here. Latinos are marginal, politically, intellectually. Jennifer Lopez might be at the absolute center of the mainstream of pop culture in commercial terms. But in terms of political discourse or economic strength for that matter, Latinos are clearly on the margins.
Birnbaum: Are Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez seen as Latinos?
Martinez: Absolutely. The Meadow character on The Sopranos, she’s Cuban-Venezuelan. She’s on the cover of Latina magazine. So they are claimed by Latinos.
Birnbaum: I thought Cubans were invisible.
Martinez: By and large they are. What is the pop culture’s representation of Latinos? It’s a reductionist and unreal one. If you think of Latino what picture are you going to see in your head? You are going to see a ninety-year-old Cuban pianist. Which is a nice thing. I’m not saying anything against Buena Vista Social Club. It’s a beautiful story. But the way the pop machine works, it’s not the best place to represent cultures with a capitol C.
Birnbaum: I guess it’s marketing.
Martinez: It is. There’s a lot of Latinos in Hollywood saying, “We gotta do our own thing.” The Spike Lee model. And all power to them, but you are fighting in a medium that’s antithetical to real intellectual or political pursuits. That raises the larger issue of American culture overall, of how few public intellectuals we have. And how we are anti-intellectual by nature and academe is over here and the pop culture is over there. In Europe they are a little bit closer. Do I want to be a spokesperson? I don’t want to be, but I realize in this climate, in this geography I can’t help but be one.
Birnbaum: Well if you write a book on a serious topic that affects part of your cultural heritage, why isn’t it natural that you be called upon to give testimony, to speak?
Martinez: Sure. And it’s a great opportunity to do so. In the book I try to cast myself as an American. Because I am — I’m an American Latino, but an American — that’s true to who I am — I grew up listening to Marty Robbins as much as to mariachi music — why I can’t I be the American spokesperson on the Mexican immigration issue?
Birnbaum: You can in Mexico…
Martinez: Actually, that’s very true. We just sold the rights to the Spanish translation and I’ll clearly be seen as the gringo coming down to tell Mexico about itself.
Birnbaum: Doing this book required a lot of driving?
Martinez: Tens of thousands of miles. And flying to Mexico City about 50 times. Yeah, it was a physical journey. It’s one that I feel that I’ve been on or that I keep on trying to get back on the road. I was attracted to the Beats with their road imagery. Somehow, it speaks to my dad’s stories. “Oh yea, we drove all night, that night through El Paso. We saw this flash from this nuclear test in the desert. You know, and we stopped at these seedy hotels.” Stories like this, that I grew up with. My father being on the road…and my father being like a Mexican James Dean with a little convertible. A metallic green MG…
Birnbaum: You father was an opera singer?
Martinez: My grandfather. My father’s parents were both opera singers. And they were on the road because after they didn’t go very far in opera — no more than bit parts — they decided to do pop music. They were on the road in the American Southwest for years. And my mother traveling from El Salvador…all these stories are the bedrock of my family. I grew up loving American road culture because it’s a really cool culture and because it’s part of my family’s culture.
Birnbaum: Can we say that road culture is quintessentially American? And that air travel has obscured the immensity of this country that we are occasionally reminded of by writers like William Heat Moon and Blue Highways, Andrei Codrescu and Road Scholar…What about the physicality of driving around the country?
Martinez: I can’t drive like that anymore because of my eyes. I’m never going to, alone on the road like that. Even being on tour promoting the book, that’s when I feel alive. My father keeps on saying, “You’ve got to slow down. You have to settle down…” But I don’t feel like that. I inherited this from my father.
Birnbaum: You may be able to take advantage of forthcoming biogenetic advances. My generation may be the last one to die. Your parts will be replaced, they’re replaceable.
Martinez: We just go as far as we can until the hubcaps fall off.
Birnbaum: So what’s next?
Martinez: An album, a new book…
Birnbaum: Are you still with Pacific News Service?
Martinez: Yeah, those are occasional op-eds. They’re syndicated. About 250 papers. I never know where the piece is going to wind up. Sometimes it’s in Des Moines, sometimes it’s in Munich.
Birnbaum: Any work at the small journals of criticism and opinion and culture like Harper’s or The New Republic?
Martinez: Occasionally The Nation. It’s just been the last couple of years that I started doing things on the East Coast. It’s been a huge thing for me being an LA-based writer. Mexicans really didn’t play in NY. Until, that is, all the Mexicans arrived and started serving Manhattanites their food. Even if the migration ebbs, there are millions of people who are here to stay in Storm Lake, Iowa or Watsonville, California or Foley, Alabama, the long grass capitol of the world, population 800…Mexicans. These towns and Manhattan for that matter, where we are the fastest-growing national group…
Birnbaum: Faster than the Dominicans?
Martinez: Yes, 500,000 Mexicans in Manhattan. All these places have changed permanently as a result of that presence. Just as they changed when the Italians arrived and the Slavs and all these other groups that came. It’s part of the big story in that sense. And there is no going back on it.
Birnbaum: Is the “melting pot” metaphor (still) applicable to the United States? There seems to be no real — as opposed to academic — examination. I guess that’s what keeps people like you and me in business…
Martinez: (chuckles) Yeah, sure. The great thing about the melting-pot thing and the assimilation stuff is that, “Yea, it’s true. But it’s not!” It’s been questioned now for a couple of generations. And rightly so, certain tenets of it especially. We are constantly renegotiating the terms of what it takes for an immigrant to be an American. How much we can retain our “otherness” and still be part of Americana. In the Latino boomlet in pop culture, would seem to argue, “Is Ricky Martin an American?” Well, hell yes, he’s Puerto Rican to begin with. And Jennifer Lopez the same thing. There is room here. We don’t all assume WASP culture as our own. The Jews never did. The Italians never did. We still have Oktoberfests. So, what was the melting pot anyway?
Birnbaum: A mythology of convenience. We certainly seem to love to see pictures of new citizens in our newspapers, being sworn in and reading of the travails they encountered to get here. Well, thanks very much…