Neto's Tucson: Tia Alva's love for Tucson's past to be honored today

2013-04-07T00:00:00Z 2013-04-07T22:06:35Z Neto's Tucson: Tia Alva's love for Tucson's past to be honored todayErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

My love and appreciation for Tucson comes from my family. My Tucson-born mother and Mexican immigrant father each have helped shape my appreciation for nuestro pueblo, including its blemishes and faults.

However, I have another family member who has influenced me more deeply: my aunt Alva Bustamante Torres. My tía, my mother's eldest sister, not only expressed her love for our hometown but she fought to preserve its valuable history.

Today, at the Women's Plaza of Honor on the University of Arizona campus, Las Doñas of Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucsón will honor my tía "whose efforts in our community on behalf of historic preservation have been extensive."

Tía Alva, now 80, helped spearhead the community effort to preserve downtown's Plaza de la Mesilla, commonly known as La Placita, which had faced the bulldozers' blades, the ones that razed the downtown barrio in the late 1960s. She also helped lead the effort to halt the construction of the Butterfield Route, a proposed downtown parkway that would have torn through Armory Park, and barrios Viejo and El Hoyo, taking along with them El Tiradito, a culturally historical site on South Main Avenue.

From her efforts and of others, came the creation of historical zoning and regulations, recognition of neighborhood associations and the establishment of civic committees to advise local government on historical preservation.

"She would mobilize resistance to the ongoing urban renewal and to further redevelopment projects that threatened to destroy historical structures vital to Tucsonenses' sense of history and collective memory," wrote Lydia R. Otero in "La Calle," her 2010 book published by the UA Press on the systematic destruction of Tucson's historical commercial and residential barrio.

Tía Alva and my mom grew up on South Scott Avenue, next to the Temple of Music and Art, a couple of blocks east of the barrio, They and my grandparents shopped in its many stores, dined at El Charro when it was on West Broadway and watched Spanish-language movies at El Cine Plaza.

The barrio was a polyglot home and business center for Tucson's diverse communities. Sonoran-row adobe homes for more than 100 years lined its streets.

But Tucson's political and business elite wanted the barrio gone. To them it was a blight. It did not represent a Pollyannaish Tucson that city leaders wanted to project to outsiders.

For tía Alva, the barrio's destruction was a travesty. It tore out the heart of Tucson's rich history.

"This was like my family," said my aunt as we talked in her Armory Park home. "I could see what they were doing."

While she and a small band of like-minded Tucsonenses in La Placita Committee could not stop the barrio's demolition, they managed to save the gazebo that sits at the center of La Placita Village, at the southwest corner of Broadway and Church.

A few years after the barrio's removal, tía Alva and the committee joined residents to deep-six the Butterfield Route. Their efforts resulted in getting El Tiradito placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other changes continued.

The city created the first Tucson Historical Committee, which eventually became a commission. Neighborhood associations were formalized to protect and preserve their histories. And some barriers separating city government and the Mexican-American community came down.

In 1975 she helped coordinate the city's bicentennial celebration. A year later, she was honored as Woman of the Year and was recipient of the YWCA Lifetime Achievement Award.

In her long civic work, which she undertook for long hours, risking her health, there was another element in her home-born zeal to preserve Tucson's barrios, history and cultural legacy and to take on the power brokers: fairness.

"It was all unjust," she said.

Did you know?

Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucsón is a group of Tucsonenses who keep alive Tucson's history. Las Doñas are women committed to community service. Doña is a title of respect bestowed on women.

Tucson's living Doñas are:

Laura Almquist, Patricia Arida, Edith Auslander, Patricia Benton, Nelba Chavez, Joana Diamos, Sally Drachman, Martha Elias, Estela Jácome, Anna Jolivet, Selma Marks, Esther Tang and Genevieve Whalen.

Deceased Doñas are: Enriqueta DeMeester, Dorothy Finley, Elizabeth "Betty" Krucker, Livia Montiel, Cele Peterson, Irene Romo, Maria Urquides and Ofelia Vargas.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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