Manuel Luis Martinez is a writer and Professor of American and Chicano literature at The Ohio State University in Columbus. He is the author of the novels Crossing (1998), Drift (2003), and Day of the Dead (2010). His most recent novel is Los Duros published by Floricanto Press. Martinez offers a tough, succinct, and honest depiction of the people who struggle through poverty and bigotry in this California desert community. This is an important book, one that required the talents of a writer such as Martinez to succeed as a work of literature. The author agreed to answer a few questions about his latest literary endeavor.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Could you talk a little about the community of Los Duros in the Mojave Desert and the reasons you set this novel there.
MANUEL LUIS MARTINEZ: A friend of mine from San Antonio, Felipe Vargas, a graduate student in education, began a program in Thermal, California about ten years ago. He asked me to come out and teach creative writing to a group of kids living in dire poverty in the colonias of the Mojave Desert. He told me that it would change the way I saw the world. I had worked with migrant populations before in Indiana and California. I grew up an impoverished kid in San Antonio. My grandparents were migrant workers. So I didn’t expect to see anything earth-shattering.
But my friend was right. Perhaps because Thermal, California is surrounded by such concentrated wealth, the juxtaposition of dire poverty and conspicuous affluence absolutely clarifies the effects of inequality in this country. Working with these kids in these communities humanizes the abstract debates about how this nation treats immigrants and its poor. It’s not just about material poverty. I witnessed the death of hope and aspiration.
The students I worked with lived in terrible conditions, in colonias without running water, electricity, without police protection, medical care, in the midst of toxins and pollution and sewage. Add to this, the reality of having to live in the shadows because of the fear of deportation. These are anxieties of which the vast majority of Americans have no experience. When you see the squalor and contempt with which these children have to live side by side with the immense luxury and entitlement of the area, there is no other conclusion to be drawn: this nation is guilty of human rights violations. We are exploiting the most vulnerable for their labor while throwing their children to the dogs. Politically, we hide behind terms like “illegal” and “border security” and “amnesty,” while ignoring the plight of the children caught up in a system predicated on the assault of hope. The system doesn’t just use these people, it crushes them. It’s designed to do this.
I wanted to write a book in which I depicted these conditions by foregrounding the Mojave and the Coachella area. It’s an unforgiving place. Water is scarce and the environment is brutal. To survive you have to be tough or rich. I wanted to depict the breaking point. By that I mean, the combination of poverty, ignorance, exclusion, racism, and invisibility that bring even the toughest of these kids to the brutal realization that there is no future for them. I saw it firsthand. Kids who were extremely bright and hard working, full of hope and determination, who came to the end of the road because there was no place for them left to go. College closed off, legitimate jobs closed off, citizenship closed off. The Salton Sea became the symbol for the plight of these children: a beautiful fresh water lake surrounded by desert being polluted by the runoff of toxins and pesticides until nothing can live in the water and the birds and fish die.
Los Duros, the colonia which is itself a kind of main character in this novel, is the equivalent of the Salton Sea. A fragile space of life and potential surrounded by hostile elements that ultimately choke off the life force. It’s tragic.
DO: Juan, the long-absent father, and Guillermo, the idealist teacher, create a taut wire of tension toward Juan’s son who is known as Banger. Why did you decide to create this triangle in the already difficult terrain of a community staggered by poverty and bigotry?
MLM: I wanted to present Banger with the illusion of alternatives. The father and the teacher are both trying to give Banger the benefit of their experience. They are both of them idealistic and world-worn, but they’ve learned different lessons. Each hopes that Banger will use their guidance to navigate the near-impossible terrain. Metaphorically speaking, they understand that the desert is the desert. It is dangerous and unforgiving. You aren’t going to change that environment. So there is only one way out and that is to cross it, to get through. The pessimistic side of me sees the political and social realities as near-impossible to change. So what’s left to do? This is Banger’s dilemma. I wanted to suggest that both of the men in Banger’s life have something to give him, something vital to his survival. But I also needed to show that neither man has any more of an idea as to what to do in the face of so much misery than do the kids caught up in the grinding system. If Banger is at the apex of a triangle of relationships and possible outcomes, we find that the triangle ultimately collapses. There is no triangle. There is only a line.
DO: The suffering of your characters is extreme. Was it difficult to use their lives as the core of your narrative?
MLM: Yes, it was very difficult. I didn’t know what to do when I came back from my first trip to Los Duros. I felt depressed about the overwhelming futility of their situation. But Molly, my wife, told me that I had to write about them. It was perhaps the only bit of influence that I might have. I thought about this for a long while before I began the project. I recognized that I was in a privileged position. I knew these kids and they trusted me with their stories. Our workshops were set up to give them a voice, to let them know that someone out there was listening. I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to write about them so much as that I was going to write through them. And if nothing else, they’d know that I heard them. The suffering is real. It’s out there right now, being experienced right now. Pain is never abstract. People should know the kind of real pain that their political decisions cause. This is the most unflinching work I’ve written. It’s not an easy thing to confront. I wrote Los Duros because I don’t want to give myself or any of my readers an easy way out.
And now for some thanks…
Since the publication of my eighth book (and first of nonfiction), Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature Through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press), I’ve received wonderful words of support from La Bloga readers and many others. So far, we’ve had three lovely reviews published and I am told that a few more are coming down the pike. In case you missed the reviews, here they are: Los Angeles Review of Books by Carribean Fragoza, ZYZZYVA by Stefani Wright, and Somos en escrito by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. And mil gracias to those college professors who will be using my book in the classroom. Finally, I think a special word of thanks should go to San Diego State University Press for publishing my manuscript and creating what is truly a handsome book, lovingly designed by Prof. William A. Nericcio with cover artwork by the great Perry Vasquez. —Daniel Olivas