Critical Issues Class # 1: A Contrast Toursito

van copy

On Friday, February 6, our Spring 2015 BSP students had their first Critical Issues class. The goal of this first class was to introduce students with the tierra known today as Tucson and its history and relationships to border activism. Our guiding questions included, “What technologies have supported Tucson’s growth?”, “How are racist laws legally justified?” and “Who has ‘owned’ Tucson?” Long-time activist, native Tucsonan, and founder of La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, Isabel Garcia, talked to us about the history of state and federal legislation criminalizing racialized “others” in the United States and how that relates to our modern border condition. After Isabel’s impressive recounting of a widely untaught history, the 11 students and myself packed into our 12-passenger van for a tour of Tucson to contrast living in different sections of the Old Pueblo.

As we approached the intersection of Swan and Speedway, I told the van filled with Spring 2015 BSP students that to me, this is the geographic center of Tucson. In my estimation, Speedway and Swan is equidistant from Marana to Vail, Casino Del Sol to the base of Mt. Lemmon, the make-out spot that is the northern tip of Campbell Ave. to its southern counterpart Kino Parkway by the airport (Kino turns into Campbell or Campbell turns into Kino), from Oro Valley’s cookie-cutter gated housing to the San Xavier Reservation where the pale white Mission has stood since it’s completion in 1797 (but remember, Father Kino arrived to “missionize” these lands in 1692). And although our van was only out on Tucson’s Friday rush-hour aggravated by Gem Show traffic for 2 hours and we didn’t get to see Tucson’s extremities, my hope is that BSP Spring 2015 better understand how vast and heterogeneous Tucson is. I don’t mean vast only in terms of its geography, but vast in terms of who has claimed ownership of the land.

Today’s Tucson is not the Tucson from my childhood. Today, Tucson includes the rapidly expanding suburbs, not just the city limits. But my family has been in these lands we today call “Tucson” long enough for me to know that my Tucson was not my Tata’s Tucson or his Tata’s Tucson (Tata is a náhuatl word common in the Sonoran borderlands meaning “abuelo” or “grandfather”). Buildings rise and buildings fall, neighborhoods change demographics, and capitalism is always at work with its creative destruction of the past in favor of future profits. Even though my Tata is no longer with us in his physical manifestation on earth, the land his father was born on still exists and atop it sits the Ronstadt Bus Station. Stone Ave. is no longer made of dirt nor is it Tucson’s main drag as it once was. Prince and Flowing Wells is not “the country” where mis abuelos brought their first and only home, but rather it’s merely another neighborhood that helped fashion an urban sprawl so common among cities in the West.

I drove the BSP van with my Spring 2015 students north up Stone Ave. passing the street (Geronimo) that my parents brought me home from the hospital to, my high school (go Panthers!), my second job (Samurai), the Tucson Mall, and the apartments me, my mom, and my sister lived at from the ages of 11-18. The BSP van with a La Llorona bumper sticker above its tail pipe cruised up Oracle Rd. and several students noticed the newly renovated Whole Foods before we turned east onto Ina Rd. to pass one of the numerous resorts tucked away into the Sonoran Desert’s beautiful landscape, sprinkled with suburban housing’s gated communities and mini-McMansions. We passed “the rich mall,” La Encantada, where Tucson’s only Apple Store, Tiffany’s Jewelers, and Anthropologie attract a certain strata of Tucson’s population. The van turned north onto Campbell and we drove past the mowed-down desert only to be stopped by a sign that warned “guard on duty,” meaning we did not have the permission to access what lies beyond the gate, so we stopped.

BSP sp 2015

From our vantage point we could see “A” Mountain, the spot where just the week before BSP Spring 2015 received a welcome on their first sunset in the Borderlands. We saw the flat section of town where Tucson International Airport welcomes students, military, those who call this area their home, and visitors alike. From the top of Campbell Ave. we looked east to the Foothills, west to the Tucson Mountains, north to the Santa Catalina Mountains, and south where most of our student’s homestays are. And then I yelled in Henry Rollins fashion, “get in the van!” and we continued our tour.

The BSP van continued east on Ina Rd., passing Catalina Foothills High School, the high school for the wealthiest school district in Tucson, until we hit Swan Rd. and turned south. We crossed back over the Rillito River, a dried, dusty wash, that serves as a natural barrier between Tucson’s City Limits and the ‘burbs. The Rillito also signifies the economic inequality that has historically existed in Tucson; once you cross north of the Rillito home prices jump. We drove through (lower) middle class neighborhoods until passing 29th St., when I asked the van, “What industry has impacted Tucson’s economic growth?” My students’ answers varied ranging from mining to airplanes to prisons–all correct answers–but I was looking for a specific answer. “The military” someone finally shouted out just as we were approaching Davis Monthan Air Force Base located at Golf Links and Swan. Once hitting Golf Links you have three options: turn right, turn left, or head straight into the Base. Much like our experience atop Campbell Ave, we would not have been granted access through the gate, so we turned right and began our return stretch west to the BSP classroom. I pointed out the Border Patrol Head quarters located inside the base. My students were astonished at the plentiful migra-green trucks. I thought the parking lot looked a little bit empty.

We continued down Aviation Highway heading towards downtown until we hit Broadway’s new rush hour traffic jam. A downtown whose gentrified facelift distorts my memories of spending my adolescence at punk rock shows and coffee shops near 5th Ave. and Broadway. We drove through Amory Park, Barrio Santa Rosa (where my Tata grew up), and by the Ronstadt Bus Station. I shared that one of my earliest memories took place where that bus station stands:

Circa 1988, the City of Tucson was excavating the land before building the bus station. My Tata and Nana took me with them to see what the archeologists unearthed because they were digging up the tierra where the house that my bisabuelo (great-grandfather) was born stood. Plates, dolls, cups, and silverware from my Tata’s childhood, dusted in dirt were uncovered–memories of a different Tucson. It was at that moment that I realized my roots run deep in Tucson.

We arrived back to the BSP classroom just before 5 pm. I loved sharing my hometown and history with my students. And I hope that they can figure out what Tucson means for each of them individually. I also hope that their time in Tucson complicates their understandings of a reality that few outside of the borderlands ever get to experience.

—Alisha Vasquez


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