A walking tour through Tucson’s Barrio Viejo offers a colorful look at the Mexican heritage that has shaped Arizona’s vibrant history.
It’s a two-hour drive to Tucson from the Arizona capital, and my father and I set out early in the morning loading up on fuel and coffee at a downtown gas station. Then it’s miles of desert on the I-10, past Saguaro cacti and sprawling Walmarts.
We pass the jagged cliffs of the Picacho Peak State Park. They’re dotted with yellow wildflowers – and home to the second westernmost battle of the American Civil War. Down the road there’s an ostrich farm with a billboard saying “Feed the Critters,” and the rumble of a yellow Union Pacific train.
We arrive in Tucson in time for more morning coffee with two travel bloggers that I’d met online: Leigh, who settled down in Tucson after taking a 10,000-mile road trip through the West with her rescued terrier Bailey, and Janet, a retired RN who’s spending the second half of her life travelling.
There’s a small outdoor patio filled with sunlit tables, but we head for the counter. Inside, this hip eatery is already buzzing with a weekend crowd. There are daily specials on the blackboard, exposed brick and hardwood floors. On the menu are favorites like huevos rancheros (a classic Southwestern breakfast dish) and cobb salad. Unique drinks include juice from locally foraged prickly pear shrub. There’s a selection of local organic groceries and produce for sale, and a farmers market on Sundays at the adjacent Cesar Chavez Park.
The hip eatery is on the Southeastern tip of Tucson’s Barrio Viejo neighborhood. And so we grab our coffees and head out on a walking tour through this vibrant district.
A colorful past
Tucson is about 60 miles from the Mexican border, with a population of some half a million residents. Founded as a military fort by the Spanish, it was included in the state of Sonora after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. Some three decades later, the U.S. acquired Tucson from Mexico as part of the Gadsden Purchase.
Today the city is about 41 percent Hispanic or Latino. It’s known for Sonoran-style Mexican food and its Mariachi musicians. There’s also a rodeo week, a thriving punk scene and a procession on All Soul’s that draws on the rich traditions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
And in Barrio Viejo, that Mexican heritage can be seen everywhere.
A Barrio Viejo walking tour
Meaning “old neighborhood” in Spanish, Barrio Viejo is known for its brightly-colored adobe houses, Mexican cantinas and hip eateries and pubs.
This old neighborhood is packed with 19th century homes. Historically, it was home to some of the city’s most prominent families and notable civic leaders. And in those days, the barrio boasted a colorful street life that reminded some of old Mexico. Up until the 1880s, it was a Free Zone with few policemen.
In the 1880s and 90s it was home to a diverse community of working class people from Europe, Africa, Asia and Mexico, many who worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad. When the tracks were finished, Tucson went from a dusty little town to a city of opportunity.
But many of the homes in Barrio Viejo fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century. The construction of a convention center in 1971 led to the levelling of some 80 acres and razing of homes that displaced 725 residents. Many called it an act of prejudice. The surviving adobe homes make up one of the largest collection of 19th century adobe buildings in the U.S.
Gentrification continued throughout the 1970s. And many of the original Mexican-American residents were pushed out to make way for white middle-class families. The city created a development plan to smooth over disagreements. Residents stopped further damage by preventing the construction of a freeway through their neighborhood.
In 1971, Kelley Rollings lead an effort that turned into a broader movement to save one of Tucson’s most charming districts and preserve its architecture.
A desert renaissance
These days, Barrio Viejo is a desirable neighbourhood that’s being revitalized. And it’s again raising the issue of gentrification. It’s so desirable, in fact, that Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton bought a four-bedroom 1880’s-era adobe home in the neighborhood for $1.5 million. She reportedly plans on renovating the property and selling it for profit.
The neighborhood, much like Tucson itself, is also at the forefront of the immigration controversies gripping the country in the Trump era.
Tucson has a controversial sanctuary city initiative that will be on the city’s November ballot. Supporters of the initiative say it will put the law behind existing guidelines that regulate when Tucson police can ask about immigration status.
As we wander the quiet streets, we spot colorful murals and bright chili pepper ristras hanging in doorways. A few homes have signs (in Arabic, English and Spanish) in their front yards saying that all immigrants are welcome.
The diversity of this neighborhood makes for a fascinating walking tour. If you’re visiting Tucson, here are three landmarks in Barrio Viejo that you shouldn’t miss.
1. El Tiradito Wishing Shrine
This crumbling shrine is another testament to the neighbourhood’s Hispanic culture.
There’s a rack full of candles with colorful images of Catholic saints and cards with prayers slipped into the cracks of the shrine’s brick walls. Locals say if you leave a candle with a wish and it burns all night, then your wish will come true.
It’s often called the only Catholic shrine in the US dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.
The man buried here, Juan Oliveras, was an 18-year-old ranch hand who’d had a steamy love affair with his mother-in-law. His rancher father-in-law eventually caught the two having sex. A fight ensued and the young Oliveras was murdered with an axe. The mother-in-law buried her lover at the spot where he died. And then she hung herself from her balcony in despair.
The enraged father-in-law fled to Mexico and was caught by Apache Indian raiders. He also suffered a violent death. The Apaches scalped him, shot him repeatedly, tied him naked to a tall saguaro cactus and then left him to die along the Nogales-Tucson wagon trail.
In the last chapter of this bloody saga, Oliveras’ young widow hangs herself in a deep well.
Oliveras was denied burial on church-sanctioned ground, despite pleas from the city’s Catholic officials. The shrine stands at the spot where his father-in-law threw his body. And it’s called El Tiradito, or “The Little Throwaway” in Spanish. It’s a historic landmark commemorated with a plaque that calls it an important part of local Mexican lore.
In the 1970s, the city planned to build a road through the site as part of an urban renewal project. But locals got the shrine listed on the National Register of Historic Places and brought construction to a halt.
2. The Jewish History Museum
Opened in 2008, the Jewish History Museum is housed in the first synagogue of the Arizona Territory. It aims to preserve the Jewish heritage of Southern Arizona with a diverse set of exhibits.
Aside from an array of special events, the museum hosts collections that include textiles from the 1600s to the present day showing their owners’ daily lives and work.
There’s also a collection of photographs by Leo Goldschmidt (1852-1944), a German-born Jew who arrived in Tucson in 1878 and served as a bank director. Goldschmidt was a noted patron of the arts and amateur photographer whose images capture daily life in early Tucson.
The Suspended Lineage exhibit presents photos and information about people who were killed in the Holocaust whose family live (or lived) in Southern Arizona.
3. Teatro Carmen
Opened in 1915, Teatro Carmen was one of the first theaters dedicated to showing Spanish-language dramatic works and concerts.
Today the yellow ochre Sonoran-mission style facade, with its arched windows framed in white, is closed to the public. It stands as another testimonial to the city’s Mexican heritage.
In its heyday it entertained up to 1,400 people. And later it served as a meeting hall, boxing arena, ballroom and cinema.
A plaque says the theatre is a historic site that served as the community’s cultural center. It’s named for its founder Carmen Soto Vasquez.
Its stage hosted hundreds of performances by famous actors and companies from Spain and Mexico. And the state-of-the-art venue drew in the city’s high-society Latino figures for elegant evenings showcasing the splendors of Mexican culture.
However, by the 1920s movies and boxing matches grew in popularity and dominated the repertoire. Carmen Soto Vasquez booked the dancing and boxing matches until she moved to Nogales and sold the theater in 1926.
A final look
Barrio Viejo is an underrated gem in one of Arizona’s most historic cities. And it offers a colorful look at the Mexican heritage and vibrant communities that have shaped Tucson’s urban life.