Near the summit of Sentinel Peak, there are fist-size mortars in the bedrock—thousands of years ago, there would have also been wooden pestles, used to pound into flour the mesquite pods gathered from these hills. Hidden in the thin shade of palo verde trees are shards of pottery sculpted by Hohokam hands. Where the slope of the peak tumbles toward Tucson, buried under layers of packed earth, ancient irrigation canals—the oldest in North America—reveal themselves as buried channels.
“Tucson’s identity for more than 4,000 years was an irrigated agricultural oasis,” says Jonathan Mabry, the historic preservation officer for the City of Tucson, as he strides along the uneven path to the summit. “And it’s only been in the last century or so that this hasn’t been our identity.”
We pause at the top and survey the landscape below. It’s hard to see this identity, squinting into the glare of Tucson’s sprawling development—beyond the flicker of downtown’s high rises, streets stretch toward the horizon of the Catalina and Rincon Mountains. The dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz is barely visible; today, the line that defines the landscape, the I-10 freeway, flows with cars, contoured by cement and commuters rather than wind and water. The city gleams in the sunlight, made of metal and glass, cement and air-conditioning units. The city’s infrastructure seems inevitable. It seems enduring.
And yet, this scene wasn’t always so. Tucson began as a farming community that subsisted on a flowing river and irrigation canals. Three thousand years after the first farmers of the Sonoran Desert settled in the Santa Cruz River valley, when missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in 1692 on horseback from Mexico to a Sobaipuri O’odham village called Schookshon—meaning “below the black hill”—he counted 750 people living in 186 houses. At San Xavier, 10 miles south, another 830 people subsisted on irrigated land.
In 1880, the photographer Carleton Watkins, standing exactly where we are now, captured a sepia image of Tucson at a pivotal moment in its history. The railroad arrived only months before Watkins took the photo, connecting Tucson to the rest of the country and its industrializing economy. But in the image, Tucson is still a small desert town, one defined by agriculture. Parceled plots fill most of the frame. The ruins of the abandoned Mission San Agustín still stand, its walled gardens still being cultivated. Single-story adobe homes crowd downtown, spreading north and south along the river’s lush line.
Until the 1890s, the Santa Cruz was an active river, with annual floods that escaped its banks, leaving layers of sediment that built up “sort of like a layer cake,” says Mabry. In 2000, when archeologists dug below the surface of a city that had long since become disconnected from this primary source of water, “We found evidence of habitation preserved in every layer, going back 4,000 years,” says Mabry. “And we found evidence of agriculture going back 4,000 years.”
Tucson is a 4,000-year-old farming village overlaid by a 300-year-old cityscape. It is a small town rooted in its heritage; it is a city of a million that suffers from amnesia. The land west of downtown is some of the oldest continuously farmed land in North America; it is also the site of a massive mid-20th century landfill.
A community’s sense of its identity is not a thing that settles, stagnant; identity is constantly created, and defining our regional gastronomic identity is a shifting, complicated objective. To some extent, what defines our foodshed has already been decided—our rivers are dry, our soils arid, and our climate changing. Our state government is mostly ambivalent and occasionally antagonistic; our national government subsidizes a food system built on cheap calories.
But these are circumstances out of our control. We eat here, in this place, and it is here that we have the opportunity to redefine what we want Baja Arizona’s food future to look like.
Mabry and I peer across the landscape. “What Tucson is now is such a recent thing,” he says. He doesn’t elaborate, but I gather up implications. If that which sprawls before us is a recent arrival, perhaps we can unwind it to discover in our history a more enduring future.
On a Thursday morning in October, at the base of Sentinel Peak—commonly known as “A” Mountain—the Newcomers Club of Tucson gathers for a tour of the oldest continuously farmed land north of Mexico. We cluster in front of the adobe wall bounding the east side of the four-acre enclosed area known as the Mission Garden—I cluster with a dozen mid-60s, gray-haired women who have recently relocated or “entered into a new life stage.”
“Today’s Mission Garden is a re-creation of the gardens once built to feed the people associated with the Mission, both the Europeans and Natives,” says Roger Pfeuffer, who serves on the board of Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, the nonprofit that founded the Mission Garden. The purpose of the garden, says Pfeuffer, is “to respect the birthplace of Tucson.” The purpose is to preserve—seeds, trees, and, above all, land.
Pfeuffer points to a gentle slope edging the path into the walled garden. “That’s a landfill,” he says. The women of the Newcomers Club gasp—a landfill on the site of Tucson’s birthplace? Impossible. “They bulldozed this area in the 1950s. There was a landfill all the way from Cushing Street to 22nd Street. It was,” Pfeuffer says, “not the best part of Tucson’s history.” And so it remains, the legacy of a landfill lingering long after the area came under the management of Pima County, the Rio Nuevo board, and, eventually, the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.
As we walk along the retaining wall bounding the garden, Pfeuffer bends down and plucks a shard of pottery out of the amber mud. “We find these all the time,” he says, passing it around the group. The group filters into the garden, but I linger, considering the slope concealing two decades worth of Tucson’s garbage—the artifacts that will reveal our history 4,000 years hence.
Inside the reconstructed adobe walls, Pfeuffer leads the group along a row of Kino Heritage quince trees, their pale green leaves bright against the gray sky. Beyond, there is a shimmering row of Mexican sweet lime trees, drops of water still clinging to thick foliage. Last night’s rain left the soil soggy and soft, the colors scrubbed raw. Curved garden beds boast thick tangles of melon and squash vines, scribbles of herbs, splays of lettuce. The “A” of “A” Mountain peeks above adobe walls—walls that were reconstructed in 2008 based on the same image Watkins captured on its summit in 1880.
“The purpose of the Mission Garden today is to bring to the community a powerful sense of its past by presenting both the past and also what could be done in the future,” says Pfeuffer, plucking a ripe quince, or membrillo, from a tree heavy with fruit—the first of many trees Spanish missionaries brought as cuttings in the years after Father Kino arrived. As Pfeuffer passes around slivers of the fruit, he says, “Jesus Garcia, who started the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project, would say that, because these trees are grown from cuttings of the old trees, not from seeds, you don’t get a hybrid fruit—you get a clone. So you’re tasting the same taste Father Kino tasted.”
The Newcomers dub the taste that Father Kino brought as alternatively dry, bitter, sour, and sweet.
Although the gardens are intended to mimic the Mission-era garden, because of global warming, “the climate we’re in now is not the climate that was then. So we have to adapt,” says Pfeuffer. “It becomes not only a traditional garden—it becomes an experimental garden.”
In the northwest corner, a series of four timeline garden beds embodies Tucson’s transformation from past to present. Chapalote corn, Kitt Peak tepary beans, ancestral cushaw squash, black seed devil’s claw, and amaranth represent the crops grown a thousand years ago by Hohokam farmers. An O’odham pre-contact garden reveals rows of 60-day corn, Tohono O’odham pink beans, Ha:l squash, lima beans, and brown tepary beans. Post-contact—post-1692—the O’odham garden expands. Suddenly, there is yellow-meated watermelon and Ke:li Ba:so melon, sorghum and cowpeas—suddenly, there are options.
While the Mission Garden once fed the Presidio, the fortress that protected Tucson from Apache raiders, today it serves as its own kind of presidio—protecting Baja Arizona against monocultures and the loss of plant and seed biodiversity.
“We have always talked about the cultural diversity in Tucson as a good thing. One of the things you deal with in agriculture is plant diversity,” says Pfeuffer. “And we’ve got a pretty serious thing happening worldwide with large seed companies creating monocultures. In the spirit of preserving crop, seed, and plant diversity, I think the Mission Garden is a kind of local example of what we can do to make sure we have a diversity of crops and enjoy that diversity.”
Pfeuffer, a former superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, says that the reason he got involved in the Mission Garden was to teach Tucson kids about their heritage. “Kids in town need to know about this,” he says. “We want to preserve history so it can be passed along. So we can keep preserving. So we don’t have to turn our history into a landfill.”
This is not a history story, but the story requires history.
If people have lived here for thousands of years, then what their stories all have in common is the Santa Cruz River. (That is, except for today’s Tucson, surviving on the spine of a dry river.)
Spear points dating back 11,000 years show Clovis hunters traversing the valley looking for mammoths and other large mammals drinking at its banks. Five thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers returned to the river after a hot, dry spell had pushed them north and south, and planted maize introduced from Mexico. By 1200 B.C., farmers had built the earliest of those very irrigation canals that Mabry and his colleagues have uncovered, channeling river water to grow maize, squash, tobacco, beans, and cotton. The calendar turned; by A.D. 500, Hohokam culture was thriving in the Tucson Basin, reaching a population of 7,000 by A.D. 1300.
By the time Father Kino arrived in 1692, O’odham tribes—the Sobaipuri O’odham and Tohono O’odham—were living and farming in the Santa Cruz River valley. Some trace the origins of the O’odham to the ancient Hohokam culture, which declined around 1400; others say that the O’odham migrated from northwestern or western Mexico. Either way, it was the O’odham that Father Kino first encountered, and who remained in contact with the Europeans for centuries thereafter.
South of town and west of I-19, spread behind the San Xavier Mission—its whitewashed walls puncture the vivid blue sky—are fields of ha:l squash, yellow-meated watermelon, and 60-day corn. And, of course, alfalfa, the crop that keeps the San Xavier Coop Farm afloat. Bundles of hay nearly hide the entrance to a farm store that sells cholla buds, mesquite flour, and a kind of roasted corn known as ga’iwsa.
“We grow alfalfa because that’s the cash crop,” says Julie Ramon-Pierson, a longtime board member of the Coop Farm. “We grow alfalfa to support the traditional crops. And that was one of the visions of the farm, that we bring back the traditional crops.”
Today, nearly 20,000 Tohono O’odham live on three reservations in southern Arizona. Sitting in the heart of the 1,400-person San Xavier District, this 1,000-acre farm had been cultivated for centuries and cared for communally—that is, until 1887, when the U.S. government issued the Dawes act, allotting parcels of land to individual tribal members with the hope that they would splinter from the tribe and assimilate into American society. (Of San Xavier’s 71,000 acres, 41,000 are allotted, meaning they’re owned by individuals and families instead of by the Tohono O’odham Nation.)
But in 1971, after a century of parceled harvest, a thousand farmers came together and decided to lease 1,500 acres of their land to a cooperative that would manage farming operations communally. Today, 28 people—26 of whom are members of the Nation—manage the cooperative farm.
“The elders always talk about when the water was running in the Santa Cruz. The kind of farming they did, and the crops that they grew,” says Ramon-Pierson. “We want to provide those crops to the people so they can be a healthier people. And to use this land as a resource that is beneficial.”
But the farm still has to contend with a river that no longer flows—and an increasingly populated valley competing for scare groundwater resources. After the farm sued for rights to that groundwater, the Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 1982 extended the Central Arizona Project canal to bring northern water to a farm that once survived on the floods of a river that flowed from the south.
In 1862, when Union soldiers arrived to survey Tucson’s fields, the property lines they drew aligned with irrigation canals dug centuries before. “This means it was still functioning as a traditional Sonoran irrigated agricultural system,” says Mabry.
The canals were common property; a común de agua, an irrigation community, was managed by an elected zanjero, or overseer, who ensured that the water was shared equitably. “But then Anglos arrived and started buying up property along the river,” says Mabry. “They claimed that water laws of the eastern U.S. should apply here. They bought up the oldest fields with the priority use rights. The rest of the farmers challenged it, but in 1885, a court ruled in favor of the Anglos. It was the beginning of the end of the traditional system.”
The arrival of the railroad in 1880 also signaled the beginning of Tucson’s transformation from an integrated Hispanic, Native American, and Anglo frontier community whose residents intermarried and shared neighborhoods, business ventures, and schools, into an increasingly segregated population.
Besides Anglos, the largest group to arrive to Tucson in the 1800s were Chinese immigrants, who settled on the fields spread along the base of “A” Mountain. Leasing their land from Mexican landowners, these Chinese farmers started growing fruits and vegetables the likes of which Tucsonans had never seen—strawberries and cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce, bok choy and bitter melon.
“Most of the Chinese that came over here were farmers, so they would naturally put their skills in that areas,” says Richard Fe Tom, an architect and the former president of the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center. Many early immigrants came from a place called Taishan, which has a similar climate to Tucson, he says, “so a lot of the vegetables they grew there were adaptable to here.”
The Chinese Cultural Center looms, regally, over its quiet stretch of River Road. “We think of it as a ship in the desert,” says Tom—he’s the architect who designed the building to look like one, with a foyer that juts into the parking lot like the bow of a boat. Thursdays are senior days, so mahjong players fill the cafeteria, the quiet click of tiles the only sound in the echoing room.
“I think that’s the biggest contribution the Chinese made to Tucson’s agriculture,” says Nancy Tom, Tom’s wife and a volunteer teacher at the center. “Before they arrived, the people living in Tucson weren’t really growing that many vegetables.” They had squash, corn, and beans, of course, but not string beans, snow peas, or bok choy. “The foods that people had to choose from in Tucson grew exponentially because of the Chinese farmers that farmed along the Santa Cruz River.”
Eventually, competition for increasingly scarce water drove the Chinese into the city center, where they opened and ran corner grocery stores. Meyer Avenue is maybe a half-mile long, says Tom, “but it had four or five different stores on it. Each store would have the basics, but then specialize.” (Many Tohono O’odham farmers on the reservation sold produce and eggs to the Chinese grocers.)
By the 1960s, there were 80 Chinese grocers in Tucson’s downtown core. “We all grew up in a grocery store,” says Patsy Lee, a board member who runs the senior program at the Chinese Cultural Center—in her case, it was Allen Market in Barrio Hollywood, where she still lives. “Your home was attached to a grocery store. That’s how I know Tucson—through the grocery stores.”
Because the Chinese markets serviced mostly Hispanic customers, many grocers—including Lee’s mother—spoke only Cantonese and Spanish. “In the 1950s, all my friend’s parents worked in the mines. We knew they’d pay as soon as payday came around, so they got credit. The Hispanic people needed us as much as we needed them,” she says.
Posters depicting the numerous grocery stores dot the cultural center’s lobby, part of a study of Tucson’s Chinese grocers organized by Lee—many of those grocery store owners are now in the center’s cafeteria playing mahjong, she says. “So it wasn’t hard to get that information.”
If one mission of the Chinese Cultural Center is to preserve and celebrate Chinese culture, “the other component is to introduce our culture to the rest of the community,” says Nancy. Since the center opened a decade ago, “We’ve had events with all the different ethnicities here,” she says. “We’ve worked with the black community. The Pascua Yaqui want to do something with us. It’s neat—we’ll have an event here and you get to see kids of all different cultures running around, chasing each other.
“We want to show that Tucson is a multicultural town. That, actually, that is our town’s treasure.”
Jim Griffith sits at a table in Jim’s Room in Little Mexico Restaurant—“They’ve got the best chorizo in town,” he says. The wooden plaque bearing his name hangs below a shelf displaying four of his books—the small shrine to the cultural folklorist is “the best compliment I ever got,” he says.
In 1974, Griffith, a retired University of Arizona anthropologist, says that he “realized there was a lot of beauty being created within the small communities that make up Tucson. And that this beauty was not really available, easily, to the community as a whole. Forty years ago, we were a lot more fragmented than we are now. People just didn’t know about each other.”
So he started a festival—a two-day celebration in downtown Tucson where people could meet their neighbors in a comfortable, neutral space. “Jim chose the center of town for a reason,” says Maribel Alvarez, an anthropology professor at the UA and the current director of Tucson Meet Yourself. “It’s always been in the civic space. In downtown Tucson—which had already experienced its downfall, its blight—you’d have Yaquis, O’odham, African-Americans, Asians of all sorts, white ethnics. That was a big political statement.”
Over the past four decades, the festival has transformed from a relatively contained affair, with 30 vendors and performers, to a sprawling, three-day festival that brings 100,000 people to downtown to peruse more than 100 vendors, community groups, and exhibitions. More than half of the food sold at Tucson Meet Yourself is available at no other time of year, as nonprofits and community groups dream up dishes specifically to sell at the festival. (Dishes like the Chinese Cultural Center’s Chinese hot dog—a decadent spin on the Sonoran, smothered in slow-cooked, sweet pulled pork. “That,” says Griffith, “is Tucson.”)
The point of Tucson Meet Yourself is to celebrate our town’s folklife. “I was interviewed by a Chicano TV station years ago and the reporter said, ‘What is folklife?’” says Griffith. “I said, ‘its stories about El Tijano, La Llorena, making tamales at Christmas.’ And she said, ‘Oh that old stuff?’
“Folklife, within its community, is ‘that old stuff,’” says Griffith. “But by drawing attention to it, putting a frame around it, we’re making it easier for the community that has it to keep on doing it.”
Alvarez and Griffith are quick to admit that Tucson Meet Yourself is a performance. “The world isn’t like that. You don’t dance on the street with a stranger while eating a Filipino egg roll,” says Alvarez. “We’re all busy, and we’re all busy in the mainstream.”
The purpose of Tucson Meet Yourself is, then, is to force us to examine what could be. To ask us to see what remains in the corners of our culture, hidden from mass-market influence.
When I ask Griffith why local culture matters to him, he looks at me like I’ve just asked him how to peel a banana. “I’d go crazy if I lived in a totally mass world. A world where everywhere I go, I couldn’t tell I was anywhere different from where I’d been. People feel pretty strongly about who they are and where they are and where they come from.”
And yet, in Pima County, every year, one out of three people lived somewhere else five years before—myself included. Creating a durable local food identity in a mass-market culture is an uphill endeavor. It requires that people put down roots—that new farmers plant seeds; that chefs recreate menus; that entrepreneurs pursue new endeavors in food and that customers support them. It requires investment and innovation, not simply tradition.
“It is possible to live in Tucson and not know where you are, but a lot of people are working to make that difficult,” says Griffith. What sets Tucson apart from other cities in the Southwest—other cities in the United States, even—is perhaps the same stubbornness that allowed people to persevere here for 4,000 years. “There are a lot of things in Tucson that have been started by one or two people, simply because they thought it was what they should do. They didn’t wait around for approval, for grants,” says Griffith. “The answer boils down to the people. We’ve got exciting, excited people, and we’re small enough that one person’s vision can make a difference in the community.”
If one’s person vision can influence a community, it’s also true that a community’s vision can influence our identity.
“Tucson was built as a little farming community,” says Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “When you look at this as a place where cultures came together, Native American, Spanish, European, Asian, and the history, the length of time of which farming was in this valley—what’s important now is the preservation of that history and carrying it forward into how you deliver food to people who need it, how you connect people through food with their societies, and how we make people self-sustaining with food.”
If the Santa Cruz River once ran dry because of the city’s non-existent plan for water management, city leaders today are actively engaged in management plans. In October, Mayor Rothschild and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton announced a water sharing agreement that would divert Phoenix’s share of Colorado River water to Tucson for storage in exchange for credits. “We’re getting the water and we’re giving them our credit. So we’ll have the water in advance. It’s a pretty historic deal,” says Rothschild. “It’s an example of cities working together … to conserve the water supply and make the best use out of it.”
What constitutes the best use of our water is a question that’s yet to be answered. There are still cotton fields in Marana, still thirsty pecan groves in Green Valley, and flood-irrigated fields in Willcox. And as history has shown, what we decide to do with our water will play a large part in determining whether or not we’ll have enough local food to build an identity upon.
But so, too, will our ability to innovate based on what we have. “We’ve done a lot to incentivize and promote water conservation techniques, whether it’s water harvesting, gray water, or low-flow toilets,” says Rothschild. “And we’re working with the county and the university to work on water delivery and reclamation technologies so we can use that water for our agriculture.”
At the San Xavier Coop Farm, the farm manager, Bob Sotomayor, isn’t afraid of change. Although one mission of the farm is to reintroduce traditional crops into the tribe’s diets, another is simply to grow good produce. Sotomayor grows some vegetable hybrids—careful always to avoid cross-pollination with heirloom crops. “We feel free to investigate newer kinds of crops—kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli,” he says. “And we can do that without risking the crops that people hold dear.”
In addition to cultivating newer varieties, “technology has arrived,” Sotomayor says, gesturing at two greenhouses sprouting in front of a field full of row crops. “Up until maybe five years ago, everything was done the traditional way to grow traditional crops. Now, technology enhances the production of traditional crops.”
Back on the summit of Sentinel Peak, on a warm fall day, Mabry holds a printout of Watkin’s yellowed photograph up against the vivid present. Only after he points it out can I make out the thin line of rail cars that bisects the photo’s adobe-spackled landscape. Much easier to discern in the crinkled photo is the glint of an irrigation canal connecting the Mission to the Santa Cruz River. I squint into the growing heat and imagine a sinuous, sparkling river edged by lush greenery, my desire for shade growing palpable.
“We’re working to replant the mesquite bosque that grew along the Santa Cruz River in this area,” says Mabry, gesturing to a hypothetical grove below. He’s working with the City of Tucson, Pima County, and the Rio Nuevo board to use reclaimed water and passive water harvesting to re-establish an authentic mesquite bosque from Starr Pass to Congress Street. If a bond measure passes in 2017, they could restore the riparian habitat, plant an edible urban forest, and connect Mission Garden back to the river.
I can imagine the lushness, the shade, the glittering coolness. “What people have done for 4,000 years is to adapt this place, using the natural surroundings, to turn it into a place they want to live,” Mabry says.
We move and must root anew; we build new homes and plant old seeds. Chinese farmers from Taishan brought seeds sewn into pockets; they planted gardens that brimmed with bok choy, bitter melon, and jujube trees. Missionaries displaced in the New World wrote home asking for cuttings from the Old—confronted with a spiny, desiccated desert, they built oases of pomegranate, quince, and fig. Tohono O’odham farmers revive the seeds of their ancestors and harvest the heirlooms of their elders. Immigrants sell gyros or perogies out of floppy cardboard containers at a food festival; year after year, they settle into this place. They expand and profit and then, suddenly, they are rooted.
Tucson was once an interdependent community, one where neighbors relied on neighbors for credit, recipes, and vegetables; where farmers relied on the river and the community on its farmers.
The town we are today is not the town we have always been, nor will it remain as it is today. We were once a town based on agriculture, one whose cuisine reflected a convergence of cultures. And much of that convergence still remains—in spite of Speedway Boulevard, supermarkets, and strip malls, Tucson is still a town with a rich and identifiable food culture.
But we will have to decide how to maintain that identity—to protect and build it. To support and sustain the people who grow and make our food, and the culture that surrounds its consumption. And one way to do that might be simply to figure out how to combine the view from 1880 with that of 2015—how to overlay a sepia photo over a vibrant present, applying the lessons from the past to the innovations of the future. Perhaps past is really prologue when we imagine Tucson as a desert city where residents realize that their food future depends on recapturing and reinventing an oft-forgotten past. ✜
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.