Former UH professor shares his ideas on desert America

The desert, known for its isolation and solidarity, has become a teaching inspiration of hospitality and social responsibility for author Rubén Martinez.

Author Rubén Martinez  said he uses the desert as a “teacher” of humanity in both his book and the lecture. |  Mary Dahdouh/The Daily Cougar

Author Rubén Martinez said he uses the desert as a “teacher” of humanity in both his book and the lecture. | Mary Dahdouh/The Daily Cougar

Martinez, a former UH creative writing professor and Emmy Award-winning journalist, returned to UH on Thursday to discuss how his book, “Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West,” portrays the juxtaposition of the desert and inescapable human encounters.

“People often go to the desert thinking that they will find solitude there, that they will find healing there; they will find a spiritual journey there,” Martinez said. “But if you stay there and live there like I did, you will find that all the things we are supposedly leaving behind are found in stark relief out in the desert as well.”

Martinez was an immigrant to the desert, moving from one of the most densely-populated cities in the world, Mexico City, to the deserts of New Mexico. Martinez said he struggled with the tension between the desert he imagined and the desert he actually lived in.

A 23-year-old couple and their son lived next door to Martinez and were a constant reminder of the unhappiness and struggle that dwells on the borders of the desert. Each day, Martinez would watch the violent fights between the two, Rose and José, from his attic window but never did anything.

“My wife and I write about borders. We write about the ideas of hospitality and solidarity,” Martinez said. “And then suddenly we’re living in a situation where our literal neighbors — as we were living within 100 feet of that adobe where Rose and José were living — and our ideals of solidarity come up against this harsh reality of what are we supposed to do with our neighbors. What are we supposed to do about Rose and José? What are our responsibilities?”

Through these questions, Martinez opened the idea of hospitality and confrontation to include many global issues surrounding the idea of borders between people and nations.

“He touched on a lot of concepts that I hadn’t really thought about,” said biology sophomore Amber Ansari. “He spoke about how a border is just a wall, but it’s only physically there. There’s no symbolic meaning, and it really doesn’t stop anything from happening or progressing.”

In his book and lecture, Martinez also touched upon his life in Mexico and the U.S. and the clash of cultures that arises over the borders. For this reason, Maria Laura Zubiate, a graduate student and Spanish professor in the Honors College, urged her class to attend.

“Today’s presentation dealt with a lot of culture between the two countries, and my class is not only about language, it’s about language and culture,” Zubiate said.

“Martinez teaches about the transnational life, how the two countries are connected and how what happens in one country affects the other. Through hospitality, what is happening in Mexico is not just the others’ problems. It’s our problem as well,” she said.

Martinez concluded by saying  the desert asks us to change the way we live, the way we think, through moral confrontations explained by many philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida.

“I always thought about what we would do if Rose came and knocked on our door one day, hysterical after a fight with José,” Martinez said.

“A book on hospitality by Derrida answers that question: You have to open the door. By not taking the risk of opening the door or knocking on the door, how is anything going to change?”

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