Feeding La Doce

The South 12th Corridor has long been a resilient, delicious, and vibrant hub of culture and food. Now, community organizers and city officials are working to create new opportunities for the neighborhood without sacrificing flavor.

July 10, 2017

FeaturesIssue 25: July/August 2017

A plate of perfection at Café Santa Rosa consists of a Red Chile Indian Taco, with red chile and beans on Indian fry bread, topped with lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes.

A neighborhood where banda and hip-hop pumps out of open car windows. Where the scent of carne asada blows in the wind. Where a raspado is the most natural antidote to a baking summer afternoon. Where you can sit to eat an elote and be transfixed by the waves of street traffic, or the fighter jets circling overhead. Where shade and organic fruit are lacking, but green corn tamales and vats of menudo inspire crowds to line up on Sunday mornings and holidays to revel, commiserate, and be neighborly. Will the “redevelopment” of such a neighborhood glitz over these rough and lovely particulars? Will it round the corners of character, flattening it, corporatizing it, raising the rent? Not if the residents have their say.

For decades, Tucson’s South 12th Corridor (or—less of a mouthful—La Doce (DOE-say), stretching down South 12th Avenue from 44th to Drexel Road) was known by outsiders as a pot-hole-ridden strip of beauty salons, meat markets, dollar stores, and pop-in/pop-out destinations for tacos or raspados. Midtowners might have parachuted in to gorge on carne asada at El Güero Canelo, or, perhaps, to pick up some tortillas and conchitas from La Estrella Bakery. Otherwise, it was seen—wrongly—as a part of town to pass through or skip over. But, of course, the outsider’s perfunctory view misses the glue that makes a neighborhood a neighborhood. The glue is community, and community sticks more durably when it is faced with adversity and is well fed. La Doce has long faced various fronts of adversity, and it is certainly well fed.

Now, as Tucson boasts a UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation, and as La Doce becomes one of the central drags in the so-called Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food, it is tempting to write that La Doce is coming into its own, but the area has long been its own: boasting a distinctive, resilient, delicious, and vibrant hub of culture and food.

A delivery of corn is unloaded at Elote El Frida.

On a recent hot Thursday afternoon, I was talking to Pascual Erunez, one of the family-partners of Los Jarritos (on South 12th between Oklahoma and Irvington), waiting for my chorizo, egg, and potato burro, when in walked Ana (not her real name) with an empty stainless steel cookpot. She ordered a gallon of menudo and two green chile burros. Ana has been coming to Los Jarritos to fill her pot for more than 25 years. I asked her if the taste had changed in all that time. “No,” she chuckled. “And I always get the same thing.” She turned to Erunez: “Don’t expand,” she pleaded, unprompted. “That ruins things. A small little place expands. And then the tastes change.” La Doce, as Ana seemed to synthesize, is facing the existential difficulty of remaining what it is and righting decades of neglect from the City of Tucson: in other words, offering more of its residents opportunities—safety, as well as economic and environmental security and sustainability—without losing its flavor.

Over the decades, despite lack of funds and a sometimes adversarial relationship with politicians and the police, the collection of neighborhoods that make up La Doce has banded together to survive. New efforts from both the city government and community organizations are hoping to make it thrive.

Nelda Ruiz—born in Nogales, Arizona, raised in Nogales, Sonora—has been a community organizer on Tucson’s south side for 10 years. Her cross-border personal history parallels the lives of many La Doce residents. Along with the organization Tierra y Libertad (TYLO), Ruiz’s aim in organizing is to create access to both neighborhood sustainability and affordability. TYLO follows the promotora model, in which, traditionally, women are trained in health and nutrition and take what they learn to their communities. “True community organizing,” Ruiz told me, “is just building relationships … It’s letting people know they have power.”

Building relationships is especially important today, as the south side neighborhoods deal with the polar forces of immigration arrests (and declining trust in the police) with incoming development money, which could change the population dynamic: pushing some people out, drawing others in.

Designed by Johanna Martinez and Alex Jimenez, this mural on the north side of Oasis Raspados contains QR codes that can be scanned with a cell phone, linking to interviews with local business owners. Youth working with the La Doce Barrio Foodways Documentation Project helped paint the mural and hosted the unveiling in June.

Most outsiders know La Doce for BK Tacos or El Güero Canelo, but there is also Tacos Apson, Los Jarritos, Café Santa Rosa, El Merendero, Taco Fish, Oasis Raspados, La Estrella, Alejandro’s, Suspiros, Taqueria Porfis, Whataburro, Sushi de Papá, El Rey de Elote, and many, many other restaurants, bakeries, taquerias, tamale shops, elote stands, meat markets, and carritos.

Visit Tucson recently included La Doce in their campaign highlighting The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in the United States. The coinage came on the heels of Tucson being named the nation’s only UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Now, the city wants to envision a new development plan for La Doce, which—residents repeatedly mention—has long been overlooked by politicians. According to a study conducted by UA’s Drachman Institute, La Doce exhibits lower education levels, lower household incomes, and higher poverty, and yet it also has higher than average home-ownership rates. There are more families in La Doce, more intergenerational living, and when people settle, the roots go deep. One major recent victory has been the repaving of South 12th Avenue, which used to be so pot-holed it could practically crack molars and definitely did shatter suspensions. Neighborhood residents, however, don’t want the new pavement to serve just as a runway for tourists, whether out-of-towners or those coming from within Tucson.

Nelda Ruiz has been a community organizer on Tucson’s south side for 10 years.

Vice Mayor Regina Romero, who has been a member of City Council since 2007, described to me her decade-long fight to bring more attention (and more funding) to La Doce. (A number of residents I spoke with gratefully credited Romero with the recent repavement). Since the post-recession recovery, Romero has been able to work with the city, the county, and now the federal government to bring attention to La Doce. In 2013, her efforts first came to fruition with three new bus shelters—seemingly meager, but sorely needed: La Doce has one of the highest rates of bus ridership, and yet was long without a single shelter, forcing riders to wait in the punishing Tucson sun. After the shelter construction, Romero pushed for relandscaping, business scholarships, pedestrian improvements, and public art, and, recently, has secured a technical assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The grant is not an inflow of cash, but something like hortatory development advice. HUD subcontracted with the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB)—a consulting firm with a mission to advance economic mobility for low- and moderate-income Latino families and neighborhoods—to put together a broad strategy for redeveloping La Doce. The plan, due by August, will include input from local businesses, residents, and community organizations, including Tierra y Libertad. Romero hopes the strategy will be a way to advocate to the city and county for actual development dollars, as well as—assuming success—a pilot to develop other corridors like Miracle Mile or South Sixth Avenue. She is looking for answers to the question of, as she put it, “how the city can participate in the economic success” of these neighborhoods. What that success will look like is still uncertain.

Residents, nonprofits, community organizations, and business owners don’t want La Doce to lose its luster, or turn its authentic flavors into bland profit. They want to be intimately involved with how the neighborhood is “developed,” where the money (if there is any) goes, and make sure that those who benefit most are the local residents, not house-flippers, corporations, out-of-towners, or millennials looking for kicks.

“The only safe community,” Ruiz told me, “is an organized community. That’s why we do the work we do. Because we love the people. We want to be the bridge for folks to get resources.”

TYLO, working with the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, the Community Food Bank, and the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA)—an affiliate of the University of Arizona, whose mission is to “build more equitable and vibrant communities by celebrating the everyday expressions of culture, heritage, and diversity in the Greater Southwest”—has initiated the La Doce Barrio Foodways Documentation Project to present the community’s own recommendations to the city and HUD.

To begin their efforts, TYLO and SFA reached out to the resident youth.

“Politicians usually look right over their heads,” Ruiz said. Funded in part by a grant from Partners in Places, through the La Doce Barrio Foodways Documentation Project, TYLO and SFA are training Pueblo High students to become community ethnographers. One of the goals is to teach students to think critically about their environment, prompting students to ask themselves, among other questions, what food is available around them, what their relationship is to soda and unhealthy snacks, and where their food comes from.

Vice Mayor Regina Romero stops in for a bite at Café Santa Rosa. Romero has been a member of the City Council since 2007, working to bring more attention—and funding—to La Doce

Rebecca Crocker, lead ethnographer at SFA, explained that the food documentation project is meant to “empower and train [community members] who don’t have academic backgrounds to participate in ethnography to view, watch, participate” in their community and their history. They want community members to engage, to speak up, to help strengthen La Doce’s local food economy. This sort of engagement, project partners hope, would also serve “to enhance cultural awareness and improve social equity.”

At a La Doce project community pachanga in early May (catered by Santa Rosa Café) I met Eliana Rivera, a Pueblo freshman proudly wearing a T-shirt printed with the words Food Reporter. She approached me to ask if I wanted her to explain the project. I did, and the conversation quickly turned personal. “My community is very small, and we don’t have green space,” Rivera said. She explained how she and fellow food reporters walked La Doce’s streets, “literally counting trees,” as well as gardens, dilapidated houses, and empty dirt lots. After tabulating their data, as well as a survey the students were conducting at the pachanga, they will go back to the streets to talk to residents, listening and documenting their relationship to food. The stories the food reporters collect are meant, Ruiz described, to “bring out the richness that already exists.”

Speaking with me at the pachanga, Ruiz asked: “What does ‘development’ look like?” For years, she explained, academics have been coming to study the neighborhoods, have been extracting information, extracting knowledge. She wondered: What do they do with that knowledge? How does that knowledge benefit, or even affect, the community? And who, exactly, is development for? Is development for a city worried about blight? Businesses looking for enrichment? Or for the residents?

Alex Jimenez, an artist and activist who grew up on the south side, is one of La Doce project’s mentors, helping Pueblo High students become community ethnographers. In conducting the community mapping project, Jimenez explained to me, students and mentors were surprised by how little life they found: “So many houses with no trees, no landscaping, just dirt—all dirt lots.” They did find some pockets of green, and altars of La Virgen were nearly ubiquitous. On a poster at the pachanga, a student named America Sahaguen wrote, “I never saw all the beautiful and bad things in my community before this project.”

I asked Vice Mayor Romero how the neighborhood could avoid being gentrified as it is redeveloped. She insisted that the concern must be written into any plans that they create. “It has to be intentional,” she said. “The last 40 to 50 years there has been a lack of investment in these neighborhoods.” Now, when (or, really, if) the city does begin a redevelopment project, they have to be careful not simply to be priming the neighborhood for whiter, richer people to move in. A defense against gentrification could include, according to Romero, “building incubator spaces for small businesses,” “giving tax breaks to historic homes,” “property tax alleviation for multiple-generation homes,” “building affordable homes for senior citizens,” and generally “building in affordability.” More than a quarter of La Doce residents live in poverty, according to city statistics.

Ana Roberts has been working at El Merendero for 30 years. ” The food is great here,” she says.

“What I’m asking for,” Romero said, “is the vision, the foresight for South 12th development” that we had for downtown’s development. Downtown, of course, is contending with gentrification issues of its own.

Everybody knows everybody in the neighborhood,” said Ana Roberts, a waitress who’s been working at El Merendero for 30 years. (I heard nearly the exact thing from Pascual Erunez of Los Jarritos and Julie Carrizosa of Oasis Raspados). “And,” Roberts added, “the food is great here.” That is the consensus—camaraderie and good food—the way it is and the way it’s been, and the way residents want to keep it. But there are also needed changes.

I sat down with Beki Quintero, lifelong La Doce resident, at Perfecto’s, a small diner and tamale destination at South 12th and Alaska, for breakfast. (I had the chilaquiles; she ordered the huevos con papas, though the green corn tamales are what make this restaurant. For dessert, though I certainly didn’t need it, I picked up a couple of conchitas and a cream empanada from Alejandro’s, the carnicería and bakery next door.) Back in the ’90s, with increased crime and gang activity, Quintero explained, “I hated to see what was going on in the neighborhood.” And so she organized kids to clean up, including painting out gang graffiti. She was trying to instill in the kids a sense of belonging, of caring. Back then, she told me, “there were a lot of empty lots, vacant buildings.” Heroin use was on the rise, as well as alcoholism. “There were needles everywhere,” she said. Though the city can help with these kinds of issues, true change, she explained, must come from the residents themselves.

I asked Quintero about the UNESCO designation. It didn’t really mean much, she explained. “It’s nice to see a sign go up. But we know where we like to eat. Sunday morning, you’ll see your neighbors lining up outside La Estrella for menudo.” They don’t need UNESCO to tell them what’s delicious.

“True community organizing is just building relationships … It’s letting people know they have power.”

When the 2010 anti-immigrant bill known as SB1070 became law, Quintero said, “We lost a lot of friends, a lot of neighbors. More grandparents were raising grandkids.” She continued: “People are uncertain now. TPD was really trying to build the trust, but then 1070 came. People don’t want to get involved with the police anymore.”

It’s a common story in the neighborhood. Anselmo Navarro, 62, has been selling elotes on South 12th and Nevada for 20 years. Business, he says, has been bad since January. He hopes to leave the elote stand aside and build a restaurant. “Something small,” he said. “The restaurants are doing well, but elote stands—not so much.”

“But I can survive,” Navarro said. “Before, your mom, everybody’s mom, made tamales. Now, kids want to do other things, eat other things.” Navarro came to Tucson from Hermosillo more than 40 years ago. “People who come over now are scared,” he said. “They don’t want to spend their dinerito. They’d rather send it home, because there’s no security here. There’s more police. More racism …” He told me that if he sees an accident on the street, he doesn’t call the police anymore, out of fear that somebody could be deported.

Luis Abril Antonio Magallanes harvests green onions from the Fiesta Park Peace Garden.

Fiesta Park, initially planned in the 1970s, became known as Fiesta Dump after the city cleared the lot and didn’t follow through on construction, and people started dumping their trash. It is one example, among many, of the city promising to “develop” an area of La Doce, and falling woefully short. But after decades of lobbying and community organizing (and the help, finally, of the Parks and Recreation Department), residents, led by Beki Quintero, turned Fiesta Dump back into Fiesta Park, where Quintero and others have planted a garden—the Peace Garden—to teach kids how to grow food. They also host community events, such as star gazing parties and movie nights. “We,” Quintero told me, referring to the whole neighborhood, and echoing the philosophy of TYLO, “are like a garden, always growing, planting new ideas, that’s what we want to teach our kids.”

Quintero cited a study showing that the number of trees in a neighborhood is in inverse relationship to the amount of crime. Various studies corroborate the findings: the greener the city, the safer the city. Shade, smooth roads, and sidewalks are a good start, but learning to trust city officials, not feeling discriminated against or targeted by police, and economic security are long-term, and perhaps more important, goals.

“The south side has a lot of negative connotation,” Ruiz said, “but people have so much power to change that. There is so much beauty here.”

One person who certainly sees that beauty is Alex Jimenez, the La Doce project mentor and author of Abecedario del Sur, a photo and design book that began as a typographic study of hand-painted signs on the south side, and has since blossomed into a broader artistic project documenting the south side’s history. Jimenez, whose mother’s side of the family has been in Tucson for five generations, started studying these neighborhoods because “a lot of stories from the south side haven’t been told.” They are stories, Jimenez explained, of “Mexican entrepreneurial industriousness.” Her own family is a perfect example: she grew up in a multigenerational home. Her grandfather, who built and sold houses, worked as a postman, owned a liquor store, a car wash, and an accounting business he ran out of his own home. “We weren’t rich, but everyone works really hard, and has their own businesses,” she said. This is the industrious spirit, “the hustle,” of the south side. People aren’t wealthy, and the city may have long ignored them, but the residents make the most—and it’s a lot—of what they have.
Jimenez has begun painting a new mural depicting the history of La Doce on the side of the Oasis Raspados, one of the first raspados businesses in Tucson. Oasis has been serving juicy, creamy, spicy ice for nearly 35 years, and Julie Carrizosa has been working at “the Mexican treat shop,” as she described it to me, along with her husband, John, “since the beginning.” The business began on the other side of the border, in Hermosillo. Carrizosa’s father-in-law brought the tradition of Mexican flavors, like plum or chamoy (along with his own industriousness) across the border, and the Carrizosas have been adapting to changing tastes ever since, adding pepihuates, tostilocos, picosito, and all manner of weird and wonderful combinations of corn, peanut, sweetness, and spice. “Most of our customers go back and forth across the border,” Carrizosa told me, and they bring their changing gustos with them.

Alex Jimenez is a La Doce project mentor and an artist working on documenting the south side’s history.

“We used to be a very close community,” Carrizosa said. She paused, thoughtfully. “We still are close.” There seemed to be a “but” lingering in her sentence. Corrizosa explained the unity in the Hispanic community, even between competing businesses. She described, as an example, the relationship she and many other businesses have with vendors who sell from carritos, or the many food trucks. Vendors stroll in to storefront businesses to sell fruit, ice cream, burritos, tortillas, jewelry, or DVDs, and the business owners let them ply their trade. When I was eating at Taco Fish recently (I recommend the Taco Gordo, which features a marlin-stuffed chile on top of a pile of shrimp and fish), a young woman came in to try to sell me a cheesecake. I don’t see that anywhere but on the south side. I didn’t buy the cheesecake—the Taco Gordo had all my attention—but I have bought tamales waiting for shuttles to Nogales, and it’s a minor convenience that belies a sense of community that isn’t nearly as apparent in other neighborhoods.

Many of the buildings on South 12th Avenue, Carrizosa noted, are shifting from residential to business. “We’re glad people realize that we’re a lucrative market, but so many chains are coming in, we’re also starting to worry.” I asked if she’s seeing business decline. “We cater to Mexicans,” to a specific clientele the chains can’t access, she explained. Though crimes on the south side seem to always get in the paper, Carrizosa notes, “We are resilient.” After SB1070, a lot of people were knocking on their back door asking for work. Businesses eventually seemed to rebound, but she’s sensing nervousness and “uncertainty” again since the presidential election.

Talking to Jimenez over a cup of coffee, she described “a communal memory of consistent failure” of past south side development projects. The UNESCO designation, Jimenez worried, might come off as “patronizing,” or merely a “legitimizing stamp to make white people more interested in going down into the south side.” (Was this the silent “but” in Carrizosa’s sentence: patronizing politics?) What Jimenez hopes for, instead of food-tourists simply descending into La Doce, is that the food documentation project will lead to “a jumping off point … to do community work … going into the streets, knocking on doors, and seeking out the voice of this community.” She added: “I’d like to see more Mexicanas like myself coming back [to the neighborhood] and taking part.”

Jimenez further mused on the beauty of her neighborhood, which, she said, “literally smells like beans and carne. If you walk around these streets you’re inevitably gonna hear a tuba”—from the cumbia and norteño music—“I don’t want that to change.” Part of her motivation, she told me, is that she “wants kids to appreciate the old. The new is cookie-cutter strip malls. Development too often means there is no connection to the past.”

As Vice Mayor Romero put it: “Other cities pay millions of dollars to create the atmosphere we have organically … We just want to put a polish on it.”

The neighborhood cuisine in La Doce, Ruiz explained to me, consists of much more than the sum of the many great restaurants in the corridor. “People have a history of growing food and catching [rain]water, but it’s mostly nanas tossing their dishwater on the plants because they don’t have the resources to buy a cistern or install rainwater catches,” she said. “We’re the people of the sun,” Ruiz said, “but we don’t have solar panels.” TYLO wants the city to direct funds into these exact sorts of campaigns. “We want to make sure that our people and our culture are not appropriated.”

As Ana quipped while waiting for her pot of menudo in Los Jarritos, La Doce residents don’t want development to mean a loss of flavor. As Ruiz put it: “Our community is busy surviving. We’re trying to be that bridge and help them see what’s possible”—to help them not only survive, but to thrive. ✜

John Washington is a writer and translator. Visit jblackburnwashington.com or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.

Correction: This article originally stated Nelda Ruíz has been a community organizer on Tucson’s south side for 16 years. She has been a community organizer for 10 years.

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