Destination: Southwestern United States
Book: Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink:Offbeat Travels through America’s Southwest by Tom Miller
Yes, Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, but as I am going to try to convince you, the Southwestern United States is oh, so close to Mexico. (Sometimes it is tempting to turn on its head that old Mexican quote and say, “Poor Arizona. So close to Mexico. So far from God.”) So I am featuring a book about the Southwest today, Cinco de Mayo, because it is celebrated at least as fervently in the Southwest as in old Mexico.
In the introduction to his book, Tom Miller says, “To the Northeast, the Southwest is exotic, the other.” For good reason. Many factors make the American Southwest distinctive within both the American landscape and culture. The lure of the American West draws people here–wide open spaces, the possibility of reinvention and opportunities to disappear or strike it rich. Along with other western states, it is a land of frontiers.
It is also a land of borders. Not so long ago, compared to Asian or European history, there were no borders between what is now the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Where I live, in Tucson, was the northern edge of the Spanish New World. The roots of Spanish heritage dig far deeper than the northern European heritage that influenced the rest of the states.
Therefore, you can’t explain the Southwest without reference both to the wild west, to Spain and Mexico and to the Borderlands Culture. Since this is where I live, I’ll return to authors who understand the border–both sides of it–but first up is Tom Miller and Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, a winning title if there ever was one.
Tom Miller’s series of essays tackles seemingly disparate subjects–odd little bits that when pieced together make one man’s representation of the whole.
He roams across Mexico and Arizona and Southern California and dips south of the border into Sonora and Chihuahua. He has been a resident here since the late 60s and several of the stories reflect his views about personal justice, union rights and immigration–subjects he covered in his assignments for liberal underground newspapers. Some of the essays borrow from experiences he had while reporting the scene for the New York Times in the late 70’s. His editors wanted stories, he says, that “evoked the Old West with dirt roads, dusty boots, and barbed wire.”
He talks about paintings on velvet (they seem to crop up in nearly every story), Edward Abby and eco-terrorism, bola ties, chimicangas, “La Bamba,” strikes by mine workers, cock fights, the saguaro cactus, and a one-book bookstore in Bisbee Arizona. Well, I did say disparate. Trust me, this collection does help you understand the American Southwest. Whether you agree with the point of view in all cases is another matter. And you will always be entertained.
Have you traveled in the American Southwest? What were your impressions before you came? I am curious whether Tom Miller (and I) got that right. Please leave a comment, and consider pushing one of the buttons below to promote this post on a social network.
Photographs by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.