Tucson History

I wrote this piece in early 2011, when I was guest blogging at BPI Campus, just after Gabrielle Giffords had been shot, to give people a sense of Tucson.


Photograph by Kim Craig, AZ Daily Star

Tucson history

To really understand Tucson, you must get a sense of our history. We are proud to be an old, even ancient, city. Tucson has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. The Paleo-Indians are known to have been in southern Arizona by about 12,000 years ago, and recent archaeological excavations near the Santa Cruz River have located a village site dating from 4,000 years ago. Even more recent evidence shows, from the remains of pit houses and adobe huts, that Hohokam Indians occupied area near our home some 1,000 to 1,500 years ago before mysteriously vanishing from the region.

The first White “settler” (eeek, without papers) was a Spanish Jesuit, in 1692, who just walked in and “claimed” the land for Spain. Tucson remained Spain’s northernmost colonial posting until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. At that time, of course Tucsonans were Mexicans. I should mention for detail that there are Hispanic families who have been here since well before the US-Mexican war in the 1850’s, and they were granted their land, their language, and rights under the US Constitution.

Remember President Polk’s (D) “Manifest Destiny?” In the 1850’s, after annexing Texas, which Mexico claimed as it own, the U.S Army invaded and took fully 50% of Mexico’s total territory as the spoils of war – the part richest in natural resources, thus contributing to her current poverty. Think California Gold Rush, Texas oil, Arizona copper. To further expand its territory, the US purchased much of Southern Arizona from Mexico in 1854 for $15 million, in what is known as The Gadsen Purchase.

The Native American nations who lived in Arizona had no idea really that their land had been sold, or even that it could be, and resisted white settlement into the early 20th century. Even now, the Tohono O’Odham and Pasca Yacqui sovereign tribes make their home in lands adjoining our city, and the Tohono O’Odham lands continue well into Mexico because Mexico and the US divided their sovereign territory.  (Just sayin’). One third of Arizona is currently still reserved as sovereign tribal lands.

Tucson today

With the tallest building at just 25 stories, Tucson “proper” is home to a major research university, chartered in 1885, with a top flight medical center that has gotten a lot of recent national attention, huge colorful Mexican-style murals on old buildings, and our recently-restored St. Augustine Cathedral, built in 1776 (yes, we have a Bishop), extends a stately but warm welcome.

Demographically, Tucson has over 38% Hispanic population, about 48% Non-Hispanic- Caucasian population, the rest African American, Native American, and Asian. We even have a group of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Tucson actively and happily celebrates its cultural and spiritual diversity. There is a very strong Multi-faith Alliance binding together Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahai, New Age, and other traditions. As a minister I was active for a number of years after 9/11, when a group of religious leaders came together to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters by standing vigil, literally, outside the mosques, then continued meeting and sponsoring regular community events and interfaith prayer services where each faith in turn prays, chants, etc in their own tradition, followed by a meal, meant to build understanding and cohesion.

Tucson is a vibrant center for the visual and performing arts, and we all LOVE to party together. It seems there is always some kind of public cultural festival– Cinqo de Mayo, a huge Folk Festival, then a separate Bluegrass FestivalMLK and JuneteenthFestivals, a huge Peace Fair, a 4 day Rodeo festival (ALL Tucson area schools actually close for 2 days every year for this one), Celtic, Greek, and Mariachi festivals, 2 full-weekend  university district Street Fairs, frequent alternative health and metaphysical gatherings, and a very richly costumed “All Souls” Procession and Lights/Music Festival weekend celebrating the Mexican “Day of the Dead.”

The gem of Tucson annual festivals, “Tucson Meet Yourself” is an elaborate full weekend of booths and multiple stages set up across all the plazas and public areas surrounding Tucson’s city and county buildings, in order to share ethnic foods, music, costumed dance, art, and traditions from all of Tucson’s many cultures. We eat and dance and sing and gossip and hug ourselves happy and exhausted.

People in the surrounding “greater Tucson Area” – including the foothills where expensive communities were annexed by the city for tax revenues – are mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly from somewhere else, and mostly don’t participate in Tucson cultural activities or identify with its history. I may be unfair (not me!) since I myself live North of Tucson on the West side of the beautiful Santa Catalina mountains. There are people of open hearts everywhere of course,

Tucson is not Phoenix!

Maybe Nouveau Arizonans, like Nouveau Riche, lack respect. If you recall, Tucson was the northernmost Spanish, and thus Mexican, outpost. In contrast, the historically much younger, much whiter, mostly-Republican Phoenix Valley 150 miles to our North saw its first White settlers when  Mormons were sent by Brigham Young in the late 19th century. In the past 50 years,  economic refugees from other states came looking for a lower cost of living. Ironic, no, since they are so offended by Mexican economic refugees?

Phoenix is the capital city of the state, has far greater population, and thus controls the state legislature. There is still a hugely significant Mormon, mostly Republican, influence there in  public life. Most notable to current events, is Mormon Republican State Senate President Russell Pearce, author of SB1070. There will be more tomorrow on the political and philosophical struggle between Tucson and Phoenix, exemplified by their outlawing our Mexican-American Ethnic Studies Program.

Generalizing to draw a contrast, Phoenix has lots of palm trees and green lawns. Tucson xeriscapes with rocks and cactus, and harvests rainwater.

Phoenix has huge malls and an expensive arts district. Tucson hosts a huge annual International Gem Show for a whole month in every hotel and parking lot in town and loves its Farmers Markets.

Phoenix has the famous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of the pink underwear and sweltering tents fame. Tucson has “Humane Borders” rescue teams placing 55 gallon water stations in the desert to maintain human life. And our hero, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

We are sooooo different.”


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