New Mexican poet, author and journalist Demetria Martinez has one or two stories to tell. Martinez was the religion editor at the Albuquerque Journal in the ’80s, working part-time while writing poetry. In 1987, she was indicted on charges of conspiracy relating to smuggling refugees from Central America to the U.S. She was acquitted the following year.
Martinez has written fiction, poems and essays, including Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana and Mother Tongue. She currently blogs for the National Catholic Reporter. On Saturday, Dec. 12, Martinez will read, along with Amalio Madueño and Margaret Randall, at the 516 WORDS Poetry Reading, themed Borderlands. She graciously invited the Alibi into her North UNM home to talk about border issues and the power of art.
What are some of the issues of the borderlands?
At least one person a day dies trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border. There is a human remains project founded in order to connect DNA and hope to make matches with relatives back in Mexico. The situation is very dire. ... We’re seeing growing numbers of women and children who are among those dead.
They found a baby stroller. They found babies’ boots. They found love letters, little books of prayers, sardine cans. The poet and reporter in me will forever wonder, What happened to that baby in that stroller? What happened to the mother?
A turning point for me as a poet and as a reporter was when I saw an exhibit at a Tucson church [Martinez lived in Arizona in the ’90s]: things that immigrants carried over and things that were found. These included bicycles; immigrants would think Phoenix is just around the corner and they’re going to just get ready and get to work. They found a baby stroller. They found babies’ boots. They found love letters, little books of prayers, sardine cans. The poet and reporter in me will forever wonder, What happened to that baby in that stroller? What happened to the mother?
And to tell those stories.
And what are those stories? It made me think very much of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried [a novel about American soldiers in the Vietnam War]. I actually wrote a column about it and a short story ... I’ll be reading that short story at the event. I’ve written poems based upon that experience. It made it real for me somehow, that these are things people carried.
There’s a tendency to blame people who come over and not to see where we and the Mexican government and corporations had everything to do with this.
What is your hope in writing stories and poetry about these issues?
Again, as poet / reporter / human rights activist, I hope to bear witness. When I think about the land, I think about that fence [between the U.S. and Mexico] ... and I think of the many times that clergy have held communion services there and slipped the host through the chain link fence and into the mouth of someone in Mexico. In thinking about the border, obviously we think about divisions and separateness. ... But I think through art and ritual, such as I’ve described, the border can become a place of communion.
Margaret Randall knows of a man who actually goes down there with his instrument, it’s either a violin or cello, and he plays on the fence itself [with the bow]. As artists, we’re challenged with how to make the border a site of communion instead of a place only of death and desperation.
As a citizen of the United States, I also have to emphasize that the North American Free Trade Agreement is what began to propel millions of Mexicans north. And NAFTA was supposed to have provided money and jobs in the U.S. and Mexico, but for various reasons the opposite has happened. NAFTA is directly related, this is common knowledge, to the displacement of farmers from their land. And so, we always have to understand the political context of NAFTA.
There’s a tendency to blame people who come over and not to see where we and the Mexican government and corporations had everything to do with this. ... We always have to examine the roles of governments and corporations in the displacement of people, and that’s happening globally; NAFTA is just our version of it. ... If that’s not understood, people will either pity Mexicans or blame them. They didn’t come to steal our jobs; they came because they were displaced, as peoples around the world are displaced.
What do you see as the importance of events like this at 516 ARTS?
To bear witness to the tragedies and injustices, and as artists, find ways to transform borders into gathering places.