A storytelling sanctuary: Demetria Martínez’s Nuevo Mexico

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Demetria Martínez’s award-winning poetry and fiction are inextricably linked to her native New Mexico, celebrating the land and its people and exploring cultural identity as well as spiritual and political themes. From Mother Tongue — her debut novel about a Chicana who falls in love with a Salvadoran refugee living in Albuquerque — to her most recent book, The Block Captain’s Daughter, about a group of Albuquerque activists working to make a better world, Martínez’s writing is firmly rooted in the home of her ancestors.

“My writing life stems from my relationship to the land here,” the author says. “My family has been here for generations. I’m an heir to the Atrisco Land Grant, and my great-great-great-grandfather Manuel Martín was among the first to settle, in 1850, in what came to be known as Martíneztown in Albuquerque. It consisted of large tracts of land used for farming and grazing. He was married to Ana Maria Duran, a Diné woman who was likely a descendent of genizaros, Natives taken captive by the Spaniards. Storytelling is in my genes. My grandfather Luis wrote poems and corridos, traditional ballads. He wrote one to promote the reelection of U.S. Senator Dennis Chavez in 1951. The song was heard in jukeboxes all the way from Albuquerque to El Rito and beyond.” 

Martínez’s novel Mother Tongue reached much further — in fact, it was heard all the way around the world. It’s the powerful story of a young woman’s awakening after meeting a refugee from El Salvador who was smuggled into Albuquerque by the sanctuary movement. Before Martínez wrote the story, she covered the movement as a journalist. In 1986 she was accused of conspiracy against the U.S. government for allegedly smuggling two Salvadoran women across the U.S.-Mexican border — ostensibly to write a story about them. She faced a potential 25 years in prison but was acquitted by a jury on First Amendment grounds. 

Critics and readers alike hailed the book. “A book that becomes more timely every day, in our present political climate, and deserves the widest possible audience for its beautiful prose and humanitarian heart,” wrote author Barbara Kingsolver. “As memorable as Like Water for Chocolate, Mother Tongue serves the culture,” The Washington Post Book Review said, predicting that “it will last,” and indeed it has, for more than two decades.  

Mother Tongue is used in a number of college classes, so I hear from people around the country who have read it and are writing about it,” Martínez says. “Unfortunately it’s more relevant than ever today, with threats of building a wall and mass deportations.”

Martínez has continued to explore the themes of Mother Tongue in her work. “I really love to write about activists’ lives,” she says. “I’m fascinated by how their inner lives play out in their public lives and you see that in both Mother Tongue and The Block Captain’s Daughter. And I write for activists to a great degree because I think a poem or a story can be a sanctuary and a place that we return to over and over again for spiritual nourishment. I think activists in particular need such a place to reflect and rejuvenate. That’s the force behind my writing.”

Her other work includes three collections of poetry and a children’s book, Grandma’s Magic Tortilla, co-authored with Rosalee Montoya-Read. And she is the founder of Voces de Libertad, a poetry project at the Santa Fe County Youth Detention Center, where she and guest poets work mostly with Chicano and Native American teens. “They are eloquent witnesses to the inequities that plague New Mexico,” Martínez says. “They have the great gift of being able to see society as it actually is. The program has touched many many young people.” 

Martínez is at work on a new book that will delve deeper into New Mexico and her ancestral roots here. “I’m working on poetry and prose that will weave in some of the old family stories, myths and rumors,” she says. “But I’m also interested in what physically remains behind. My great-grandmother’s metate sits by the fireplace in my parent’s house in Albuquerque. She was from Jimenez, Mexico. These objects are infused with a power from the past that resonates with all of us.”

Reprieve

Today we are not sad. The spots

on the snow turned out to be rose

petals, not blood. What we thought

were helicopters turned out to be

red ponies racing across the plains.

No need to hide. Go ahead, stand

in the church doorway, wipe

the sweat from your forehead,

drink glasses of horchata.

Turn on the radio, loud as you want. 

Your favorite Spanish preacher is on, 

and the good news, at least for

today, is true as the first bloom

of tulips in Spring. Though brief,

can we welcome happiness?

Let it fill our wine glasses

long enough to toast?

— Demetria Martínez 

Lynn Cline is the author of the award-winning “The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes and Tales from New Mexico” and the forthcoming travel guide “Romantic Santa Fe.” She lives in Santa Fe and has written articles for “The New York Times,” “Sunset,” “New Mexico Magazine” and numerous other publications. She is also the author of “Gourmet Girl,” a weekly food blog on  "http://santafe.com/"  and is host of the weekly Friday afternoon radio show “Cline’s Corner” on KSFR 101.1 FM.

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