When Fred Martinez’s savagely beaten body was discovered in a shallow canyon on the southern edge of Cortez, Colorado, five days after he had disappeared from a rodeo carnival, news of his murder shocked and outraged friends of mine in Cortez. I also struggled to come to terms with a crime that seemed incomprehensible, particularly because I had grown up in Cortez forty years before. For me, too, the annual visit of that same traveling carnival was an event I eagerly anticipated—providing me, as it did Fred, a raucous and brightly lit glimpse into the world that lay beyond the high mountains that ring the isolated town. Yet when I returned to my hometown to help make Two Spirits, I discovered a community that no longer seems separated from the larger society, one now as multicultural and multifaceted as any American place, one where national celebrities build expensive vacation homes, but where poverty and despair remain endemic; a place where gay immigrants are welcomed and integrated readily in the community, but also where a terrible hate crime took the life of a beloved young man on a celebratory summer night.
Like the Diné—the Navajo, who believe they first entered the world through a reed high on a mountain that shadows Cortez, I entered the world there as well, although, in my case, via the rather more commonplace route. I was young in Cortez and optimistic and impatient to make my way out into the world at large, just as Fred had been. Like him, I was a teenager who was eager to fit in, yet I was similarly aware that something about who I most deeply was meant that I never could do so completely. The high school from which Fred repeatedly was sent home to put on boy’s clothes was the same school where a job-weary Army sergeant who headed the ROTC squadron long ago ordered his teenage soldiers-to-be to beat some sense into me, a wannabe hippy who wore long hair and openly argued against the war in Vietnam. Both Fred and I were regularly taunted and teased and sometimes felt the blows of our adversaries’ fists; both of us had circles of friends who, we knew, would defend us, as well a godsend teacher or two who did their best to assure us that we mattered and that high school really could be survived.
But our boyhoods differed in dramatic ways as well. I was raised in a modest red-brick, ranch-style house fourteen blocks from the trailer park where Fred and his family lived, but the distance might as well have been a world away. I had many advantages he did not, and I personally knew nothing of the racism, classism, and genderism that shaped his days. And I’m made forever uneasy when I note as well that I successfully departed Cortez, went to college, and made my way safely into middle age; by now I’ve seen much of the world he could only long to discover. My history troubles me because it stands in such sharp contrast to the reality that Fred’s life was cut outrageously short, that it came to a close in only his sixteenth summer, at the rim of a trash-littered sandstone outcrop just a quarter-mile from his home. Life doesn’t offer each of us equal destinies, of course, and a search for fairness is likely as futile as the hunt for any other absolute, yet during the making of Two Spirits, I’ve thought at length about the magnetic poles of privilege and poverty, the terrible blow of intolerance, the essential nature of the masculine and the feminine and the exquisite interplay between them that metaphorically and quite literally gives us life. I’ve wondered too about the meaning of home, about the strong and securing gift of place—that Four Corners country, in particular, which the Navajo believe is the beautiful locus of the world—as well as the vital gift of getting away from a place that feels too small to contain the life you want to live. I’ve considered as completely as I could murder’s true meaning and the violence it visits on the living as well as the deeply grieved dead, and I’ve considered whether a killing ever can be redeemed.
It was an enormous honor for me to help bring this film into being. It’s a movie that’s inextricably linked to a place I never truly can leave. I am bound to Cortez and the emotive landscape surrounding it in precisely the way a child powerfully and forever loves a parent, yet in the time since I was roughly Fred Martinez’s age, I have brought to it a dozen other emotions as well including anger with those in my hometown for whom anything “different” is somehow dangerous and probably virulently contagious as well, rage at those who twist their own deep wounds into reckless and catastrophic violence. Yet I remain enchanted by the feel and pungent aromas of the region’s ragged forests of piñon and juniper trees; I love the cliff-line of Mesa Verde gone red at almost every sunset; the certain paradise of cool summer mornings. I’m strangely buoyed by the site of men in irrigating boots leaning against the bed of a battered pickup, their important conversations sometimes virtually wordless; I’m hugely comforted by the deepening lines in the faces of people I’ve known for fifty years as well as their strong embraces; and my heart rises with a kind of solace I can’t explain when someone from far away discovers the region around Cortez and decides to stake a claim to it, making a new and true home out of the place that became home to Fred Martinez and me without our ever having chosen it.
“These things happened a long time ago,” a Navajo storyteller often will say as she begins to spin her tale, meaning, without saying so, that it magically remains as potent today as the touch of the sun on your skin. Like hers, Two Spirits tells a story that is as current as each new dawn, a tale about a remarkable—some said blessed—boy with an enchanting smile and singular ways who touched a vital place in the souls of many people. It’s a story that affirms, too, that each of us possesses—in our unique ways—both the male and female halves of the divinely mysterious whole, and that in combination they offer us the vital thing in our lives that the Diné label balance.