Tucson's spiritual heritage is a unique amalgamation of Tohono O'odham and Mexican Catholicism coexisting without the bloody subjugations that defined other regions of the American Southwest. It became further enriched as waves of Pascua Yaqui (Yoeme) Indians migrated from their homelands in Sonora escaping genocide by President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico, bringing their own earth cosmology mixed with Catholicism absorbed from Jesuit priests in the 1600's.
The master guardian spirit of the Tucson region, the one who was here first is I'itoi; the creator of the O'odham people and their ancestors the Hohokam ("the People Who Are Gone"). He brought the people up like children and gave them the gift of the Himdag, a set of commandments guiding them to live in balance with the world and interact with it as intended. A timeless entity assuming a number of powerful forms in tribal legend, he retired from the world and lives as a little old man in a cave beneath Baboquivari Peak - the original place of emergence from which he led his people out of the underworld after a great flood. I'itoi's people have inhabited this land for over 10,000 years, and they believe he watches over them today; their 'Older Brother' from his sacred home beneath Baboquivari Peak, which they regard as the center of their universe.
I'itoi is most often referred to as the 'Man in the Maze': an ancient design in O'odham petroglyphs, basketry and jewelry. He is the figure at the top of a labyrinth: the symbol for life's path a person travels and the encounters that impact him and direct him to reach the center where he is blessed by the sun god before passing into the next world.
The O'odham have been stewards of the Sonoran Desert since before time was time.
Faces of the Tohono O'odham
Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
Before the Spanish conquerors arrived on the shores of Mexico, the famous mother deity we know as Our Lady of Guadalupe commonly went by the Nahuatl names Tonantzin and Coatlaxopeuh to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, in the Valley of Mexico. She was known in many forms: "Our Great Mother", "Honored Grandmother", "Mother of Earth and Corn", "Our Lady who emerges from the region of light like the eagle from fire", and “the one who has dominion over serpents”. The Aztecs built a shrine to her and other fertility goddesses on a hill they called Tepeyac, and had long been worshiped her there. When the Spaniards arrived, the shrine was demolished and people were forbidden to go there.
The era of the Spanish conquests was drenched in blood and death. Appalled by the savage Aztec rituals of human sacrifice, the conquistadors ruthlessly crushed the Aztec empire of Tenochtitlan, decimated the population with smallpox, and pressed the masses into Catholicism. A short version of the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe goes something like this:
One day in the 16th century, a poor Indian Catholic convert named Juan Diego was passing by Tepeyac Hill when he spotted a glowing apparition on its summit. Approaching, he saw it was a dark-skinned Indian woman with stars on her cloak, a crown on her head, the moon supporting her, the rays of the sun surrounding her-- and, she was pregnant. She told him that she loved the people very much and wanted to protect them, and she asked him to have a new church built for her on the site. Juan protested, saying that the bishop would never believe he had seen her. The lady pointed, and suddenly among the cactus grew roses, a flower foreign to the New World and the flower of the heart. Juan gathered the roses in his tilma and, going straight to the bishop, unrolled the cloak. Then an even greater miracle happened: an image of the pregnant indigenous Virgin Mary appeared with the roses on the rough agave fiber cloth. Truly, she was Queen of Heaven.
This Great Compassionate Mother offered a refuge from the new angry Christian God, and by extension the early Christian invaders. Adopted as Mexico's patron saint, she became a symbol for freedom and resistance to continued foreign intervention. The Virgin of Guadalupe came to the Pimeria Alta with Padre Eusebio Kino and the first Spanish settlers. Through the centuries, Guadalupe/Tonantzin has risen to become Queen of the Americas, and her compassionate embrace extends far beyond the Catholic Church. She stands for boundless love and the enduring rights of the marginalized and oppressed everywhere.
Yoeme / Pascua Yaqui
The Yaqui Indians, or Yoeme (The People) are a Uto-Aztecan speaking indigenous tribe who inhabit the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora. Following Mexican independence in 1821, the regime of Porfirio Diaz attempted to seize control of Yaqui farm lands and, for ninety years, Yaqui guerrilla fighters resisted attacks by the Mexican government. The Mexican army finally defeated the Yaqui at the battle of Buatachive in 1886. Many Yaquis fled into Southern Arizona and settled in small colonias (communities) around Tucson. Those remaining in Mexico were systematically selected for genocide-- either through slavery or direct extermination. Their population dropped from 20,000 to less than 3,000.
Today in Mexico, the remaining Pascua Yaqui struggle to survive, and although they have finally been acknowledged by the government for historical injustices, Hermosillo, Sonora's capital, continues to drain their precious Rio Yaqui (and sole source of water), dry-- without compensation. For their protests, they live under constant threat and many of their leaders have been assassinated.
On this side of the border, the Yaqui achieved official tribal status in 1978, along with a small reservation southwest of Tucson, and continue to live in their original barrio communities around Southern Arizona. They keep their culture alive with the same pride and resilience that has defined them as a people for millennia.
The heart of Yoeme cosmology lies in five enchanted worlds that mirror the natural world in which we live. These mystical realms are an integral part of everyday life for the Yaqui people. One of the most important worlds is the Sea Ania or Flower World. The flowers of the Sea Ania unite the Yoeme and connect them to their past. The deer dance is an important ceremony that lets Yaqui people communicate with the Flower World. It is performed at Easter, as well as other times of the year. In the deer dance, Saila Maaso (little brother deer) leaves the Flower World to visit the Yaqui people. Hummingbirds are especially sacred to the Yoeme and are revered as messengers from the spirit to natural world.
Much Yoeme ritual is centered upon balancing these worlds and eliminating harm that has been done to them by human beings. The Yaqui have combined these beliefs with their unique practice of Catholicism, and believe that the existence of the world depends on their annual performance of Cuaresma (Lent) and Pascua (Easter) rituals.
The Yoeme continue their traditions of stewardship and prayer for humanity on this side of the border, with the dedication of surviving cultural teachers like Pascola mask carver, Louis David Valenzuela. The roses in the painting are to honor his carving style.
Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino
No one has left a more lasting legacy in the Pimeria Alta than Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuit missionary "cowboy" priest. Father Kino's era was relatively short--from 1687 through 1711-- but over those 24 years he covered over 50,000 miles on horseback, interacted with 16 different indigenous tribes and founded 26 missions. It was Padre Kino who worked with the already agricultural indigenous native peoples, introducing them to cattle, sheep and goats, the Spanish Barb horse, and European fruits, seeds, and herbs.
Kino opposed slavery and compulsory hard labor that the Spaniards forced on native people, causing great controversy among his co-missionaries--most of whom adhered to the laws imposed by Spain on their territory. He viewed native peoples as human beings and treated them as such; leaving a legacy divergent from the one of violence and subjugation the Catholic Church is known for in Mexico and the Southwest.
Kino built missions extending from the present day states of Mexican Sonora into present-day Arizona, where Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson is still a functioning Franciscan parish church. Little remains of most of the others, but a few are still standing, such as the Mission at Tumacacori, 25 miles south of Tucson, now a historic national monument. (Seasonal open-air binational masses are held there, along with regional celebrations and fiestas.) Kino also constructed nineteen rancherias (villages), brought the first cattle to the region, and became known as the Pimeria Alta's first rancher. He also introduced European grains and seeds that provided Northern Mexico with wheat and the old world herbs we all enjoy today.
An advanced cartographer for his time, he followed ancient trading routes established millennia prior by the natives. These trails were later expanded into roads. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles, during which he mapped an area 200 miles long and 250 miles wide. Kino's maps were the most accurate maps of the region for more than 150 years after his death. Many of today's geographical features, including the Colorado River were first named by Kino.
Kino practiced other crafts and was reportedly an expert astronomer, mathematician and writer, authoring books on religion astronomy and cartography. Kino remained among his missions until his death. He died from fever on 15 March 1711 at age 65, in what is present-day Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, Mexico. His skeletal remains can be viewed in his crypt, which is a national monument of Mexico.
Apart from the usual monuments and street names, Padre Kino's presence and imprint is everywhere here. Most well known is the annual binational pilgrimage and fiesta at Magdalena de Kino, in Mexico in early October. Catholic Mexicans, Tohono O'odham, Yoeme, and even tenacious white people walk (some ride horseback) from Sonoran Arizona to the church where his remains are buried and pay homage to Kino's patron saint, San Xavier. There are also binational cabalgatas (pack-horse camp rides) retracing Kino's original trails in devotion to his cause for sainthood. (See Por Los Caminos de Kino)
An homenaje to all things wondrous and wild this time of year in our corner of the world --loosely inspired by a local folktale of the disobedient young lady seduced by the devil at a community dance. Smitten, she becomes transparent beneath his gaze. His appearance crosses centuries - skull face and long warrior hair under a classic fedora hat and flashy 40's suit.
The scene is the iconic historical shrine, El Tiradito (The Castaway) - often regarded as the heartbeat of Tucson, decorated for El Dia de los Muertos.
Ancient deities rule... shining through the moon. But La Virgen de Guadalupe lives on... here on a ball cap that could have been left by a thankful border-crosser. (When one becomes aware of La Virgen, one notices she is everywhere.)
As an afterthought I added a curious little dog, just following the trail of marigold petals...
This piece is fashioned after one of the 10th card in Mexico's national game, ¡Lotería!. The Mexican version of the card is simple (right), and has a companion dicho (saying):
El que a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija.
(He who nears a good tree, is blanketed by good shade.)
However, I don't do anything simple, so I expanded my interpretation to symbolize a Tree of Life. I found inspiration from the fabulous yarn painting of the Huichol Indians of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, and "painted" with my computer mouse as if I was working with yarn. The paintings are all-digital, created using the software program, Adobe Illustrator.
The concept of a tree of life is a widespread archetype in the world's mythologies; a sacred tree in religious and philosophical tradition. The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree. My interpretation is one akin to connecting all forms of creation, and I include animals & insects found in our Sonoran corner of the world: the bat, bees, hummingbirds, the cardinal, the jaguar, sky-island squirrel, a pair of deer, the owl*, and of course, the mythical serpent, La Corua.
* The pinwheel design on the owl's breast is that of a peyote cactus bud - the spiritual hub of Huichol culture.
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.
El Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead/All Souls Day has its roots in the Aztec and Maya traditions of Mexico and is thousands of years old.
It has become more & more recognized and celebrated here in the greater American West in recent years. The Day of the Dead as it is celebrated in central and southern Mexico is an incredible amalgamation of native and Catholic beliefs, and honors departed members of the family. As the time of year when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, it is believed that the departed actually come back, returning to visit their grave sites and the scenes of their lives.
One of the ways that Mexicans cope with loss is to view the concept of death in an almost playful manner. Markets are filled with candy skulls (complete with names) and statues and depictions of calacas (skeletons) engaged in everyday acts like playing music, celebrating weddings (and funerals!), riding skeleton horses, bikes, and countless other life delights.
Artists have participated in the long-standing tradition of creating calaveras (skulls) to celebrate this event - often satirizing the events, customs and personalities of the day. The most famous Mexican artist known for this is José Guadalupe Posada.
In the northern frontiers of Mexico and border regions, El Día de los Muertos is more muted but departed family members are honored just the same. Fall is when families of the departed clean grave sites, give them fresh paint, and decorate the graves with flowers--fresh, silk/plastic, and hand-made paper.
Of all the seasons of the year, Fall is my favorite. Here in the Sonoran Desert the temperatures begin to cool and there is a restful stillness in the air. Around the world, many cultures celebrate this time as the annual window when the veil between the spirit and physical world is the thinnest. In pre-Christian times, death was not a thing to be feared but a transition to be celebrated as another form of life. In this way, family members and ancestors were honored and kept close in the hearts of the living.
During this special fall window, many grand occurrences take place in nature that have helped people connect with those who have passed on. In North America, one of the most phenomenal is the mass migration of the Monarch butterfly. Every year, 60 million-one billion Monarchs make the journey from eastern Canada to the forests of western central Mexico. They arrive in the state of Michoacán every fall. The Purépecha Indians in the region have noticed the arrival of monarchs since pre-Hispanic times. In the native Purépecha language, the monarch butterfly is called the harvester butterfly, because monarchs appear when it's time to harvest the corn.
Monarchs and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) also occurs when the monarchs appear. According to traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to Earth for their annual visit.
All Souls/All Saints/Day of the Dead occurs officially on November 2nd. In Mexico, however, it is a three-day celebration that begins on October 31st. More on this festive tradition next post.
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.
I created this painting styled as an ex-voto; a votive offering to a saint or divinity, given in fulfillment of a vow. (Click on photo to enlarge)
Adelita (la soldadera) stands tall, gazing forward, carrying a young child in a traditional indigenous sling. On her thigh rests a Carabina 30/30— (Winchester 30/30) decorated with a rose and two hummingbirds; both powerful Yoeme (Yaqui) symbols. She is dressed plainly, in a Tehuana style skirt. She shows signs of struggle but is poised and undeterred. She is the enduring Woman Warrior Spirit personified, the unsung strength of the world.
The girl child Adelita carries represents a new generation of life. She could be the child of Adelita, or a rescued child separated from her own natural mother. She sleeps peacefully.
A blog of inspirations, interpretations-- things that move me in this place where I'm planted.