MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Desert Voices/Voces del Desierto -

Mother Tongue author

Demetria Martinez

Visits Rio Grande High School

"In the summer of 1982 a steamy Rio Grande opened the pores of the city and released aromas of mesquite, pine, and cedar. The heat made it easier for me to find those places on Jose Luis's body that were oblivious to the war. After we made love, I often smelled bougainvilea near the place where his heart beat like wings against the bars of a cage."
-Demetria Martinez, Mother Tongue

Controversy and politics was the setting for Southwest Research and Information Center's Desert Voices/Voces del Desierto program as we entered Rio Grande High School (Albuquerque, New Mexico) on November 16th. The Albuquerque Public School Administration had just announced a plan to separate the school into three different schools, housed on one campus. The high school auditorium was filled with hands raised and students voicing their opinions about how proposed changes were going to impact them. One student in the audience gave administration officials a cost benefit analysis for the three different administration staffs for the three different schools. His suggested instead to use the money to pay for existing teacher pay raises. It was exciting to see students challenge administrators by offering alternatives and exchanging thoughts over such controversial issues.

What brought this issue to a head was an issue not unique to Albuquerque or New Mexico - the high school drop out rates for Hispanics. Rio Grande High School is a public school plagued with high drop out rates, low test scores, and a large student body. Are public schools failing us? What tools for testing are being used and for what purpose? For students of color, what does all this mean? What are other ways to approach these problems? Keeping students in the loop and a part of the decision making process is a step in the right direction. This was pointed out by a student who asked with frustration, "How can we feel good about all this, if we haven't been a part of all it?"

This was the setting facing our guest novelist/poet Demetria Martinez. A graduate of Albuquerque High, she is a poet and writer for the Catholic Reporter who currently resides in Tucson, Arizona. When Demetria and I entered into the high school's performance space, we were greeted by Rio Grande's sponsoring teacher Deana Douglas, who explained the situation before us. The controversy surrounding Rio Grande High School helps us to better understand some of the struggles and barriers faced by young adults pursuing their education. Thoughtful questions, caring students, and committed teachers are reasons that support the need to create spaces for expression. One outcome can be writing. "To speak for those who do not have a voice-is a political commitment," says Demetria as she addressed her audience and commended students for speaking out. Giving a voice to those who may not have one is a writer's responsibility.

Demetria is no stranger to political battlegrounds. She faced a federal indictment in 1987-1988 of conspiracy to smuggle refugee women into the country - a charge based in part on her writings as a reporter about the entry of Salvadoran refugees into the U.S. This and other charges carried a 25-year prison sentence. During the trial the prosecution tried to use Demetria's poetry against her. This drew international interest. Her acquittal in 1989 was hailed as a major First Amendment victory. Her book Mother Tongue, set in New Mexico, is based in part upon Demetria's confrontation with the U.S. government over the Sanctuary Movement.

For the Desert Voices program, Demetria read excerpts from her new book The Devil's Workshop, to be published Spring 2002. She explained that the title came about from a saying by her mother and grandmother, "Idleness is the devil's workshop." Much of her writing is rooted in home and surrounding conversations. When asked where one could find inspiration in writing, Demetria replied, "never underestimate the power of family stories." She also went on to say, "If you are blessed with being bilingual, use your skills."

I later had the opportunity to hear Demetria give another talk for Honors and Women's Study classes on the campus of University of New Mexico. She was describing her novel Mother Tongue and how the words became realized into a book, something she explained as a "gift." I was struck by a statement she made to the students: "In the novel, nothing really happens." Well, I disagree. Something does happen…and it is for the reader. It is in that process which draws attention and praise for Demetria's work. It is also why I feel she is a wonderful role model for any young or aspiring writer, particularly for women, and women of color. Demetria and her work is an example of activism through the power of ink - a keeper of red and black and voice for our community.

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