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 lead 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 from his sacred home beneath Baboquivari Peak, which they regard as the navel of the world and the center of the 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.
Nuestra Señora 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 Tepayac, and had long been worshipped 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 small pox, and pressed the masses into Catholicism. A short version of the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe goes something like this:
One day on the 16th century, a poor Indian Catholic convert named Juan Diego was passing by Tepayac 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 up 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, the 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 Pimaria 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 vulnerable everywhere.
Yoeme / Pascua Yaqui
The Yaqui Indians, or as they call themselves, 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 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 Yoeme fled into Southern Arizona and settled in small colonias (communities) around Tucson. Those remaining in Mexico were systematically selected for genocide through slavery or direct extermination, and their population dropped from 20,000 to less than 3,000.
Today in Mexico, what's left of the impoverished Pascua Yaqui struggle to survive and have finally been acknowledged by the AMLO government (Mexico Sets Justice Commission for Yaqui Indians). 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 in and around Tucson as well. They keep the Yoeme culture alive with the same pride and resilience that has defined them as a people.
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 Yoeme 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 Yoeme 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, especially 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.
Padre Eusebio 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), which supplied cattle to new settlements, and is also known as the Pimeria Alta's first rancher.
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 Javier. 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)
Good read: Riding Behind the Padre
by Richard Collins
Note: I welcome corrections to any of these interpretations... I get brain-farts trying to cover such enthralling subjects by throwing words at them. - LMV
When day comes, we ask ourselves,
Born Edward J. Brooks, a black man who had faced adversity all his life, he wanted a place where everyone was welcome - from immigrants to city folks who stumbled off the beaten path. An Army Ranger who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, Ed Keeylocko started his own town southwest of Tucson after his cows were rejected at a local auction when it was discovered he was black.
Keeylocko was his own unique brand of rancher who understood the interplay and connection between all living things and bred his cattle accordingly. He was a U of A graduate with a degree in agriculture and was concerned about how the lack of foresight and degradation of the natural world would sustain a growing population. He was a proponent of environmental education, and built a little research library that contained out-of print books about ancient civilizations around the world. (A man after my own heart!) He considered himself to be a steward of the land as well as a cowboy:
Now, here’s the thing that you have to remember about a place like this. You’re the curator for everything that lives, breathes on that range. Anything that moves, yells, swims, hunts. You’re the curator. That means birds, bees, skunks. There are beehives on my range, but when there are no blooms and there’s no flowers blooming, they get hungry.
Nicole Santa Cruz in the Seattle Times, 2010:
"Keeylocko was born in South Carolina in 1931. Abandoned by his mother, he was rescued by a woman who gave him the name Keeylock (he added the O later). He left home at 14 and traveled America as a hobo before serving in the Army for 23 years.
He then attended the University of Arizona, earning degrees in agriculture, because he wanted to breed aggressive, well-armed cattle that could protect themselves on the range. (“Give them back their horns,” he says.) After experiencing discrimination at a cattle auction, he decided to create his ranch.
Keeylocko’s life is as unpredictable as the Wild West. He’s an ordained minister. And he has traveled the country, giving lectures on black cowboys.
“There are people that believe that people like me only play basketball, football, dance or maybe play the banjo,” he said. “What they don’t know is, there were black cowboys long before there were white cowboys.”
His life has made him open to welcoming anyone in his town, regardless of color, or as is the case in southern Arizona, regardless of citizenship. He’s known for chasing the Border Patrol off his property.
“I tell people that Cowtown Keeylocko doesn’t choose who comes here,” he said. “That’s the real West.”
Those he welcomes include illegal immigrants who come for water — from the U.S.-Mexico border, less than 50 miles away.
On a recent afternoon, Keeylocko continued to nurse his tequila at the bar, sweating slightly. Aside from the faint hum of a fan, which didn’t provide much relief, the only sounds were insects chirping. Keeylocko’s eyes became soft...
A person has to go back to the land,” he said. “It creates thought.”
I first learned about this remarkable man from an old episode of Arizona Illustrated and fell in love -- then, as usual, life happened. In 2018, when I heard of his passing I did an extensive web search, gathering articles and photos and watching videos of him and his life, and vowed to do a painting of him. Then the Trump War on Asylum Seekers sucked up national oxygen and my attention turned elsewhere.
Then the triple-header of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George Floyd ripped my life foundations out from under me.
Now; I was raised with a set of values that promoted diversity (albeit as God's Christian soldiers) and I did have racism awareness growing up and plenty of first-hand witness to Arizona's brand of bigotry. But the depth and insidiousness of nation-wide systemic racism revealed itself in new ways to me everywhere. It is inescapable by design and we white people have no idea how deep it runs, by design. America's Original Sin is still very much who we are. It's just more sophisticated and socially acceptable now. I felt physically nauseated.
But then I witnessed something incredible: after 400 years of colonial control, a great reckoning seemed to be stirring within many Caucasian Americans as wave after wave emerged from all corners of the country, calling to end the perpetuation of violence and inequality towards black people-- indeed, all people of color on this land we share...
All the while the virus's voice was growing louder. It fell on an impervious president's ears, bounced off MAGA hats and unmasked faces, long guns and battle gear, fluttered with a plethora of "patriot" and confederate flags while it claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives unabated. Conspiracy theories and demonizations flooded social media, believed as fact and stoked by the president, creating real-life threats and incidents. Violence and victim-blaming was now Patriotism and collective survival assistance was now Radical Left Socialism. It was mind-boggling.
So I shut down my Facebook and joined the real world through the peace of covid sequester in my home. As I sorted through my own countless life experiences of sexism and double-standards I realized that no matter how long I live and learn I can never know what it is to be a person of color in America. I can only keep offering whatever gifts I may have to honor them.
Here finally, after months in the making, is my vision of Ed J.B. Keeylocko. I brought out his "swamp" green eyes. Above him is his signature Blue Dog Saloon. I include his pinto horse, Jazz, who seemed to be a good fit for this painting. He was an incredible man and led an incredible life. I am sorry our paths never crossed in this world. For those who had the privilege of knowing him, I hope this portrayal of him comes close to doing him justice.
As old wrangler, this man and painting has a special place in my heart.
(Horse nerd note: registered pintos have dark bluish bands around their white markings.)
I'm happy to donate the digital files of my work to 501(c)3 non-profits for fund-raising and historical/educational/cultural preservation. This includes Mr. Keeylocko's Legacy. Feel free to contact me.
Doña Imelda is the quintessential essence of a desert wise-woman and healer. She came to me as inspiration from a real-life curandera named Huila in Luis Alberto Urrea's novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter.
Imelda walks barefoot with Mother Earth through a Sonoran sky-island landscape. The saguaro cactus is in the midst of spring bloom, surrounded by Chaparral (creosote bush). Edging up the hillside is a gnarly old mesquite tree with a great horned owl gazing at her in the distance. (In indigenous folklore, owls are believed to portend death; but I present it here as the symbol of transition, ready to help Imelda guide spirits of the suffering to the Spirit or Flower World.)
She walks with reverence to all living things and gazes fondly at the life she sees around her. She is greeted by hummingbirds, a horned lizard, and creatures of the spring; including a dragon fly. I gave the turtle a mystical quality because I see her as the spirit of my own artist mother who loved turtles. Another mystical, mythical creature is the water-serpent, La Corúa. A vanishing folktale of the Sonoran borderlands tells of La Corúa: a large water snake with a cross on its forehead that guards the spring and cleans the veins of water with its fangs. It is believed that if you kill the Corúa the spring will dry up.*
Imelda wears a simple long huipil similar to those worn by the women in Vara Cruz but with embroidered flowers typical to the Yoeme (Pascua Yaqui) tribe. Around her neck is an Ojo de Venado (Dear Eye), a talisman to guard against evil spirits, and a handmade rosary with La Virgen de Guadalupe and shells for each mystery. She wears a golden rebozo (shawl) and a satchel for herbs and other healing talismans she finds.
Plants of medicinal significance:
Imelda is carrying Arizona/Summer poppies or Baiborín (Kallstroemia grandiflora) - used for fatigue, body pains, fever ... and mange in animals. Growing along the spring is a Passion-fruit vine (Passiflora mexicana) or Pasionaria, which grows in canyons of Southeastern Arizona and Mexico. A sedative, it quiets respiration and blood pressure.
The Chaparral, (Creosote bush), one of the most common, widely dispersed plants of the Desert Southwest, and has many medicinal properties. When applied as a salve to the skin, chaparral slows down the rate of bacterial growth and kills it with its antimicrobial activity.
Lastly is Toloache, Sacred Datura (Datura meteloides). Though highly toxic, this is one of the most beautiful plants of the Southwest. According to the Seri tribe, Datura was one of the first plants ever created. Therefore, it is said that humans should avoid contact with the plant as it is extremely sacred. Only shamans use the plant, as inappropriate use can be very dangerous. The Mixteca of Oaxaca, Mexico, believe that the plant spirit of Datura is an elderly wise woman.
*Tucson’s internationally renown folklorist, “Big Jim” Griffith has kept the tale of La Corúa alive through the years, and it became the inspiration for the name of my art business.)
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 and fascinate me in this place where I'm planted.