Emmy-award winning journalist, musician, and teacher Rubén Martínez is the author of Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West and The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond. Here, the writer weighs in on the American presidency and the significance of art in all its forms.
IS: Is Obama a disappointment?
RM: It depends on what aspect of his political presence we look at. Certainly presiding over a massive deportation campaign (upwards of two million) is a grave political and moral failure, a Machiavellian move that even the passage of the most progressive of immigration reforms could never justify. As of this writing, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act is a dispiriting mess but does not necessarily mean ultimate failure. And then there is the remarkably thoughtful—and literary—figure, the Obama who can still give extraordinary speeches, such as in Tucson after the mall shooting, and the moving, nuanced extemporaneous remarks in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict. And then there are the intangibles. My six year-old twin daughters are growing up watching a black man work in the White House. The sheer symbolism of that counts for something. Oh, and I don't believe that "Obama" himself in the singular sense is responsible for the overall failure of American politics. His strengths and weaknesses mirror the promise and pitfalls of American democracy as it’s practiced in the early 21st century.
Will you see a Latino president in your lifetime?
Wasn't Jimmy Smits the first, in The West Wing? Kidding. But I'm a veterano, well into my sixth decade. My daughters might well live to see it. Pero, Dios me guarde, que no sea Susanna Martinez o Ted Cruz. I must say, in a personal vein, that the question irritates me, touching, as it does, on a very sensitive existential issue: that I have been the "first" Latino in practically every professional setting I've worked in. I've always had mixed feelings about such milestones, in that they seem to redouble the very "racial" thinking that we're nominally trying to grow out of. There are old doubts about affirmative action lurking beneath the celebratory surface: was it more about race than talent? Such voices have receded in my head over the years, but the echo is still there. Perhaps the more important question is: which Latino will we elect, and what will they do to address the great inequities of our society and the role the United States plays in the world?
How different would your identity be if you were a poster maker?
But I am a poster maker! My words paint pictures in the reader's mind. I write about people, mostly "ordinary" people, who merit a portrait for their struggle as much, or more than the usual "icons" chosen by the media gatekeepers, many of whom serve reactionary ideological purposes. Yes, my stories are posters, rendered in bold colors, with the occasional exclamation mark.
Can a poster change the world?
Yes. And a three-minute pop song can too.
Would you like the Taller Tupac Amaru to do a poster of you?
That's funny. Yes and no. I am a character in my writing—in the vein of subjective New Journalism or the "reflexive" writing of the last academic generation. I just don't think I can get completely comfortable with the idea of my image alongside that of Angela Davis and Steven Biko. But…it would be cool for my daughters to eat breakfast beneath a screenprint of their papá looking off toward the future.
Related: Read aconversation between Ilan Stavans and Jesús Barraza from the Taller Tupac Amaru here.