Long existing as an all-but-forgotten outpost in Mexico's northern frontier, Tucson's customs have deep indigenous/Mexican/Catholic roots. The annual calendar here is still defined by Catholic and folk celebrations, and June 24 marks St. John the Baptist's Feast Day - La Fiesta de San Juan. Without the Santa Cruz River, Tucson's existence would not have been possible, and as the desert hermit who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, San Juan has special meaning for Mexican families. Tucson's seasonal calendar also turns around this time; from the dry summer months of May & June towards the summer monsoon season; which generally begins around the 1st of July.
El Día de San Juan is a day for musicians to serenade people named Juan or Juana at dawn, for family picnics by sources of water, and for engaging in water fights and bathing. Because water was used in the baptizing of Jesus, it was believed to have special powers on this day. For example, if one had eye problems, cures were sought by washing one's eyes in a stream.
La Fiesta de San Juan begins with a religious procession carrying a statue of St. John the Baptist to his customary altar to preside over the fiesta-- followed by a blessing ceremony performed by Aztec dancers. There follows an evening of live music and dance, games, piñata-breaking for kids, and food & craft vendors.
Historically, the fiesta also included lively celebrations and competitions on horseback. From the late 19th Century into the early 20th, there was a popular sport called Corrida de Gallos (Rooster Game). It involved burying a rooster up to its neck in sand while young men on horseback took turns racing towards it, attempting to pull it out of the ground as they galloped by. Due to its violence it was eventually discontinued. For many years, incredible young charras (horsewomen) known as Escaramuzas ("skirmish") put on rousing performances conducting elaborate dressage maneuvers at a full gallop, riding sidesaddle. Sadly, this rich tradition has been absent in recent Fiesta de San Juan's.
In my painting, I have tried to capture the essences of the many peoples and factions that give summer its meaning here in Sonoran Arizona:
Located at the base of Sentinel Peak (A Mountain), Barrio Kroeger Lane is set down on the birthplace of Tucson; named Chuk: Shon by its original inhabitants, the Tohono O'odham. There are remnants of ancient Hohokam and Piman settlements scattered throughout the area. It is still considered sacred land by the families (mostly Mexican-American and devoutly Catholic), who have lived here for generations. As with so much else in Tucson with development potential, this rustic neighborhood is endangered by the pressures of progress.
Barrio Kroeger lane gets its namesake from an Anglo doctor who served the neighborhood as a general practitioner. Due to its location on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, the area was also nicknamed Sal Si Puedes due to occasional flooding leaving only one or two exits out of the area.
What distinguishes this humble little neighborhood from most of Tucson’s other barrios is the continuing ownership of horses and small livestock animals. In early years, Tucson’s annual Fiesta del Día de San Juan was graced with rousing performances by Escaramuzas (ladies in folklorico dresses riding sidesaddle) from Barrio Kroger Lane. The railroad-tie corral fence is a defining feature of the neighborhood.
A gallo (rooster) crows as the young vaquero practices his skills with his lasso.
The walkway to the adobe house is made from TPBCO (Tucson Pressed Brick Company) bricks. TPBCO and other brick manufacturing companies thrived on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and employed many of Barrio Kroger Lane’s residents.
The little hand-made capilla (chapel) was used to celebrate mass on special occasions. It was also built to honor elders unable to attend regular church. Succumbing to benign neglect, it has since been removed.
The cave high on the hillside is a tiny grotto-like cave honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. The story goes that, in the 1950’s, a humble man with a devotion to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit. From the jail he could see the A Mountain hillside, and every day he prayed to La Virgen. He promised her that if the real criminal was found he would build a shrine to her on that hillside. Sure enough, eventually the true culprit came forward and the man was freed. True to his manda (promise), he created this shrine honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. The tiny grotto holds offerings to other saints, in particular San Judas, the saint of impossible causes, who is held dear by the neighborhood.
In more recent years, another shrine to the Lady was built on the mountain by local firefighters. She overlooks the sweeping intersection at Star Pass and Mission Roads, and is cleaned and seasonally decorated by Barrio Kroger Lane residents.
My thanks to Josefina Cardenas, long-time resident of Barrio Kroeger Lane, for helping me with this interpretation.
Barrio Hollywood may be more united in its activism and Chicanismo than any of the others west of the Santa Cruz River, and has a long history to back it up. They maintain their ability to organize against powers that allow gentrification and development-- it decimated their neighbors in Barrio Viejo back in the 60s, and continues to chew up the West and South sides. Old wounds run deep, and are still raw in Tucson's original neighborhoods -- and rightly so. Overall, we gavachos (unflattering term for gringos), despite our best efforts (myself included) either haven't got a clue, or struggle to get one. (My old family hometown of Santa Fe, NM was sold out long ago by its local government, then run by old Hispano families. Rudolfo Acuña mentions it in his book, Occupied America.) The American Market drives everything. People sink or swim according to its whims, and rewards those who weaponize their shares to gain more. Neighborhoods in the margins are kept in poverty by design. The people of Barrio Hollywood are clear about what they have, and are wise to self-serving maneuvers by outsiders and politicians supposedly elected to represent them.
This painting attempts to integrate neighborhood icons with a splash of historical timelessness. I also try to honor the power of family in Tucson's barrios. Lowrider Culture is one of those, and is especially strong in Barrio Hollywood. This piece sparked my own memories growing up in LA's multi-racial harbor and south-central Lowrider Culture in the turbulent 60s -- and I remain a fan of classic low-rider cars and its original music genre to this day.
I think renown Tucson author and historian, Patricia Preciado Martin mentioned she grew up in Barrio Hollywood. Her many books about Southern Arizona's people, history and culture have been an inspiration me. I believe it is also where Tucson's cherished mosaic muralist and teacher, Carlos Valenzuela of Las Artes Student Education Center, grew up. I'm just an old gavacha now, so I'm not entirely sure....
The cultural loss to Tucson, first with the Southside's Norteño Festival, then Fiesta Grande, is a real tragedy to me. Fiesta Grande was the biggest and finest showcase of Mexican-American Culture with a dose of Yaqui Pride in the Southwest, IMHO. Not to mention the money it raised for much-needed community programs towards youth development and crime prevention. FG brought more visitors to local businesses in 3 days than what they could get in 6 months. Outside of LA, where can one go for such a community effort focused on Chicano life anymore? Tucson is blessed with an eclectic and proud mix of brown and black talent coming out its ears.
An oldie but goodie: I have an original, when they first came out. There is a map of the Westside barrios in the center that is stunning. Barrio Hollywood, Looking Into the Westside - Untold Stories of the People, now published on-line.
Angelita Ochoa (below), (holding baby in the 1941 family portrait included in the painting), saw her 97th birthday in 1995.
A blog of inspirations, interpretations-- things that move me in this place where I'm planted.