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...
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:
Imelda is my interpretation 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 Gobernadora (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 Vera 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 Gobernadora (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.)
A blog of inspirations, interpretations-- things that move me in this place where I'm planted.