Where Anglo, Mexican, and native cultures intertwine, you'll find the soul of a true Southwest city

Shadowed and glowing in the low, fading sun before dusk, the Sonoran Desert on the eastern edge of Tucson comes alive in all its complex beauty. The spines of cholla glow, their prickly malice deceptively rendered as a benign woolly aura. The furrows of the saguaros deepen, and wildflowers ? orange poppies, purple lupine, and yellow brittlebush ? regain the mellow richness that the bleaching midday light had stolen from them hours earlier.

Tucson, meanwhile, has disappeared. As I look west from the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, the distant outline of the Tucson Mountains appears as a ragged silhouette. But in the foreground, this low-rise city of 725,000 that sprawls across 500 square miles of the valley is practically invisible, overwhelmed by the glare of the low-angle sun.

This isn’t the first time that I have looked for Tucson and not seen it. Some Western cities – San Francisco certainly, maybe Vancouver – reveal themselves so that even casual travelers feel they have glimpsed the real town. Tucson is not like that. Though I have passed through the city on a few occasions, I confess that short of a vague sense of its deeper vibe, I have missed the things that set Tucson apart.

Yet Tucson may be the one true Southwest city, a place where the desert is still present as something more than just the oppressive heat of summer and where Mexican and native cultures survive not as quaint anachronism but as living parts of the community’s soul.

Las Vegas belongs to the world, and Phoenix belongs to the future. But Tucson ? a city with origins dating back to 1694, a city with families that go back seven generations, and a city that backs up to some of the world’s lushest desert wilderness ? remains linked to its own history, tradition, and incomparable setting.

Driving into history

I only began to truly see the real Tucson during a stay at the Arizona Inn, the 1930 hotel that generations of city residents have gone to for special occasions and turned to for design inspiration for their own homes and gardens. The inn harks back to Tucson’s golden era as a resort, and though it once sat far out on the city’s fringes, now it is part of the central core.

From the inn, I drove back into the city’s history, first through elegant, understated neighborhoods of California-influenced Mediterranean-style homes that clearly had followed the inn’s lead. As those neighborhoods grew, they closed the gap between the inn and historic Tucson, where bungalows made of volcanic stone suggested an older community truer to its Sonoran Desert setting.

I eventually reached the 19th-century adobes of the Barrio Histórico neighborhood south of downtown, and realized that the Tucson I had missed on the broad commercial boulevards could probably be found here.

So I’ve returned to the Barrio on a spring day to lunch at the landmark restaurant El Minuto with Tucson writer Patricia Preciado Martin. The author of five books, she was a finalist for the prestigious Arizona Arts Award. Her writing, both nonfiction and short stories, captures the soul of Tucson and southeast Arizona. “Fiction writing is connected to reality,” she says. “Just an exaggeration.”

And not much of an exaggeration at that. One of her short stories, “El Milagro,” is about a woman who discovers the face of Christ on a tortilla. As we talk, people are lining up nearby in the front yard of a south Tucson home to pray to a figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe that the residents discovered on the bark of a walnut tree.

We have a wonderful lunch in the bustling restaurant, then we stroll around the Barrio.

As recently as the 1960s, the area was part of a more extensive historic Tucson that gave way to redevelopment and the city’s convention center ? 250 buildings, not only modest structures but also homes belonging to early prominent Tucsonans dating back to the 1850s, were torn down. Some have compared the Southwestern atmosphere of the remaining old Barrio to a pregentrified Santa Fe.

Renovating the Barrio

“There are people who will say it was all blight,” says Martin. “Now the Barrio is in.” Many adobe homes are spiffed up with bright colors and expensive renovations; others show every bit of their 120 years. Martin marvels at all the changes, pointing out a friend’s new compound and telling stories of one-time residents who can scarcely believe what their old adobes are now worth.

The community is no longer a barrio in the classic sense of the term, or the neighborhood it once was when it was known as Barrio Libre. Then again, neither is it a theme park.

Old-timers sit outside their front doors on rickety folding chairs, and folks working on cars and houses add just the right contrast to the pristine perfection of the rehabbed structures.

The ties that longtime Tucsonans feel extend beyond the old city neighborhood, out to the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Martin says people still head out to long-abandoned ranchos to visit crumbling adobe houses on lands that have been in their families for more than 100 years. Like the desert, which effortlessly crosses the border, cultural and family currents also flow freely into Mexico, making Tucson both of Arizona and Sonora.

Next to El Minuto, a wishing shrine made of adobe brick is stacked with votive candles. It is called El Tiradito, or “the little outcast.” The outcast in question is a young man allegedly killed for his role in a lovers’ triangle and buried near this unconsecrated site in the 1870s. Villagers here prayed for his soul, and a legend evolved that if you prayed for the young man and lit candles ? especially if they stayed lit all night ? your wishes would come true.

It is also said that the melted wax at the base of the shrine is now 5 feet deep, a reminder that to really know Tucson, you have to dig.

Growing Tucson

Since 1961, writer Richard Shelton has lived in a house in the Tucson Mountains, the second or third house in his neighborhood. He teaches at the University of Arizona and is among the many writers and artists who first were drawn to the city by the school but, once here, fell in love with the desert. Tucson, he says, sometimes feels like an overgrown college town.

“This is a great mecca for writers,” says Shelton. “I recently went to a lumberyard with a friend who is a poet. The guy behind the counter was a poet, and there were more poets in the yard. Where else in America would that happen?”

Shelton still lives the classic Tucson life, in a saguaro forest with javelinas, coyotes, and scorpions counted among his neighbors. It is a life that is changing for longtime residents. After all, Tucson has hardly been immune from the development that has blurred the distinctions between many Western cities. Its population has grown by more than 30 percent since 1980, and housing tracts have crept steadily out into the desert. Because of the distance and with few ties to the central city, many new residents never venture beyond their self-contained enclaves into Tucson’s traditional core.

This is especially true to the northwest, where development battles (in places like Honeybee Canyon) are being fought. “Areas I hiked just two years ago are half gone, covered by these huge two-story houses,” says Shelton. “The desert is being piecemealed to death.”

Culture under pressure

Not only is the environment under pressure but so, too, is the city’s culture. Gallery owner José Galvez, a Pulitzer Prize?winning photojournalist, believes that Tucson can play an even greater role as a center for Mexican and Latino culture but, paradoxically, that it could just as easily forsake that heritage. “Tucson is at a critical point,” he says. “In 10 or 20 years, the city could lose its Mexican heritage. We have to be careful that we don’t lose that soul to growth.”

Galvez came back to Tucson after years in Los Angeles. His reasons are simple. “I love the place. My heart has always been here. I had thought about returning for a long time. Some people accuse me of planning my return from the day I left.”

The Tucson that Galvez loves is centered around its historic core. Like Patricia Martin, he can remember the old barrio neighborhood that gave way to the Convention Center. He laments its loss but also finds hope in the renovation of the old train depot, a possible site for an arts center. Much has changed, but Galvez says St. Augustine Cathedral remains the center for the Mexican community, the place for weddings, quinceañeras, and funerals.

There is also new life downtown, thanks to the growing arts and hipster community along Congress Street, and a sense that a revival of the central city could balance the city’s ongoing march into the desert.

Tucson has had a way of enduring and surviving change. After all, this is a city that has seen four flags fly over it ? Spanish, Mexican, U.S., and, for a brief time, Confederate. And before there were any flags over Tucson, it belonged to Native Americans.

An effort is under way to honor the native tradition by creating a cultural park at the base of A Mountain. Once known as Chuk-son, Place of the Black Spring, it is the birthplace of Tucson and gave the city its name. With a human presence dating back 3,000 years, it is also one of the longest continuously occupied sites in North America.

Remarkable mission

I drive south from the Barrio, past A Mountain, and out to the San Xavier Indian Reservation to see Mission San Xavier del Bac. The reservation is home to the Tohono O’odham, the descendants of those original Tucsonans. As a people, they have been tested not only by the desert but by Apache raids and the cultural changes brought about by conversion.

Restored a few years ago, the mission is a remarkable place, continuing to play its vital spiritual role as a Catholic parish and as a center for the native community, even as it has become a major tourist destination.

The whitewashed bell towers of the mission join with fast-moving billowing clouds to play against the kind of cobalt sky that the desert delivers after a good storm. A dome tops one tower, the other is incomplete. The mission’s interior blazes with colors that come as a surprise in a centuries-old building. The statues of saints seem alive, their lithe, animated postures betrayed only by broken fingertips and occasionally by a missing limb.

A small child runs his fingers along the hem of San Xavier’s robe. In a side chapel separated from the main building, pictures and notes of devotion sit at the base of a lacquered retablo. I can feel the heat coming from the 100 or so candles that are burning. Unlike at El Tiradito, there is no accumulation of melted wax. Nor at Mission San Xavier del Bac do I have to dig at all to find Tucson.

The street scene
Downtown Tucson has its origins in the 18th century, and many old buildings survive.

Tucson landmark
Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded in 1692

Travel Planner
Attractions, Lodging, Dining

  • Tucson is not the most compact of cities, although a lot of the urban attractions are no more than a 15- to 20-minute drive from one another.
  • In September, searing summer begins to give way to moderate fall. Winter weather can be ideal, with clear skies and temperatures in the 60s and low 70s.
  • For city information, call the Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 638-8350 or stop by 130 S. Scott Ave. A good guidebook to the area is Discovering Tucson: A Guide to the Old Pueblo … and Beyond, by Carolyn Grossman and Suzanne Myal (Fiesta Publishing, Tucson, 1996; $14.95).

(Area code is 520 unless noted.)

  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. More zoo than museum, this outstanding facility west of town offers a thorough look at Sonoran Desert ecology. $8.95-$9.95, $1.75 ages 6?12. 2021 N. Kinney Rd.; 883-2702.
  • Mission San Xavier del Bac. Perhaps the finest Spanish colonial structure in the United States, the mission remains a living, breathing place of worship. It’s about 10 miles south of town. 8?5:30 daily. 1950 W. San Xavier Rd.; 294-2624. Click here for more from the Sunset archive.
  • Old Tucson Studios. Arizona has a long film history (McLintock! and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were filmed here), and this working studio/theme park not far from the Desert Museum in the Tucson Mountains has reopened after a 1995 fire. $14.95, $9.45 ages 4?11; 201 S. Kinney; 883-0100.
  • Pima Air & Space Museum. More than 200 historic aircraft are on display. Also worth going past is the huge aircraft graveyard at adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, visible for more than a mile along Kolb Road. $9.75, $8.75 ages 62 and over, $6 ages 10?17. 6000 E. Valencia Rd.; 574-0462.


(Area code is 520 unless noted. Rates may increase in mid-September.)

  • Arizona Inn. A true Tucson classic. Gracious and lovely, with an excellent restaurant. From $135. 2200 E. Elm St.; (800) 933-1093.
  • La Posada del Valle. This intimate B & B was designed by noted Tucson architect Josias T. Joesler. From $95. 1640 N. Campbell Ave.; 795-3840.
  • Lodge on the desert. Vintage inn dates back to 1936. From $79. 306 N. Alvernon Way; 325-3366 or (800) 456-5634.
  • Loews Ventana Resort. Self-contained modern resort on the edge of canyon wilderness is a great choice, especially if you’re more interested in recreation than sightseeing. From $89. 7000 N. Resort Dr.; (800) 234-5117.
  • Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. Old West Tucson with a New West emphasis on the desert environment. From $260 (plus gratuity and tax), including meals and ranch activities. 14301 E. Speedway Blvd.; (800) 234-3833.
  • Westward Look Resort. Former dude ranch has retained vintage elements. From $89. 245 E. Ina Rd.; 297-1151 or (800) 722-2500.


(Area code is 520 unless noted.)

  • Cafe Poca Cosa. Innovative, complex Sonoran cuisine that will challenge your assumptions about Mexican cooking. Two downtown locations: 88 E. Broadway and 20 S. Scott Ave.; 622-6400.
  • Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant. Modern Southwestern in an 1860s Barrio Viejo adobe notable for its courtyard and beautiful bar. 343 S. Meyer Ave.; 622-7984.
  • El Minuto. Traditional Mexican in Barrio Histórico. 354 S. Main Ave.; 882-4145.
  • Grill. Classic Edward Hopper-style joint with a bohemian sensibility. 100 E. Congress St.; 623-7621.
  • Janos. Perhaps Tucson’s most acclaimed restaurant. Janos Wilder brings French and Southwest together at this distinctive hybrid. 3770 E. Sunrise Dr.; 615-6100.
  • Kingfisher Bar & Grill. Martini chic, with fish and oyster specialties. Big old wraparound booths will have you humming a Rat Pack tune. 2654 E. Grant Rd.; 323-7739.


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