No One Knows Anything About New Mexico A chat with Marcella Ortega, the Latina David Sedaris
In 2007, Marcella Ortega and I ran the Daily Lobo culture desk together in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was technically my boss and we turned our pages inside-out with our adventures in creative content. We once scored VIP tix and backstage passes to a Gypsy Kings concert down in El Paso and ditched out early from the paper to drive down — in an auditorium of makeshift seating, we were literally the only two people in a room of a thousand who were authorized to dance standing up. We really wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible behind the rigid training of a student-run University of New Mexico beacon of journalistic excellence (ha ha). Today they don’t even publish physical papers every day, and I’m pretty sure it’s descended into madness, but that’s what every outgoing staff member thinks of their successors.
I’ve since turned my zine The Nightly Noodle Monthly, formerly based in Albuquerque, into a publishing company and our first book we’re publishing is a debut essay novel by Marcella, who is a native of Cuba, New Mexico. Based on how she wraps her home life in self-deprecating dry humor and colorfully illustrates the charm and depravity of a one-horse town, we’re billing her as the Latina David Sedaris.
Eva Avenue: Why are you writing this book?
Marcella Ortega: It’s mostly just to entertain myself and my friends. I’ve always gravitated toward people who are caricatures of themselves and I really enjoy recounting experiences that aren’t necessarily funny in the moments of their happening, they could even be painful or really embarrassing but ultimately they’re strangely satisfying to look back on.
What is your “unfair advantage” in writing this book?
Obviously, I’ve never seen a New Mexican woman my age accurately portrayed in any form of media, ever — not that I can even claim I’m accurately portraying New Mexican women my age ’cause I don’t think most of them have an inclination towards anxiety and picking up hobos and getting fired from jobs and partaking in such debauchery. Yet I also feel like New Mexicans have a very rich sense of humor ’cause we are pretty much nothing in mainstream culture; there’s kind of a certain level, in being excluded, we’re not self-conscious. We don’t worry about how we’re being stereotyped; all we are is ourselves. Our culture here, it’s so specific and the isolation forces you to have a strengthened sense of entertaining yourself. A strengthened sense of comedy. Like, you can’t take yourself seriously when you’re a Northern New Mexican who lives in the mountains and our history is just so strange. But I guess some people do take themselves too seriously and that makes it funny as well.
How is New Mexico’s culture unique from both Mexico and the United States?
It’s funny — in terms of its culture, and I’m referring strictly to Northern New Mexico, it doesn’t have any Mexican influence. There’s no “Mexican influence.” We have Spanish and Native American influence, and the Spanish influenced Mexican culture simultaneously, like at the same time it was influencing ours. So this is really confusing to people and when I explain I’m not Mexican they think I’m trying to put Mexicans down and front that I’m Spanish. It’s just that I’m literally not Mexican; it’s as inaccurate as referring to me as a Puerto Rican. My great-grandparents are a mix of Native Americans from local tribes (Apaches, Navajos, Pueblo, etc.) and Spaniards. To put it simply, our culture is distinguished by the traditions of the native cultures of the area as opposed to those of South America, as well as the fact that the Spanish settlers remained isolated in this region for nearly two centuries. The Spanish my mom and grandparents speak is a completely different dialect that is more formal because it didn’t evolve much since the settlers came to the region.
With your whole family on the mountain, do you worry about it being too personal?
Absolutely. I’m nervous about this even promulgating through social media. I am, I’m nervous about it spreading and getting a life of its own. I’m worried about people in this area reading it. I’m not excluding myself; it’s pretty humiliating some of the stories about myself. It’s my life; I’m the most humiliated but I’m holding a mirror more toward the debauchery and the absurd. It’s not like we never have serious moments in this area, but I’m recording stories from my life that I find most entertaining and maybe it’s at the expense of other people but I’m not using anyone’s real name. I am a bit worried how I’m portraying myself and my family reading it ’cause I think they’ll be scandalized or concerned by it. Like I don’t think my grandmother needs to read about me drunkenly having sex in a tent.
Why did you choose to release it with the Noodle?
It is difficult enough for me to be sharing such personal stories despite the fact that I want to and it’s entertaining. It’s still difficult and I started writing at a pretty young age in newspapers and in that process it was very collaborative. For something so personal, I feel more comfortable collaborating with people I know understand me and my creative sensibilities and my sense of humor and my voice — people who’ve been longtime friends of mine I know are good writers and editors.
Also, I feel like the voice, the objective and the visual creative side of the Noodle really aligns well with what this book is aiming at, which is to be entertaining and enjoyable and to not take the world so seriously.
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