Interview with Raquel Gutiérrez, author of ‘Brown Neon’

MARFA — Last weekend’s Agave Festival brought together dozens of writers, artists and public intellectuals to discuss Chihuahuan Desert history and culture through the lens of the hardworking desert plant. Raquel Gutiérrez, a writer and critic from Los Angeles who currently resides in Tucson, has had a lifetime to consider how to put the desert landscape in print. She took some time before her reading at the Marfa USO to sit down with The Big Bend Sentinel and discuss life and art in the borderlands. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BBS: Is this your first time in Marfa? 

RG: I first met Tim [Johnson, organizer of Agave Festival] just from hanging out at Marfa Book Company. There was a group of us that came out from Tucson and El Paso for the 2017 Poetry Festival. I feel like there’s sort of this organic connection between Marfa and Tucson. 

BBS: Your new book, Brown Neon, is widely described as an ekphrastic work –– can you explain what ekphrasis is? 

RG: It’s a literary device that shows up in various types of literature, but especially poetry. It’s the art of description of visual art. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad is often cited as the first example of ekphrasis. “Ode to a Grecian Urn” [by Keats] is another example. 

I’ve been part of different creative communities and artistic communities and had artistic friendships, and feel like all my friends are visual artists. That’s the ekphrastic link to memoir for me. What does it mean to have a life shaped by art? 

For me to describe the artistic works in my book is also a political act, because a lot of Black, Indigenous, Latinx artists — we’re under-described. 

BBS: Tucson is so much bigger than a place like Marfa or Presidio. I’m curious about how you think the rural border is different from the urban border. 

RG: For these smaller communities, what’s most salient to me is economic theories and cycles of inequity and how those play out. Like that article in the New York Times about how people can’t pay their taxes on their family adobes — I was like “Oh, man, things are gonna get bad here fast.” 

Dispossession continues to be a story that plays out in new ways. There’s new elements, new players, new variables. I think it’s a classic pattern that happens everywhere. You have generations of families that suddenly can’t keep up with the demands of the market, and it pushes them out of their communities.

BBS: I just got done reading an essay you’d put out a few years back about humanitarians who stash water out in the backcountry for migrants, where you write very eloquently about the desert and who gets to move through it comfortably. Can you talk a little bit more about this concept of mobility? 

RG: I’m coming from Los Angeles to Tucson from Marfa — in some respect, all of these are points on a big interstate highway. Being able to freely traverse the monster that is Interstate 10 says something about your resources. 

Certain parts of the 10 are outfitted with some of the most state-of-the-art border surveillance technologies. Those technologies are indicative of how mobility is so privileged. I call it the Surveillance Paparazzi. They’re looking inside our cars, they’re scanning our bodies, they’re scanning our vehicles. 

I think mobility is a human right. If I have a lower cost of living and need to move to a different part of the state, if people need to leave their communities in Central America because of violence — mobility is a human right. But mobility is becoming privatized. 

BBS: There’s a big debate that’s been going on in Marfa for years about who gets to make and profit off products from Mexico or borderland aesthetics more generally — sotol, in particular, has become a flashpoint. Do you have any thoughts on that? 

RG: I think anytime you engage these ideas of authenticity, you’re also engaging their transactional nature: the marketplace, the demands of the market, ethical production, ethical consumption. A lot of those ideas are really complicated for the average person. 

It’s hard because you want to appeal to the consciences of the distillers to give back to the people who have had their hands in the actual earth for generations. But it’s just another extractive industry. I think it takes a special kind of person to be an ethical cultural broker. 

BBS: This year, Marfa Pride happens to be going on at the same time as Agave Festival — do you have any parting words? 

RG: My work engages queer Latinx immigrants, Southwest border stuff, supposedly marginalized points of view. I would just hope that people can concern themselves with what’s happening to queer and trans young people in this country and the way that they’re being demonized by by right-wing ideologues.