Note: An audio adaptation of this essay is featured as a segment in the pilot episode of Black Mountain Radio – an artist-driven and community-focused audio project from The Believer’s home, The Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at UNLV. In the essay, adapted for audio by producer Claire Mullen, Paoletta explores the distinct literature of what he calls the City Southwest. For this segment, Black Mountain Radio reached out to poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, one of the artists featured in this essay.
In Ansel Adams’s famous 1941 photograph of the tiny town of Hernandez, New Mexico, a silver moon hangs in the sky above a few adobe houses foregrounded by a humble graveyard, its slapdash crosses shining white despite the twilight hour. In the distance, the imposing, snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains cut a jagged horizon line. Between their peaks and the village runs mile after mile of bleak desert, hosting little more than sagebrush and stone.
Almost eighty years later, the image remains a fair proxy for what most Americans imagine when they think about the Southwest. We’re not far removed from the numinous age when crystal afficionados descended on Sedona, Arizona, in droves to vibe off its “energy vortex,” while today’s influencers flock to the Mojave Desert and Marfa, Texas, to preen in refurbed Airstream trailers. As far as many outsiders are concerned, the desert Southwest will forever seem like an antidote to the quotidian troubles of coastal society; they view it more as a landscape than a region, a place where human life is overshadowed by otherworldly rock formations that extend for miles beneath a vast and shimmering sky. Never mind that, far from being an untrammeled desert, the Southwest has spent nearly a century and a half relentlessly urbanizing. Today, Phoenix is larger than Philadelphia, and close to 74 percent of Nevada’s population lives in metropolitan Las Vegas. Albuquerque, Tucson, El Paso: each of the Southwest’s great cities represents a precarious effort by its population to band together in opposition to the desert’s depredations. It is within their sphere—rather than out in the lonesome, dusty badlands—that the contemporary culture of the Southwest resides.
Yet when it’s not being ignored, the City Southwest is derided as a featureless expanse of peach-colored strip malls and expressways. Why waste your time in Phoenix when you could be admiring the Grand Canyon? Why shoot pool in El Paso when you could be playing cowboy in Big Bend National Park? When Vogue ran a travel feature about Los Poblanos, a pastoral lodge just outside of Albuquerque, in 2015, the writer seemed astounded that a lavender farm where peacocks roam could be situated amid “a land of Southwestern sprawl, subdivisions and tract housing, brown, flat, bland, lacking character.” It’s no accident that this vague description could easily be applied to Tucson or Las Vegas. For many outsiders, the City Southwest is readily dismissed as an interchangeable excuse for an airport, good for little beyond spiritual retreat and its proximity to natural wonder, if only a rental car can be secured.
Easier said than done. Last summer, when I was back home in Albuquerque, I found myself at a rental car lot downtown that shared a wall with an MMA gym and was separated by Lomas Boulevard from a weedy field with a billboard sticking out of it. The amiable clerk who took care of me (himself a transplant, having been recruited from Southern California to play football at the University of New Mexico) insisted I upgrade my insurance package, given that the city is “number one in the nation for auto theft!” I respected his hustle but didn’t bite—when your hometown’s national reputation revolves around being the setting for Breaking Bad, you shrug off such warnings as part and parcel of the city’s implacable poverty, egregious carbon footprint, and decrepit schools.
Phoenix has been called the least sustainable city on earth, and Las Vegas struggles to contain a suicide rate that has remained well above the national average for decades. Looking at statistics that show that one in five El Pasoans lives in poverty, or at images of homeless Las Vegans colonizing the city’s subterranean storm drains, one can understand why Easterners and Californians grimace at the mere mention of the City Southwest, these obtuse, faraway places whose existence seems as inexplicable as their ills are entrenched.
It doesn’t help that the region’s addition to the United States was also something close to incidental. The Mexican-American War, which ended in the conquest of a massive territory encompassing the modern states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, was prosecuted mostly to give the nation access to California’s ports. In his 1848 State of the Union address, its architect, President James K. Polk, referred to New Mexico merely as “the intermediate and connecting territory between our settlements and our possessions in Texas and those on the Pacific Coast.”
Along with all that land came tens of thousands of Nuevo Mexicanos—the mestizo descendants of the Spanish conquistadores who first colonized the region in the sixteenth century—as well as dozens of rural tribes and the nineteen pueblos scattered in close proximity to the Rio Grande, some of which had been standing for eight hundred years. When Anglo tourists and emigrants flooded the Southwest after the railroad arrived, in the late nineteenth century, few were keen to see the mesmerizing canyonlands and jaw-dropping desert vistas for themselves: it was the Southwest’s air that ultimately proved the strongest draw. The City Southwest became a destination for so-called “lungers,” sufferers of respiratory illness who believed that the desert’s aridity would prove salubrious. Once World War II began, the good flying weather provided by the region’s clear skies similarly attracted the nascent Army Air Forces, which built new military installations in each of the region’s burgeoning cities.
The boost was sustained in the postwar years, as many Anglo GIs found affordable homes near where they’d been stationed, along with lucrative jobs manufacturing aircraft turbines at Honeywell; designing communications equipment used aboard the Space Shuttle; or fabricating microchips for Intel—all at brand-new facilities secured by civic boosters and corporate tax breaks. Meanwhile, the rural Southwest’s population of old Tejano families, mestizo farmers, and Native Americans found itself inexorably drawn to the region’s cities in search of work, fun, and the amenities of modern life that were still scarce in the hinterlands.
Not that everyone had a choice. The poet Jimmy Santiago Baca first arrived in Albuquerque from the distant ranching village of Estancia, New Mexico, because he and his siblings had been entrusted to St. Anthony’s orphanage after the grandfather who had previously cared for them died. This was in 1959, and the seven-year-old Baca bucked against the rules enforced there by the sisters, the first of many authority figures who taught him—as he would later write in his harrowing memoir, A Place to Stand— that “I didn’t belong, I didn’t fit in, I was a deviant.” By the mid-’60s, Baca and his brother had run away, and while his brother found a bit job at the Desert Sands Hotel on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s main drag, Baca had trouble replicating even that modicum of stability. Like so many other Chicano teenagers, Baca became a target of Albuquerque’s police and ended up serving time for a variety of minor offenses before ultimately landing a six-year confinement at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Arizona, on trumped-up charges. 
Rather than lose himself to the implacable violence and cruelty of Florence, Baca used his time at the penitentiary to become his own savior. He taught himself to read and write, discovered poetry, and published his first chapbook in 1978, a year before his release. A decade later, he won the American Book Award for a pair of bracing narrative poems set in Albuquerque, collectively titled Martín and Meditations on the South Valley. Since then, he’s published a dozen books, written the screenplay that became Blood In, Blood Out, and emerged as a vital critic of the carceral state.
When I first read Martín and Meditations on the South Valley, in high school, I felt as if the hulking city around me had been miraculously condensed into this single thin volume. Even as the events chronicled in the two poems shared little with my own experiences growing up in the Duke City, nearly every line still managed to produce a jolt of recognition. It was the first time I’d understood my hometown not as the type of dangerous backwater where Cops was often filmed, but instead as the backdrop to a work of bona fide literature. I was only a few months away from moving to Boston for college, a place I’d convinced myself held more cultural cachet than Albuquerque ever would. Boston was a real city—it had a subway, brick sidewalks swarming with pedestrians, an intellectual and literary heritage that felt palpable in its peculiar cafés and august libraries. Before reading Martín, I’d felt that leaving Albuquerque was like taking a map of the city, crumpling it into a ball, and casually tossing it into a wastebasket. But Baca’s book gave me pause. Clearly, there was more to Burque than just strip malls and sunsets. How had I missed it?
A decade later, I finally got the chance to speak to Baca. Though I’d hoped for an hours-long tête-à-tête with the poet, I’d missed Baca while he was in town and thus had to settle for a phone call. I was staying in Los Ranchos, an unincorporated village about five miles up the Rio Grande from downtown Albuquerque that, despite being surrounded on all sides by the city’s sprawl, remains dominated by farmland, some of which has been under cultivation since the seventeenth century. I couldn’t afford accomodations at any of the bougie spots downtown or in swish Nob Hill, and was somewhat loath to stay in a subdivision of the Northeast Heights, where I’d grown up. Los Ranchos, though, was proximate to the comparably rustic North Valley, where one of my close friends lives. The last time I’d been in town, we’d enjoyed a walk with her dogs along a shaded acequia, one of the many irrigation channels first dug out of the Rio Grande by Mexican settlers.
Many of the roads in Los Ranchos are unpaved, and most everyone near the river keeps horses, though my dim little stucco Airbnb was far from all the bucolic romance. Instead, it was situated in a working-class neighborhood near the warehouses and aging office parks that flank I-25. What little aggie flavor the house did have was attributable solely to the pile of woodchips that had turned to earth in the driveway. Meanwhile, Baca was at his writing retreat, a simple cabin he’d built for his family up in the mountains north of Santa Fe.
Somewhat contrary to his popular image as a man hardened by his time in prison, Baca exudes soft-spoken warmth. In a Los Angeles Times profile of Baca that ran in 1989, soon after Martín was published, the poet Gary Soto recalled first meeting him at a bookseller’s conference in Orange County, California. “He was in cutoff pants,” Soto told the paper. “Everyone else was dressed up and suave. He didn’t look like the cholo,the tough guy who comes up in his poems. He just looked like a guy happy to be there.” Through our conversation, I hoped to better understand why, despite everything Albuquerque had put Baca through as a teenager, the poet had chosen to return. After all, he had fled the city for San Diego a few years before he was imprisoned, and immediately after his release had spent time in North Carolina before ultimately coming home.
Baca explained that, in Albuquerque, “I could hear the music, and eat the food, and participate in the dances and the painting and the weaving and the pottery” of the Chicano culture he had first been inducted into out in Estancia, which sits at the threshold of the Llano Estacado, the 150-mile stretch of arid grassland that bridges New Mexico and Texas. Complementing that culture, he said, was the way the natural world made itself felt in the city. Indeed, with the mighty, muddy Rio Grande running through its center and the dramatic Sandia Mountains abutting it to the east, Albuquerque feels more nestled in its environment than most urban centers. “The voice of nature is so huge,” Baca told me, his otherwise gravelly voice lilting dreamily, “I can feel its heart beating in every poem I write.”
What’s remarkable is that, unlike the artistic practices of Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, James Turrell, and Ana Castillo, Baca’s work did not prompt a retreat into the landscape that felt so present, but instead led him to an ever-deeper engagement with the city it enveloped. And distinct from transplants like Barbara Kingsolver (who adopted Tucson as her home for two decades) or Dave Hickey (who became nearly synonymous with Las Vegas during his time there), Baca came of age in Albuquerque, however unhappily, and this fact gives his relationship with the city a special intimacy. This is not a man whose love of the City Southwest comes down merely to a preference for sunny days and turquoise jewelry. No, Baca said, what keeps him in Albuquerque is how the city makes “the beauty of our food and our customs and our language and our rituals and our heritage” manifest in daily life.
Nevertheless, rather than being considered a poet of the City Southwest, Baca, like Dagoberto Gilb, Rudolfo Anaya, and Sergio Troncoso, is discussed mostly in terms of his impact on Chicano literature writ large. Similarly, the multifarious poetry of Joy Harjo, Ofelia Zepeda, Luci Tapahonso, and Layli Long Soldier is unjustly filed away with an impossibly diverse array of other Native writers, while the excellent Anglo storytellers of Nevada and Arizona, like Claire Vaye Watkins, Charles Bock, and Mark Jude Poirier, are labeled Western, as if they wrote books about cattle-wrangling rather than the coercive violence and stunted ambition that lurk beneath the banal surface of contemporary life.
That all of these writers, at some time or another, have taken up the City Southwest as a subject is hardly worth mentioning in the context of a literary culture whose vision of the region remains dominated by the landscape-beholden work of Willa Cather, Edward Abbey, and Cormac McCarthy. In truth, the writing that has emerged from the Southwest over the past fifty years, as its metropoles have grown to among the largest in the nation, constitutes a distinctive, cohesive brand of American literature. Writing the City Southwest means not only engaging with the multicultural present and past of the place, but also embracing the madness of the millions of people who insist on making their home in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. As Jimmy Santiago Baca’s work makes clear, to be Southwestern means to endure. But it also means acknowledging that life in the desert has its limits. It is our acceptance of this abiding paradox—our willingness to become one in a multitude attempting to stake out a home amid the aridness, despite an inchoate knowledge that the dust and the sun will far outlast our puny civilization—that makes Southwesterners such a bafflement to outsiders, and to ourselves.
For the City Southwest’s present to become legible, it’s vital to first understand how deeply rooted its population is, even as many of the buildings Southwesterners live and work in appear to have been erected only yesterday. As the Chicana poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa writes:
This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always
And will be again.
What made Anzaldúa and the other thinkers who articulated Chicanismos in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s so radical was their decision to emphasize the indigenous dimension of their mestizaje heritage rather than the Spanish blood that the generations that came before them had clung to as a way to convince Anglos of their whiteness (and, by extension, of their fitness to join mainstream American society). It’s this emphasis that led adherents to what became known as El Movimiento to refer to the Southwest as Aztlán, the Nahuatl term the Aztecs used to describe their ancestral homeland. The middle Rio Grande Valley’s status as the cradle of the various Puebloan peoples, as well as its long, pre-Anglo history as a Spanish and then a Mexican trading hub, made it central to the Chicano cosmology, with the influential novelist Rudolfo Anaya going so far as to label Albuquerque “the heart of Aztlán” in his 1976 novel of the same name.
Jimmy Santiago Baca’s heritage is typical of those who came to call themselves Chicano. His maternal grandfather was a Comanchero  who married a woman named Weaver; his father’s parents were what he calls Mexican “peasants.” In an essay written ahead of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, Baca reflects, “I have no real sense of participation in the national identity of this country, no sense that I am represented… I am constantly discovering who I am, how my Spanish and Indian heritages speak to each other of anger, forgiveness, and love, creating a third voice, the Chicano voice.”
When we talked, Baca’s nostalgia welled up when he described the thriving Chicano scene he was welcomed into in Albuquerque’s South Valley after he got out of prison. Back in the ’80s, the South Valley’s three-hundred-year old adobe farmhouses were home to dozens of muralists and other Chicano artists, as well as to hundreds of laborers who were recent arrivals from New Mexico’s pueblos and rural Spanish-speaking communities. This was not the city as deracination ground, stripped of the traditions that endure in the countryside, but instead a place where that legacy flourished into a culture that Baca says was “connected to Mexico, and Mexico was connected to Central America, and it went all the way down to Chile. So there was allthese people coming and going, with people from Chile coming up to Albuquerque and people from Albuquerque going down to Chile and Mexico, Oaxaca and Chiapas.”
Baca was hardly the only Chicano or Hispanic artist to experience the Albuquerque of the ’70s and ’80s as an efflorescent creative community. Rudolfo Anaya was only a few years into his career as a professor at the University of New Mexico, while younger figures like flamenco dancer Eva Encinias were building a substantial grassroots network of artists outside the university. Meanwhile, the artist collective Los Artes Guadalupaños de Aztlán was branching out from its home base in Santa Fe to paint murals as far afield as Phoenix and Denver. (Nor were Chicanos and Chicanas the only radicals who gravitated to the city. Albuquerque had earlier emerged as one of the urban epicenters of the Red Power movement, in which Native American activists forcefully challenged the erasure of their history and culture from mainstream society, most famously with their nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.)
Much of the vitality of the Chicano community that Baca first encountered survives today, even as the power of Chicanismos as an organizing principle has somewhat faded out of vogue. Encinias’s National Institute of Flamenco is the premier institution of its kind in the country, while contemporary artists like Patricio A. Zamora, Nani Chacon, and Jodie Herrera have helped keep Burque’s muralismo tradition alive. Tucson and El Paso boast similarly thriving Hispanic and Latinx art scenes, even as they, too, remain little acknowledged outside the Southwest.
These predominantly Hispanic and Latinx cities, however, have hardly elided the white supremacy that is more obvious in the histories of Las Vegas and Phoenix (both of which were founded by Anglos after 1848, and the end of the Mexican-American War). The social worker and academic Gloria López-Stafford captures the tension between whiteness and mestizaje culture that animates so much of the City Southwest in her memoir of growing up there in the 1940s, A Place in El Paso: A Mexican-American Childhood. The daughter of an elderly Anglo and his sickly Mexican wife, López-Stafford had a relatively stable childhood in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, where nearly everyone spoke Spanish and did their weekend shopping in Juárez. But her life was thrown into chaos after her mother died. She was shuffled off to Five Points, then one of El Paso’s only integrated neighborhoods, where she met “a beautiful blond with blue eyes,” only to be rebuffed by the girl: “My mother does not want any Mexican kids around…. She had a very bad experience with some foreigners.” Bewildered by the notion that being Mexican and American were mutually exclusive, López-Stafford beseeched her old padre in El Segundo: “Which am I? Am I Mexican or am I American?” His answer was simple. “You are both. You have both bloods in you. And that will be a problem for you all your life if you let it.”
Despite its multiculturalism, the City Southwest, like the rest of America, is a space built by and for white people. Though New Mexico has never been majority Anglo, it did not elect a Hispanic governor until 1974; Phoenix and Las Vegas have never had a non-white mayor, and before Tucson voted Regina Romero to the office last year, it had not had a Hispanic leader since 1875. For decades, the teaching of Spanish in schools—let alone Native languages like Diné or O’odham—was resisted by Anglo authorities, as was the perpetuation of the agrarian lifestyle one can still glimpse in areas like Los Ranchos. Nearly everywhere else in the City Southwest, farmland that had been worked by generations of Mexicans and Native Americans has been swiftly gathered up by land speculators, to be flipped to developers planning tract after tract of prefab homes.
Baca grapples with the disconnect between Albuquerque’s heritage and its Anglo administrators in his masterful poem “Martín,” much of which parallels Baca’s own life in the city after he fled St. Anthony’s orphanage. “I fell / into Sanjo,” Baca writes, referring to San Jose, one of the city’s historic but long-distressed barrios, “into my own brown body…. I lived in the streets / slept at friends’ houses, spooned / pozole and wiped up the last frijoles with tortilla / from my plate. Each day / my hands hurt for something to have.” His speaker ends up
on a corner, beneath a smoking red traffic light,
blue beanie cap snug
over my ears
down to my brow,
in wide bottomed jean pants
trimmed with red braid,
I start my daily walk,
to the Old Town Post Office,
condemned Armijo school
Río Grande playa,
ditches and underpasses—
entangled in the rusty barbwire of
a society I do not understand,
Mejicano blood in me spattering
like runoff water
from a roof canale, glistening over
who lived before me, like rain over
mounds of broken pottery
More than simply down-and-out in the Duke City, Baca’s speaker soon becomes swept up in active opposition to the power structures that have denied him any opportunity to make a better life for himself: “the National Guard gassed me / at the Roosevelt Park when we burned / a cop’s car to the ground. / He clubbed a Chicana for talking back.”
Such images can be startling to those of us who were reared on the fantasy of New Mexico as a state characterized by unique comity between Hispanics, Anglos, and Native Americans. Despite the bloodshed of the distant past—from the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 to the lynching of Mexicans in the 1920s—the Land of Enchantment, I was led to believe, had figured the whole racism thing out in the years since, becoming a place where all could partake as peers in the state’s affairs.
It took a long time for me to unlearn this fiction of New Mexican racial harmony. I’m still unlearning it. Through middle and high school, I was a white Albuquerque Academy kid, a student at the private school that real-deal Burqueños derided as a “country club.” The fact that I hung out downtown at night was considered marginally scandalous; were I instead to begin frequenting the South Valley, Barelas, Sanjo, or—gasp!—the so-called War Zone, where gang violence was thought to be concentrated, a faculty member would surely intervene. All those neighborhoods were predominantly Mexican, Black, and Indian, and in the imagination of comfortable Anglos and Hispanics in the Heights, the ill-defined threat they represented lacked any of the alluring urban edginess of downtown Albuquerque, Nob Hill, or the student ghetto around UNM.
My perception of non-white Albuquerque began to shift one summer in high school, when I participated in a theater program that held its rehearsals at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Barelas. The NHCC was a brand-new facility, a tasteful campus of well-lit adobe galleries and impressive performance venues, the walkways between them lined with wildflowers and cottonwood trees. Though the teaching artists running the program advised us to not linger in the area after dark, the vibrancy of the surrounding neighborhoods was obvious, putting the lie to the baleful sense of the area I had accrued over the years. Just up Fourth Street, Barelas Coffee House’s tables were always crowded with families savoring hulking platters of huevos rancheros and steaming bowls of pozole; the supposed industrial wasteland of South Broadway hosted markets, taco joints, and cozy homes; across the river in the South Valley, the streets nearest the Rio Grande’s edge were made shady by the bosque’s leafy cottonwoods, and as these routes turned west, they opened out into wide fields and quiet neighborhoods cut through by acequias.
This part of Albuquerque was poorer than the Northeast Heights, certainly. Walls were tagged; carjackings were far from uncommon. But there was robust life here too: a version of Albuquerque entirely distinct from the big-box stores, Golden Pride burritos, and Foothills house parties that had previously crowded my imagination. When I first read Martín,a year or so after attending the theater program, it was to Barelas and the South Valley that my mind flew, concrete evidence of how blinkered my perception of the city had been.
The thriving Hispanic, Latinx, and Native American communities that exist in Albuquerque, Tucson, and El Paso today are a remarkable testament to the ability of Southwesterners to persist through direct repression and benighted Anglo interference. Indeed, it’s no accident that much of the City Southwest’s most recognizable artists, writers, and musicians come from these cities rather than from the region’s megaliths: after all, Las Vegas and Phoenix have always been less interested in the woo-woo feeling of poetry and dance than in the more workaday joy that can be found in cold hard cash.
“The neon. The halogen,” Charles Bock writes in his marvelous novel Beautiful Children, which centers on runaway kids lured to Las Vegas.
The viscous liquid light. Thousands of millions of watts, flowing through letters of looping cursive and semi-cursive, filling then emptying, then starting over again. Waves of electricity, emanating from pop art façades, actually transforming the nature of the atmosphere, creating a mutation of night, a night that is not night—daytime at night. The twenty-four-hour bacchanal. The party without limits. The crown jewel of a country that has institutionalized indulgence. Vegas on a Saturday night.
However much the City Southwest is bound up with forever-shifting notions of Hispanic, Latinx, and Native American identity, for many Anglos it serves instead as a bewitching beacon, an invitation to leave one’s past behind in New York, the Midwest, or California, in search of an easier, more satisfying life. The Strip takes the slow progress toward stability and generational wealth that many have flocked to Phoenix or Tucson to attain and throws it into hyperdrive: it makes a total reinvention of the self appear graspable.
It’s commonplace to conceive of Las Vegas this way, as a lantern of aspiration, and of the visitors it attracts as heedless moths. What makes the city so Southwestern, though, is how swiftly the fantasy dissipates once the searing sun rises into the limitless Nevada sky. In the introduction to The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip, an anthology of reporting by journalism students at UC Berkeley, the editor, David Littlejohn, pedantically boils the city down to “twelve wide roads, each a mile from the next, running east and west. Every mile, as they cross one of the fourteen similar roads running north and south, stoplights help to guide traffic into shopping malls, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants.”
Sure, a lot of Vegas is a sprawl like any other city in the Southwest. But acknowledging that fact is not the same as claiming there’s no magic lurking in suburbia. When I was a Burqueño preteen, the epicenter of my universe was Active Imagination, the game store at the corner of Montgomery and Juan Tabo, where I could spend hours browsing miniature figurines of ogres and sages, or else playing Magic cards at one of the ranks of folding tables set up in back. On afternoons when the errands my parents were attending to ran long, I’d explore the adjoining businesses, popping next door to flip through old paperbacks at Page 1 Books or peeping in the front window of the tobacconist a few doors down. Whenever I had friends in tow, we’d pool together change for a burrito from La Hacienda Express or a treat from the Italian ice place, which the expatriated Philadelphian owner had decorated exclusively with Flyers gear.
Even as visitors from the coasts might deride the City Southwest’s infinite vista of big-box stores, bail bondsmen, and decaying strip malls as a cultureless void, in truth these spaces are, like any city’s, as prone to variation as sameness. Much of what turns outsiders off about the City Southwest is how the starkness of the desert makes it impossible to ignore just how massive an imposition suburbia really is. In the City Southwest, cul-de-sacs and golf courses never give way to lightly forested, exurban towns. They just… stop. There’s pavement, and then there’s not, and what lies beyond is a blankness that’s likely already been bought, traded, and gridded into lots on some surveyor’s desktop. Hannah Lillith Assadi identifies something eerie about this process in her novel Sonora, which begins by describing the early years of its narrator’s family life on the fringes of Phoenix:
I remember when there was suddenly a Burger King, a Dairy Queen, a Chevron built in the desert where we had only months earlier walked. I remember the signs for new housing developments, one after the other, advertising larger and larger pools, and three instead of two-car garages…. I remember when the high school was finished and that the coyotes disappeared with it.… I smelled no chalk, no glue, no rubber cement, no sunscreen. No children had ever been there. Everything was too new.
In only a few short years, this outlying area has become like the rest of the city, what GB Tran figures in his graphic memoir, Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey,as a carpet of identical, sunny ranch houses, his own family’s heartbreaking refugee story swallowed up into the grand banality of idiomatic America.
Not only do such environs hardly suit everyone, but much of the sprawl has been built explicitly as an escape from the nonwhite. While Phoenix was exploding to the north in the 1950s, the historic area south of Van Buren—where nearly all of its Hispanic and Black population lived—was left to fall into unconscionable dilapidation. In 1964, a reporter from The New Republic visited and found that “streets are unpaved, sewers unconnected, and public utilities inadequate; many houses have outdoor toilets, and many houses are no better than outhouses.” Even today, venture a block beyond the city’s yuppified Warehouse District and you’ll find only a handful of spare houses squatting among the vacant lots and electrical transformers.
For many Hispanics, Blacks, and Native peoples, phenomenal suburban growth has been synonymous with the willful rejection of their communities in favor of an unsustainable form of easy living propped up by gratuitous air conditioning and water sourced from hundreds of miles away. Mark Jude Poirier’s novel Modern Ranch Living, set in the foothills of Tucson in the summer of 2001, offers the most salient encapsulation of the quotidian rhythms of this whitewashed version of the City Southwest. One of Poirier’s protagonists—Merv, the manager of a water park—spends the entirety of the book either in a pool, near a pool, or thinking about a pool. After a day of baking in the sun as the guests at Splash World frolic, Merv heads to the shower to wash off his “waxy sunscreen” and muses about going for a swim when he’s done. He drives two hours to Phoenix for a barbecue held by an old friend and doesn’t miss an opportunity to jump in the pool there too. “The water was warm, almost too warm, Merv thought. His Budweiser was still cold, though.”
As Poirier’s novel makes clear, the Southwest’s smaller cities are no stranger to the same magical thinking that has allowed Las Vegas and Phoenix to balloon to their current, Brobdingnagian size through a cascade of housing booms that have left a handful of land speculators, developers, and architects fabulously wealthy. Together, the two cities represent the apotheosis of the deranged notion that the Southwest’s blankness is an invitation to build and keep building rather than a warning that for life to survive here, it must do so in proportion to what few resources the earth supplies.
There is no real divide between environment and society in the Southwest. The region’s heat, especially, is so intense that it can push all other concerns from the mind, enervating everyone from Poirier’s bathers to Baca’s Chicano street kids. Its aridity, too, is a fact that many choose to ignore, even as it represents a fundamental threat to the ability of the City Southwest to survive in perpetuity. Tohono O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda is particularly attuned to the relationship between the climate and the residents of the City Southwest. In “Proclamation,” Zepeda writes that Tucsonans “who lament the heat of / a June day” and “move / from one air-conditioned environment / to another” are to be little more than “tolerated.” Instead, Zepeda writes, it is better to conceptualize of the desert as
A place dependent on rains of
light dusting of snow,
the rarity of dry beds as rebel
It is real desert people who lift
upward with the first signs of
They know how to inhale properly.
Recognizing the aroma of creosote
in the distance.
Relieved the cycle is beginning
The Southwest stands alone in its ability to allow city dwellers some approximation of this connection to nature’s rhythms. Each of the region’s cities has mountains that you can see from pretty much anywhere, and any elevation one can attain offers a vision of the sprawl stretching out not infinitely, but to a definite point: to the place where the desert takes over. At the same time, the City Southwest’s rivers—the Rio Grande in Albuquerque and El Paso, the Santa Cruz in Tucson—provide a regular reminder of the connection each town has to the broad system of the world. In “It’s an Easy Morning,” Baca writes,
I praise short lives, and believe
their souls blend into the gray
Rio Grande, coursing between
hefty cottonwoods that crowd the
emptying into the ocean
where I hear them whisper
when I walk the beach
Even a presence as easily taken for granted as the sky demands attention in the City Southwest, where long sight lines allow those enjoying a siesta on the porch to watch clouds roll in from miles away, arriving just in time to be cast over by sublime light once the sun begins to set. Indeed, even as I have little desire to return to the smoky coffee shop patios and dim concert halls I haunted as a teenager, I can’t help but long for my weekly hikes in the foothills of the Sandias and the long afternoons I often spent on the banks of the Rio Grande, reposed and watching the muddy water rush by. The pleasure of such moments is decidedly fleeting. Walking in the sun for too long can flatten you with weariness; the high flow of the river lasts only a few weeks before it again thins to a trickle.
Of course, it’s more than just the weather that makes returning to Albuquerque something of a shock to the system for me. Having spent the past dozen years in Boston and New York, I feel gassed out and bleary-eyed having to rely on a car to get anywhere and everywhere in New Mexico. Likewise, the repetition of signs, single-family homes, and streetscapes I encounter cruising up and down Menaul and Wyoming Boulevards is no less stultifying today than it was when I was a teenager. That I remain so preoccupied with the city when I’m away is a signal, I suppose, that a gap remains between my memories of Albuquerque and its reality. In turn, neither quite matches the image that Baca’s work has fixed in my mind’s eye. Whenever I’m back in town, I can’t help but recognize that even as Burque continues to speak to me, the conversation is strained in a way it can’t possibly be for the writers and artists who have chosen to make the city their abiding home.
There is nowhere as precarious as the City Southwest. Phoenix is so named because it was built over the ruins left behind by the Hohokam people, whose intricate canals allowed tens of thousands of people to live along what we now call the Salt River for over a thousand years. And then, in the fifteenth century, they were gone, evaporated into the sun, just as the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon had before them. In a warming world, it does not take much imagination to assume that a similar fate will someday befall the overgrown cities of the Southwest, and soon. By the end of this century, Phoenix’s summers will be ten degrees hotter than they are today, meaning the Valley of the Sun’s climate will be comparable to present-day Abu Dhabi’s. Elsewhere, the Rio Grande ran dry this summer, as it has most years since 2000, and Las Vegas recently completed a “third straw” into Lake Mead, which will allow it to draw from the reservoir once its water level has dropped below the city’s two original intakes. What are the odds, one wonders, that today’s Southwestern cities will endure longer than the villages of the Hohokam?
The Southwest is a place of profound continuity, but a continuity built on the tacit acceptance of an inevitable dissipation. The rainy season never comes; the wells go dry; you move on. Culture can survive such conditions, but hardly at its current scale. The City Southwest has in common with New Orleans and Miami the chance to glimpse its own obsolescence every day, an obsolescence that has been met, mostly, with willful ignorance. Anyone who cares about the City Southwest for its own sake and not simply as a fantasy of middle-class comfort or as a gateway to the majesty beyond—anyone like that knows it’s only a matter of time.
And so you make a life for yourself while you still can. You do like Martín, and find
a small house
along the river, in Southside
A shack I pried boards from the
front door to get in—
half-acre of land in the back
heaped with decades of scrap—
rusted wire fencing, creosote
railroad ties, tumbleweeds, a
mountain of decaying
harvest never picked, weaving
slowly into the dirt again.
- Baca was caught in a drug raid at the Mexican border, and during his arrest, an FBI agent was shot by a guy he’d been running with. In A Place to Stand, Baca writes that his presence at the shooting allowed authorities to contend that he himself had attempted to kill the agent. He says that “the judge had given me the harshest sentence allowed by law.” ↩
- In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Comancheros were the select few subjects of the Spanish crown who were permitted to trade with the Comanches, the Kiowa, and other tribes of the Great Plains. Their ethnic origin is decidedly murky, but the lineage is accepted as a distinctive brand of mestizaje. ↩