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The City and the Writer: In Santa Fe with Valerie Martínez

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                              
 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Santa Fe as you feel/see it?

The mood is as complex as the population—the native Tano people inhabited present-day Santa Fe until about 1100 AD; their descendants still live in the area. The Spanish arrived in 1609 and families who descend from the “conquistadores” comprise a large part of the city’s population. Migrants from “old” Mexico (Spanish conquests who were brought by force) were an early part of the mix. In the early 1800s (after the Mexican-American War and the acquisition of the area by the westward expanding US), Anglo settlers moved west into the area. There has also been a steady stream of “transplants” who have moved to Santa Fe from other US states and abroad. In the past ten years more and more immigrants from Mexico and Central America have also found their way to the city. As a result, Santa Fe feels both deeply rooted and culturally tumultuous. At the same time, the gorgeous landscape—mountains, high desert, wide open sky—weaves in a distinct mood of contemplation. Santa Fe is a complex place.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In 2007 I was working with a multidisciplinary artist team and thirty city residents, creating a new opera that reflected the lives and perspectives of a wide range of Santa Feans. Some of our participants were recent immigrants from Mexico. One Saturday afternoon some of our participating teens and families arrived in terrible shape. During the week, ICE agents had conducted surprise raids in the south side of the city, sometimes deporting adults while their children were in school. The raids spread terror in the neighborhoods. We spent most of our time that day trying to comfort those who had been affected. I came to understand, much more deeply, what it means to be a Mexican immigrant in this country. News of the raids traveled primarily by text message, a panic of words captured on cell phones. These became an integral part of the opera we created.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Santa Fe is the third largest art market, per capita, in the United States, with over 250 art galleries and dealers. For this reason, it is a premiere tourist destination. Unfortunately, most visitors never make it out of the downtown area and its closest environs—hotels and inns and beautiful neighborhoods with the most expensive houses in the city. If they do venture out, they have the opportunity to meet and talk with a much more diverse range of residents as well as see the very different neighborhoods that make up Santa Fe as a whole. If residents “miss” an extraordinary detail, it is often the Santa Fe River, declared the most endangered in the United States in 2007.  The riverbed winds through the city—deeply incised and almost always dry. It was once the lifeblood of community life.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are dozens of writers who live in Santa Fe and many who write about it—far too many to list. As for writers who were born in Santa Fe, I can think of only a few whose work I know well: Ana Pacheco, Carmella Padilla, Erna Fergusson, Esther Martinez, and Peggy Pond Church.  Two wonderful poets, though not originally from Santa Fe, are Joy Harjo and Arthur Sze.


Is there a place here you return to often?

My parents’ house—in the Casa Alegre neighborhood. We moved there from elsewhere in the city just before my second birthday in 1962. It began as a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house and grew in spurts (as we did) into a sprawling four-bedroom, three-bath home. My parents still live there.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know? 

The best writing about Santa Fe has its deep roots in the land and aerial spaces. “Literary,” for Santa Fe writers, means mountains, rivers, arroyos, local flora and fauna, and the enormously blue sky.


Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

When I was young, my five siblings and I (born in the span of six years) used to run the arroyos from the back of our house to Ashbaugh Park. This was a journey of about a mile, doorstep to tennis courts, through unoccupied land. There was always an adventure on the way—desiccated field mice, tree trunks about to tumble, a twisted ankle. These days I access part of that journey from Otowi Street. A few years ago, while looking for my nephew’s lost puppy, I discovered a little path into an old world. The arroyo is still there. There’s still a feeling of wildness. But now there are some small houses behind houses, a big field, a park behind a park. Lots of trees and those patterns of sunlight on dirt that make you want to hop.


Where does passion live here?

Passion, in Santa Fe, is all about land. It’s likely the most contentious issue in New Mexico—who was here all along, who came later, who comes now. Because of wave after wave of conquests and tenacious survival, longtime residents of the city are acutely attuned to language that suggests ownership. It will get you in hot water. For this reason, it’s best to “claim” Santa Fe for yourself only if you are descended from native peoples—and even Native Americans seldom use this kind of language. Otherwise you are a “visitor,” a “resident,” or, even better, a “steward” of a place that you call or want to call home.


What is the title of one of your works about Santa Fe and what inspired it exactly?

My fourth book of poetry, written during and after my tenure as the Poet Laureate of Santa Fe (2008—2010) is entitled And They Called It Horizon, a line from the long poem at the center of that book:

They stood, dizzy with light,
the blue an enormous bowl
inverted above them.
And there was a seam
that sewed up earth and sky,

and they called it horizon,
and they traced it
with pointed fingers,
turning in place,
all the way around.

The poem is a creation story about Santa Fe that begins before the Big Bang and ends with images from contemporary life. In this section, the ancient native peoples have emerged from a hole in the earth, into the sunlight and wide sky.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Santa Fe does an outside exist?”

Absolutely. Santa Feans (old and new) are acutely aware of outside forces that in any way encourage forgetting (lest we make the same mistakes that determined our bloody history) or endanger water and land. The flip side of this sensitivity is our often-courageous acknowledgment of the past—no matter how difficult—as well as our passionate love for this place.


Valerie Martínez is a poet, educator, librettist, and collaborative artist. Her award-winning books of poetry include Absence, Luminescent; World to World; Each and Her; And They Called It Horizon; and This is How It Began. Her book-length poem, Each and Her, won the 2012 Arizona Book Award and received an Honorable Mention in the 2011 International Latino Book Awards after being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Open Book Award, the William Carlos William Award, and the Ron Ridenhour Prize. Martínez is a Director of Littleglobe, an artist-run nonprofit that creates significant works of art and performance with diverse communities. http://www.valeriemartinez.net.


Published Mar 23, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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