Tucson is one of the oldest communities in the country. Heck, people have lived in this desert valley of ours for more than 3,000 years. Probably longer than that.
Bet most Tucsonans don’t know this bit of trivia. It’s not taught.
Our long history surrounds us. History, the memories of the everyday lives of people who called Tucson their home, is a graveyard-dead subject to many. For others, it remains alive.
Last Saturday was one of those living days.
The day started by celebrating the valley’s agricultural past on a patch of the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. The nascent Mission Garden Project, on South Mission Road at the foot of Sentinel Peak, just north of West 22nd Street, is a re-creation of a colonial Spanish garden.
It was here where the first Spanish colonizers made contact with the Pimas who lived in small clusters along the life-giving river. The Spanish established Mission San Agustín at the base of “A” Mountain in the mid-1700s, before the founding of the Tucson presidio in 1775 across the river.
Inside the walled garden, the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace honored our historical past by celebrating St. Isidore, the Catholic patron saint of farmers, whose feast day was May 15. But the Mission Garden is more than recognizing the Spanish and European aspects of our history. The fruit trees, some of which are heritage descendants brought by Jesuit explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino, also reflect our Native American, Chinese, African-American and Chicano heritage.
In a similar multlcultural celebration later that same day, I joined other Tucsonenses at the Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House Museum on South Granada Avenue, on the grounds of the Tucson Convention Center. We were there to hear the oral histories of people who once lived in the downtown barrios, but whose lives and homes were razed to build the cold, brick complex in the late 1960s.
The stories of the elders were delivered by the voices of nine young students from the Trio Upward Bound Program at Pima Community College’s Desert Vista Campus: Idaena Castro, Monica Tan, Karelia Gil, Ruth Ballesteros-Saenz, Diana Vega, Haredo Mohamed, Mana Abdi, Batula Abdulkadir and Amina Shiwoko.
The students, Latinas, Asian and Muslim, recited monologues, shaped from interviews they conducted with the former residents of Viejo and El Hoyo barrios.
“Oral history has power,” said Milta Ortiz of Borderlands Theater, who taught the Pima class “Theatricalizing Oral Histories.”
While oral history, handed down generation by generation, possesses that power it acquires over time, it is absent from conventional historical conversation, Ortiz said. The oral history of Tucson’s ethnic minority communities was ignored, and only in recent years have there been attempts to document those stories.
“The monologues honor that history,” Ortiz added.
Much of the beauty of that afternoon in the backyard of the Sosa-Carrillo home, which was built in the 1870s, occupied for generations by Tucson families, and now managed by the Arizona Historical Society, was the diversity of faces of the students who presented the oral histories.
Four students were born in Africa. One student was the daughter of Cambodian refugees, and the four others were Chicanas whose roots extend south.
While their backgrounds varied, the students were united through their exploration of the history of people’s lives and their memories of their families, neighbors and businesses that formed la calle, a name some residents give the barrio. This experience piqued the students’ interest in exploring their families’ histories.
Ortiz said, “They really didn’t know each other or anything about Tucson, and this class brought them together, establishing new friends.”
These barrio stories did not end at the conclusion of the presentation. The monologues, which hopefully will include the voices of the Chinese and African-American residents who also lived in the barrios, will form the basis of a Borderlands Theater play next year.
That’s living and breathing history for Tucsonans to take and share, and to encourage others to discover theirs.