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Desert America

Desert America.  It’s hot, in more ways than one.  Rubén Martínez takes us there.

Children riding bikes at the desert mobile home park called "Duroville" in Thermal, Calif. After a decade of legal wrangling, the encampment known as Duroville was scheduled to close Sunday June 30, 2013, by court order. (AP)

Children riding bikes at the desert mobile home park called “Duroville” in Thermal, Calif. After a decade of legal wrangling, the encampment known as Duroville was scheduled to close Sunday June 30, 2013, by court order. (AP)

Desert America, the big Southwest, has had a lot of headlines lately.  Record heat in Death Valley.  Nineteen dead in Arizona’s wildfire.  Record spending voted for border security.  Drug busts.  Drought in west Texas.  Home prices jumping in Phoenix, Las Vegas.

It’s ground zero for the immigration debate.  For a national culture debate.  For a “who owns America” debate.  For a decade of boom and bust.  Rubén Martínez writes about it all from a desert level view.  Close to the people, the heat.

This hour, On Point:  Rubén Martínez on desert America, and where it’s going.

- Tom Ashbrook


Rubén Martínez, Emmy-award winning journalist, and writer, performer and teacher. His latest book, just out in paperback, is “Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape.”

Matea Gold, reporter for the Washington Post covering money and politics. Author of the Post article: “Immigration deal would boost defense manufacturers.” (@mateagold)

From Tom’s Reading List

Los Angeles Times: Review: ‘Desert America’ by Ruben Martinez – “The new old West, Martínez tells us, is where John Wayne filmed many an iconic movie and where immigrants die crossing the desert. It’s home to cookie-cutter subdivisions and water wars. Americans think of its open spaces as a blank page where any loser or dreamer can rewrite his or her life story. At each of his stops, however, Martínez probes the local history and quickly discovers how wrong-headed that thinking is. ‘Desert America’ is a memoir that also manages to be an excellent work of reportage. Its main subject is the resilient people who populate the West’s harshest landscapes.”

The Hill: GOP lawmaker warns total border security is impossible goal – “Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) said the Southern border is simply too wild for law enforcers to plug all the gaps in the fight against illegal immigration. ‘Anybody that thinks you can totally secure the Southern border has never been to the Southern border,’ Carter said. ‘I’ve been down there all my life, and I’m telling you, you can have a 40-foot wall and put machine guns on it, and you can’t secure the Southern border. There’s too much wild country.’”

Excerpt: “Desert America” by Rubén Martínez

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  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    As beautiful as deserts are, building population centers in the middle of deserts is utter mucking fadness. As a species, are we just too stupid to live? Can the seemingly perpetual wars in the Middle East (as just one example ) be attributrd to a primal response by populations under stress to keep their growth in check?

    Either way the push by people to live anywhere they please, be it flood plain, sea shore or desert, seems like madness for which there is no cure. I’ll now return to living in my own Disney-World-like bubble where I lead a charmed existance. ;^)

    • TomK_in_Boston

      Note also those bubbles tend to be populated by anti-gub’mint types who have absolutely no chance of survival without massive gvt power and water  infrastructure.

  • northeaster17

    Got lots of Family in Tucson. Every time I get off the plane I say I’m not going back east… Ever. But I always do. It’s all about the water and how much is back here. But the desert is awesome.

    • Steve__T

       Pima County’s first Earthship is “landing” in southwest Tucson, Arizona!

      A house in the Tucson Mountains seeks to raise the bar on “green”
      construction in Southern Arizona. James and Elizabeth Wilson recently
      completed construction on the home that they say is the first
      “earthship” in the area.

      Earthships, Wilson says, are the ultimate form of sustainable
      construction, built largely from recycled materials and relying
      primarily on solar energy and harvested rainwater.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    It’s hot, and will be hotter with CO2 > 400 ppm. The amount of power needed to maintain the bubble will be increasing.

    • Steve__T

       Yeah, what global warming. 

  • Wahoo_wa

    The desert landscape is a gorgeous sight with many beautiful communities.  I wonder why the photo above was selected to represent that area.

    • jirohwein

       The desert is gorgeous, but many many folks who live there are poor and do not live in “beautiful communities”. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.newton.3956 Peter Newton

    Good topic as are 119 Saturday is the future for much of the country. But, the monsoon is here. Just a decade of boom and bust? Remember the S&Ls? The southwest can be beautiful, but folks with money can make the oasis a mirage. Think of gambling in Mormon founded Vegas.

  • Wahoo_wa

    Part of the reason for the very hot and damaging desert fires is the fact that natural fires are extinguished. As a result an excessive amount of highly flammable duff is accumulating.

  • creaker

    It’s really time to start reexamining the places we live and using endless money and resources so folks can grow crops and have lush green lawns in places that require miracles to make it happen.

    • Wahoo_wa

      Xeriscaping has been a major movement in desert landscapes for quit some time.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Not just the lawns. If folks from away plant enough of those non-desert plants, guess what people have in some desert suburbs? Pollen.

      (Disclaimer: I’m allergic to about every plant. Well, maybe not seaweed.)

      • Wahoo_wa

        Since there are plants all throughout the desert I venture to guess that there is already pollen in all desert suburbs without including introduced species.

        • jirohwein

           Most allergenic pollens are from species that use wind-borne pollination.  That includes grasses and many trees.  Wind-pollinated species are less common in the desert than in more plant-dense ecosystems (like forests or mountains or prairies).  Not to say that there are no wind-pollinated native desert species (there certainly are, such as mesquite, or desert ragweed), just that they are not as dense.  Also, there is some evidence that increasing ambient temperatures increases pollen production in many plant species.

          See, for instance:http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_plant_ecology.php



        • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

          But it’s not the same pollen.

          Tens of millions of Americans, like me, have specific allergies to things growing in more temperate and rainier climes than the desert.

          Moving to the desert and its dry heat is supposed to be good for all sorts of breathing ailments. Heck, it was the place they sent people with consumption (back when it was called “consumption”).

          Now, enough people from enough other places bring enough plants that are not native, and they’re, in a sense, bringing much of the problem with them.

  • Steve__T

    If I could move where I wanted it would make no difference to me because I would live in an Earthship. Take a look a houses around the globe that are self sustaining in any environment.

    “. . . the Earthship is the epitome of sustainable design and construction. No part of sustainable living has been ignored in this ingenious building.”


    • Steve__T

       This is what an earthship looks like

  • malkneil


    The movie Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa seems like it would be relevant to this discussion.  Bunch of people living “rogue” on the fringes of a desert in the southwest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.newton.3956 Peter Newton

    I hope Mr. Martinez will come to Changing Hands in Tempe and speak about this issue. They have had William DeBuys, but SO MANY in Phoenix still have their head in the sand, as On Point’s interview with Grady Gammage, Jr. Proved. He should talk with Mayor Stanton.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.newton.3956 Peter Newton

    BTW, the leaders of the 2 Mayor’s organizations are the Mayor’s of Avondale and Mesa, both in Metro Phoenix. First time ever for either organization.

  • creaker

    Border? They can just stop the flow of illegal immigrants across the border the same way they stopped the flow of illegal drugs over the border. No problem.

    • northeaster17

      Borders are for sissies

      • M S

        Good fences make good neighbors.

  • lswaters

    As a transplanted Minnesotan to New Mexico I am especially struck by the diversity of the area. Nineteen pueblos, the Navajo and Apache reservations and the 12th century native ruins just outside my window at work. Here in Los Alamos we also have an amazing variety of scientists from foreign countries. So you tend to hear English, Spanish (all NM official documents are in both English and Spanish), about 5 different Native American languages, not to mention the German, French, Russian, etc we hear every day. I think that if people were more willing to embrace and work with the diversity we have here then perhaps we wouldn’t have the rather hysterical anti-immigrant philosophy that you see in places like Arizona. That doesn’t much happen in New Mexico.
    And when you see the beloved Santo La Conquistadora paraded by the devoted during the 300 year old annual Santa Fe Fiesta, you realize that you are not in Kansas anymore.

    • tbphkm33

      Of course, every time I visit the Santa Fe area I notice how the collective IQ jumps 30 to 50 points.  Santa Fe offers a lot more cultural and intellectual stimulation than compared to the rest of the entrenched U.S.A. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.newton.3956 Peter Newton

    What?! No Calexico? GREAT fusion music from Baja Arizona (Tucson). And should discuss gun control, as we have a Legislator being brought up on charges for threatening a teacher, in Yuma, with a gun. His name is Shooter. Que Jon Stewart.

  • Davesix6

    The Federal Government has not been enforcing the Immigration laws currently on the books.
    What would make anyone believe they will honor this or any other Immigration Bill?

  • Wahoo_wa

    We already have a path to citizenship.

  • stillin

    Many family members and my daughter, are in Tucson. Neighbors even moved out there in the 70′s….can you imagine how beautiful it must have been then? I love to visit…I also love the green of Northern N.Y., the rivers, the mountains and the weather! always dramatic and changing…eventually, will probably keep my little house as a summer home and go out west for part of the year. My mind is on overpopulation a lot, not just here, but globally and what it does to native animals and plants…a main interest of mine…since they pay the ultimate price for all the people moving into their spaces.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510268537 Justin Keaney

    There’s no download button on the new streaming interface.  This is EXTREMELY frustrating, as i search for and listen to past shows while at the gym with my mp3 player.

  • CambridgeStephen

    I find the tone of these discussions about immigration deeply disturbing.  I have many friends and relatives whom I like and who like me.  But if I move into their houses uninvited, it tends to strain and then destroy the friendship, even if I am unemployed or having some personal hardship.  Is immigration so different?

    Why is it so hard to look at illegal immigration clearly?  There is a border.  It has been there for about 150 years, as long as many of the borders in Europe.  (Just think about the violence when they move!)  The number of illegals in the U.S. exceeds that of many of the medium-sized countries of Europe like the Netherlands, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Austria.  

    The Native American population in the Southwestern U.S. was very small at the time of the Texas War for independence, and the number of Spaniards even smaller–perhaps only a few thousand.  Most of the Latinos who have come to the US illegally have no tribal connection with the Native Americans now living in the U.S. and thus no ancestral claim whatsoever.  The Spaniard have even less.  (If so, shall we give the southwestern U.S. back to Spain based on their ancient claims of conquest?  How would Mexico feel about being given back to Spain?)  

    Yet millions of Latinos simply have decided to “move in”, perhaps hired by someone or some company in the U.S. who is pleased to get them cheap and also willing to break the law.  But that is no excuse for the illegal.  He just has found an American accessory to his crime.

    If we encourage this widespread disrespect for our laws of immigration, what other laws can we suppose these illegals will respect once they are here?  Once we show ourselves to be hypocrites about the enforcement our own laws on such a massive scale, why should they take us seriously about other laws like paying taxes, for example?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1652596705 Juan Zavala

      First of all, the southwest was no longer a Spanish possession when the United States took it over. Unless, your forgot about that particular war between the United States and Mexico 20 years before the civil war. So giving it back to Spain would seem somewhat of a dumb idea.

      Second, the reason Texas wanted to become independent in the first place was because of the poor communication that Mexico had with its borderlands. Texas also had been ‘overrun’ by illegal Anglo migration. There were many that became squatters in ‘Tejas’ bringing with them their slaves that Mexico clearly was against.

      However, due to the fact that Mexico needed the borderlands populated and they were also trying to expand the economy, they allowed Americans to become citizens and own land in what was then Mexico. Ironically, that didn’t pan out and by the time Mexico tried to do something about it, Texas was overrun by Americans and hence the fight for independence for Texas. 

      Sound familiar? Crossing illegally into this nation is against the law, but it is only a misdemeanor not a felony. Borders are only a modern concept that span back to the 1700 and 1800s. So my question is, why not legalize or give those that are currently here a path to legalization? As for paying taxes, the majority that are here actually came here legally but overstayed their visas and are now here illegaly. The majority do pay taxes and pay into a system that they will never receive a benefit from because of their status. I guess I’m not understanding your points…

  • ExcellentNews

    OMG! A 50-ft tall fence in the middle of the desert, costing $300 BILLION to us taxpaying peons, and built by HALLIBURTON ??? No wonder the Republicans are cheering for it like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert!!! Ah, think of the cheap labor, zero usefulness, and record profits to be stashed in Dubai and the Cayman Islands. This is so much better than Iraq !!!

    But we should not construe this corporate cronyism as the Government picking winners and losers. Republican ideology is not about picking the winners – it is about SERVING them, and making sure the 99.99% remain losers.

  • Fran B. Reed, S.A.G.

    Great discussion. Obviously the RNC can never close the border,
    nor should they to “protect” us from hard-working families?
    With Berlin Wall people went over , under. I have a book of
    lives of immigrant families I’ve known in 55 years as teacher,
    translator, working in health clincis or translating in Consulates,
    teaching Eng. I write of thier lives and my life intertwining, of
    work  and love and all around that . I tell why reform would help
    everyone. I’d like to send you a copy Ruben if I’d had a mailing
    address.  Suerte en todo, y Adelante con Reforma, Francisca,
    la gringa ML888888@aol.com

  • Regular_Listener

    No doubt Martinez is an interesting commentator but I wonder if he realizes that much of what he is calling for is contradictory.  He wants a more sustainable way of life, that is more in tune with the nature of the area AND he appears to call for unrestricted immigration policies.  How are you going to protect Mother Nature and prevent sprawl without limiting population growth?  

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