You don’t need to be a native Tucsonan to be a member of Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucsón: All you need is an interest in preserving the culture of the Old Pueblo.
“What is a town without a history and a background? We want the history to be remembered and want to keep the culture alive so people will know what went on here many years ago,” says Annie Lopez, interim president of the organization. “Tucson is a beautiful town and we want to preserve the things that make it unique,”
The nonprofit was founded in 1990 by Arnold Smith, the descendent of a Presidio soldier, with goals that include supporting the preservation of the oral and written histories of families of “Pimería Alta” (land in Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona prior to the onset of the U.S.-Mexico border), exploring and interpreting the past and eventually acquiring a historic structure to archive and display artifacts and documents.
As part of its mission, each year it celebrates Tucson’s birthday near the end of August with a Gran Gala fundraiser honoring local standouts who have impacted Tucson history and culture.
This year, Tucson’s 243rd Birthday Gran Gala Celebration will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.
“Many organizations get together and partner to have festivals to honor Tucson’s birthday in August and hopefully year-round. We don’t want people to forget,” said Lopez, who emphasized that Los Descendientes works closely with organizations such as the Arizona Historical Society, Patronato San Xavier, St. Augustine Cathedral and Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum. It also supports the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace: Mission Garden, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring the cultural heritages and historic landscapes of the land recognized as Tucson’s birthplace at the foot of Sentinel Peak (“A” Mountain) along the Santa Cruz River. The site is reputed to be the oldest continually inhabited area in the nation.
“We partner with these organizations that are trying to keep our past alive. You can imagine how hard it is to get young people enthused about history, but the more young people we can interest, the better,” said Lopez, 87, who was born in Tucson to parents who migrated from Sonora in 1910. Lopez is a 1949 Tucson High graduate who worked for the Tucson Unified School District and then the State of Arizona for 24 years.
The divorced mother of five, grandmother to six and great-grandmother to six was at the forefront of women’s activism in Tucson and has served on the Mexican-American Unity Council, the League of Mexican-American Women, the Tucson Women’s Commission, the Pima County Public Library Board of Trustees and other organizations.
Promoting awareness about Los Descendientes and similar organizations among people of all ages — including those who are new to Tucson — is essential, according to past president Raúl Ramírez, a Tucson native whose grandparents migrated from Mexico to Arizona in 1907.
“Tucson has lots of people who are transplants who moved here as adults, and much of the history in terms of the native people and founding of Tucson isn’t taught in schools, so the whole concept of the Spanish Colonial Period and what followed isn’t something that you really hear about unless you major in Arizona history.
“We need a good grasp of history so we have understanding and insight about where we want to go in the future,” said the 1963 Salpointe graduate who received a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State and retired from a career in behavioral health eight years ago.
Ramírez is also a founding member of the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace and has been active with organizations such as Patronato de Kino, the Kino Heritage Society and Nosotros, a social-service organization.
To encourage inclusion, Ramírez said Los Descendientes offers four levels of membership: one for those who trace their lineage back to the Spanish Colonial Period (prior to September 1821); a second for descendants of the Mexican Republic Period (September 1821 through June 1853); another for descendants of pioneer families of the Arizona Territory (Gadsden Purchase Treaty through February 1912); and one for those simply interested in preserving history.
Essentially, Ramírez said, Los Descendientes hopes to retain the diversity that has been both a hallmark and a unique strength of the Old Pueblo.
“There is a lot of diversity in Tucson, which goes back to the time when the Tohono O’Odham and Yaquis inhabited the area prior to statehood. Chinese folks and Anglos came with the building of the railroad during the 1880s and joined the Mexicans living in the barrios. African-Americans came following the emancipation, and Buffalo Soldiers were stationed out of Ft. Huachuca. Many Anglos married into prominent Mexican families and all of that speaks to our diversity and who we are as a people. I think Tucson, for the most part, is a welcoming community and that is based on a past history that we share. The more we know about it, the more accepting we are of differences,” Ramírez said.
Ultimately, Ramírez said he hopes acceptance and appreciation will allow Los Descendientes and affiliated organizations to preserve the land at the base of “A” Mountain as a sacred and historical open space and eventually re-create the Mission San Agustín and Convento that graced the area in 1775. The groups also seek to continue work on the Mission Garden project spearheaded by Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace in 2012. The recreation of the walled garden at 929 W. Mission Lane features heirloom Sonoran Desert-adapted orchards and vegetable gardens that represent more than 4,000 years of agriculture in Tucson.
“Los Descendientes are saying, ‘These are our roots for Tucson. The base of “A” Mountain is where we started and we want to celebrate that history in the place that is considered the birthplace of Tucson,’” said Ramírez, who is also a proponent of gifting the land back to the Tohono O’Odham Nation in recognition of Native American contributions.