Tumacacori: Experience the History of Different Cultures in the Desert

In the desert of Southern Arizona stand the ruins of Tumacacori, a Spanish mission dating from the 1820s. It seems out of place in this land, but with some of its structures built in the local adobe style, it somehow blends in. Almost.

As I sit on the bench overlooking the church, I can’t keep but wonder: what kind of people were these Spanish missionaries? What drove them to live so far from everything they knew, attempting to convert natives to their religion. Their faith had to be so strong, their beliefs so clear.

Or were they just too arrogant to even consider the validity of anything other than their own views, or too narrow-minded to be open to new ideas? How did they not see that the native religion and way of life worked better in this land?

As determined as they were, they could not last long in the harsh desert. The environment, as much as they tried to change it, didn’t become Spain. Though native people might have adopted the new religion and way of life, they mixed it with their own.

The National Park in Tumacacori preserves the ruins of the mission, but also the stories of the native people of this land. We visited it first about twenty years ago, when we moved to Arizona and explored every inch of our new state. I was in awe of these stories then, as I am now, after revisiting it a few days ago.

A Daytrip from Phoenix

On a beautiful winter day, when we felt the need to leave the house and Phoenix, we packed up the car with snacks, lunch and water, and drove down to Tumacacori National Historical Park. A unique National Park unit of Arizona, and close enough for a day trip from Phoenix, the outing offered the perfect getaway.

I was surprised to see new homes, new developments south of Tucson since we last visited. We couldn’t help but wonder where they were getting the water for all these homes in the desert. I remembered Tumacacori far from any developed areas, in the middle of nowhere.

We drove about two-and-a-half-hours, about the same distance from us as Organ Pipe National Monument, in a slightly different, but still southern direction.

Once there, I was also surprised to see a few cars in the parking lot. We thought we were clever, visiting a site off the beaten track, away from most people. It wasn’t crowded by any stretch of the imagination, but I expected it to be deserted, like I remembered it. Once on the grounds, we only encountered a few people on the trail though, keeping the experience a socially distanced one.

On a narrow trail by the river we met a couple; even though we were all masked up, we stood aside, to let them pass. They greeted us, with a thank you for keeping the distance, adding “Hope a year from now we can shake hands when we meet.” That small remark spoke volumes on how most people felt during this pandemic. Everyone was so tired of social distancing, of being worried about getting close to others, even outdoors. But those times did pass, and we are seeing better days. Unlike the grounds of the Spanish mission sitting abandoned in the desert.

Tumacacori mission
The church at the Tumacacori mission

Tumacacori, Witness of History

Though it seems like the National Park is there to protect the mission, it has a much longer and more complex story to tell.

Ancient Villages of the O’odham People

Long before the Spanish missionaries came to the area, Tumacacori was an O’odham village. It comprised dome-like buildings made of bent saplings covered with mud. The O’odham people farmed the land around the Santa Cruz river, cultivating corn, beans, squash, and cotton. They gathered cactus fruit and hunted for their meat.

Their rituals included songs, masked dancers, and tobacco smoking; It was designed to recreate the harmony of nature, the base of their spiritual life.

Basketmaking was one of their main trades. The baskets they made stored or served food, held water, and roasted corn. They even served as drums in ceremonies, when turned upside down. Made from the white willow along the river banks, and the black pods of the devils claw plant, they features black and white patterns.

The descendants of the O’odham are still known for their baskets. They make them from the same materials and use the same patterns to decorate them. Known as the Tohono O’odham, they still live in the area, as a federally recognized tribe, the second largest in Arizona.

Spanish Missionaries Come to the Area

The first Spanish Jesuit missionaries arrived to the area in 1687. They called the O’odham people by the river Pima, and established a large area along the river as Pimeria Alta, meaning the place of the Upper Pimas.

Spanish colonization didn’t take in consideration the environment and the people who already lived in the area. They had one goal: to make New Spain the mirror image of Old Spain. So they attempted to change everything, starting with the religion, but going much farther, to the way of life.

The mission community was supposed to replace the traditional villages and act like a training place for indigenous people to learn to live “civilized.” Suddenly they had adobe buildings for residences and workshops, they tended cattle and livestock instead of hunting, and grew fruit trees brought from across the ocean. Talk about the antithesis of sustainability.

Tumacacori went from an O’odham village to a frontier mission and later to a headquarters mission, with most of the natives baptized.

Other Indigenous People of the Area

The Yoeme, now referred to as Yaqui, originated in the area that is now southern Sonora, by the Yaqui river. Since they traveled a lot, they came in contact with the O’odham. and later with the Spanish missionaries.

Since they liked the new religion, they became its enthusiastic followers, although they blended it with their old beliefs and traditions. But it worked for them, and they became allies of the missionaries. Helping them spread the word, and even fight for it when necessary, their warriors were known as the Soldiers of God and the Virgin Mary.

The Inde, or Apache originated in Canada and migrated south during this time. Their lifestyle involved seasonal movement to follow resources. In the spring and summer they set up camps in the mountains, where they hunted, gathered walnuts, juniper berries and cactus fruit, and grew small gardens of corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.

When winter came, they moved to lower elevations. Men still hunted, while women made baskets and pottery. The Apache believed that the world provided them resources to collect, which meant it was acceptable to raid the villages of agricultural tribes when they didn’t find sufficient food otherwise.

The Spanish missions, with their stationary lifestyle was a perfect place for their raids. So the Apache attacked them often, destroying one in the vicinity of Tumacacori.

A Mix of Cultures at Tumacacori

Eventually, people from all the different backgrounds lived in the area. Sometimes in conflict, often as friends, they had to live together to survive in the desert environment.

The original purpose of the missions was to eventually turn them into independent, tax-paying communities. For this to happen, mission priests taught native people to live like Spaniards, while the soldiers nearby, who came with them, protected them all.

But when you plan without taking the native people and land in consideration, things don’t turn out quite as intended. Living in close quarters caused epidemics that killed many Natives, so the priests constantly needed to go bring in new converts. Yaqui, Spanish and other settlers moved in the vicinity from the south. Apaches raided from the east. And many of the O’odham converts rebelled against mission life.

So Tumacacori did not become a community like the missionaries intended. Instead, the different Native and Spanish cultures blended. By the time the church was built and the community was home to about 200 people, they formed a mix of cultures and languages. If you visited them during this time, you would’ve heard many dialects of O’odham, Yaqui and Apache, Spanish, and a few other European languages. (Priests also came from Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Bavaria.)

Today, you can see this same mix of cultures if you visit the park during the Fiesta de Tumacacori. This annual event, held in December and lasting two days, brings together people from all the cultures of the Santa Cruz Valley. These cultures include the Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, Apache, Mexican and Mexican-American. They all present music and dance traditions, and sell handcrafted items and traditional food.

Visiting the Grounds

The church is the focal point of Tumacacori, though a walk in the area, including the trail to the river, adds to the visit. Paved trails lead to the church and the surrounding grounds.

Looking at the church after reading the brochure I noticed the mix of architectural styles. The arch design over the front door and the scallop shell motif on the bell tower are Roman style. The columns have Egyptian elements, while the pointed tops of the statue niches show Moorish influences.

Though built in the 1800s, the church looks much older. This is not only due to it sitting abandoned since 1848, but also to the fact that it was never finished. The bell tower seems to be in ruins, but it stands as it did when they abandoned it, unfinished, rather than fallen. Inside, the adobe bricks are showing on the walls where the plaster had fallen. But we also noticed remnants of bright colors on the walls.

We walked out through a side door leading to the cemetery with the chapel in the center. From there, we walked out through the store room.

The Santa Cruz River

The highlight of our trip, however, was our walk to the river. The short trail leads through a forest of mesquite trees. This woodland plant community supports a diverse wildlife of birds and mammals, and protects a few rare bird species.

Sitting by the water, in the shadow of willow and cottonwood trees, we heard one of the park rangers talk to a group of visitors. That’s how I heard the The Santa Cruz River’s story.

An international waterway, the Santa Cruz River – which looked more like a stream to us – begins in the San Rafael Valley, flows south crossing the border into Mexico, then turns around and comes back into the US. While flowing all this distance, it creates a wildlife corridor in the desert, home for many threatened and endangered species.

However, the cottonwood-willow environment along the Santa Cruz River is one of rarest and most endangered habitats in the country. The ranger was warning the group about the water: as clear as it looks, it is a breathing ground for e-coli. Culprit: the cattle upstream. Something to think about…

Tumacacori Is A Dark Sky Park

Though we didn’t stay overnight, if we did, we could have experienced one of the darkest skies in Arizona. Far from light pollution of nearby towns, Tumacacori is an International Dark Sky Park. Sometimes it opens early and closes late, for sunrise and sunset views, and it may offer interpretive programs featuring the night sky. It also offers family sleepovers – on normal years (taking a break until we have Covid under control).

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