Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gadsden Purchase

Arivaca Cemetery
Out there is a forest of cacti. There are lots of smaller cacti, just large enough to rip you to shreds, but the towering saguaro dominate the landscape, looking like so many Beefeater Guards or hitchhikers out in the middle of the desert. I wasn’t prepared for the extent of the cacti forest nor the amount of growth in general. Interspersed with the cacti are rangy, miserly mesquites with small silver-shaded leaves scrunching niggardly at the sun. It’s not a forgiving landscape, but it teams with life; and that’s not including the people sneaking through from Mexico. If I wasn’t honest, I would tell you about the blistering heat and the rattlesnakes slithering through the sand, but the temperature was in the high-40s when I visited, and the snakes were too stiff to leave their holes. The cacti were out, though, so it was advisable to stay on the path.

This was my first visit to the Southwest, much less the Gadsden Purchase. They play at being Mexican down here and they give their streets and developments Spanish names, like Rancho del Cerro or Paseo de Chino, and they like to deck out in turquoise and silver; but it’s the same people who pretend they’re Hawaiian or Montanan or whereveran. To be fair, I was south of Tucson strung out in a blossoming oasis of old people, tens of thousand of people fifty-five or older. Their favorite sport is bocci where they roll the balls along artificial turf instead of tossing them down the alley. You can play it until you’re almost dead. I’ve never seen such a congregation of white hair in my life. If your spouse dies and you’re fifty-two, you’ve got to pack up and leave. I told you it wasn’t forgiving down here. They have small craft shops in the community centers, and if you’re not a resident, they won’t sell to you. Really. I guess there’s not enough craft to go around. If you want tourist ware, try the Indian lady across the street; she can use the money.

Relationships are complex in the West, no less in Arizona than Oregon. We all have Indians and we all have retirees and we all have Mexicans and we all have aging hippies and we all have ranchers and we all have tourists and we all have miners and we all have meth heads and we all have survivalists. And Mormons; we have Mormons. Blacks and Asians on the Coast. Not all equally distributed, to be sure. Nonetheless, wherever you are, exactly who you are is hard to say. We all want to have a voice.

Elton Waack
A big argument is authenticity: who has a right to what? How long do you have to be here to take part in the discussion? Whose water rights are we talking about? I asked my brother-in-law, where do they get the water for all these subdivisions? As water went, it was warm and slightly sulfurous.

“Oh,” he replied, “they have their own artesian wells; they get it from the aquifer.”

“How long are those wells going to last?” I asked.

“Not as long as they hope.”

And then he talked about how the saguaro are all going to be gone in eighty-years, thanks to global warming. It takes eighty-years for the first arm to begin to appear on a saguaro. Those arms in the air? They’re not hitchhiking; they’re waving goodbye.

Mexicans or Indians, I can’t tell which. They both say they were here before the rest of us. Except the Apache. The Apache came down here in modern times. They let loose after the horse came up from the latifundistas and the gun came down from the couriers de bois. But the question of whose land it is will always resonate. The Mexicans think the whole West Coast is theirs. For them, the border is an inconvenience making it difficult to travel between ancestral lands. Their identity is not tied to a specific spot of land. The Indians, on the other hand, are tied to their reservations whether they live on them or not. Their identity is place-specific. Excepting that now all Indians are Métis, like it or not, and their identity as an Indian is always tenuous and self-defining. Perhaps it’s a matter of language; the Mexicans maintain a national language which unites them all, regardless of their differences at home. At home, regional differences are paramount in self-identity. In America, you’re all Mexican and regional difference are lost on us. Their pan-national language, though, separates them from the mainstream population, which has only a limited window into it. It assumes a form of identity protection in the face of cultural onslaught. The Indian, unfortunately, has nowhere to hide. Even if he or she could remember their native tongue, it would not have been a national tongue; there was none.

Aside from those groups, there are numerous others of many races who have been here for a long time and surely consider themselves as native to the place as anyone else. Their identity comes from where they were born, not where their ancestors were born. And that’s an international human question: what is the relationship between self and place? How many generations do chickens have to lay eggs in the oven before they become buns? Whatever the answer, there’s a lot of crusty folks who are willing to lay their life down to call themselves Westerners.

McGee Ranch Cemetery
The Canadian Métis deal with identity in a reasonable way; the only way any of us can determine identity, really. The Métis are one of three recognized native populations in Canada: the Inuit, the Indians, and the Métis. By definition, the Métis are a mixed breed grouping. In the beginning it was largely East Coast Indians marrying (or whatever) largely French voyageurs; the offspring were Métis. Because they weren’t totally accepted by either the indigenous peoples or the invaders and yet were so numerous, they ended up forming a people unto themselves. They have formal associations and branches all over the country. They like to point out that being a half-breed Canadian is no different from being a half-breed American. It’s their considered opinion that both halves breed. The tricky question is how big does ones Indian half have to be before one qualifies as an Indian? You’d think in this day and age that DNA analysis could pinpoint markers for any tribe in the US, but…

The number is: whatever you want it to be. The import thing, the Métis say, is whether or not you think yourself a Métis. Well, you say, you wouldn’t be asking the question if you didn’t already think you were a Métis; so, is that enough?

No, say the Métis. Other Métis have to say you’re a Métis, too. If all the guys down at the bar say, “Sure, you’re a Métis with the best of us,” you can pick up your feathers at the union hall. Otherwise you might just be a half-breed. Or an octaroon.

The story of the West is the story of waves of immigrants. And I don’t mean since the wagon trains; I mean since forever. The tribes didn’t pick up and start to move only when the Europeans arrived. From language distribution to genotypes to haplo groups to oral and written histories, we know that the Americas, like the rest of the world, have always been in flux. To a certain extent the questions become ones of from where do the invaders come and how long were they there? Conquering and being conquered is the history of the world. From how far away does an invader have to come before they’re considered foreign and not just neighborhood infighters?

Back to me, again. I’m an aging hippie. I permanently moved to the West Coast in 1969 after visiting a couple times in the earlier 60s. Two of my children and all of my five grandchildren have been born in the Pacific Northwest. Where I grew up now exists as a storybook memory. It’s no longer a real place. Oregon is the only place I know. I think I belong here. I think it’s my place. There are a lot of people like me. We all want our voice. We all think we’re native. Who’s to say?

Tumacacori Mission Cemetery
Which made me wonder about the dynamics of Arizona. We were on a back road, returning from the tiny village of Arivaca, when we were stopped by the Border Patrol. No, they didn’t drive up behind us and flip on their lights; they had a regular check-point set up on the road and they were stopping everyone coming through. There were four or five guys, a couple trucks, a shade tent, a huge fan—they say it gets hot—and a barbeque grill set up in the middle of the desert.

“Hi, where you folks coming from?”

Good looking young guys in crisp uniforms. Nobody wore a hat and nobody wore sunglasses. There was no failure to communicate.



Where else? The road doesn’t go anyplace after Arivaca, and Arivaca is hardly a place in itself. There’s nothing out that road but Arivaca.

“Actually, officer, we’re smuggling Mexicans.”

One has to assume it’s working, because illegal immigration has dropped eighty percent in the past half-dozen years. Most experts think a different dynamic is at work and that the Border Patrol is no more effective than ever, but that the number of people trying to cross has dropped. Which, frankly, is more realistic.

Nonetheless, when you count all these random checkpoints, the big permanent checkpoints, the squads of police patrol trucks cruising the highways, and the helicopters lumbering across the Sonoran desert, one has to think one is looking at a growth industry gone mad. Do we really need to arm the border at what cost? Must we try and control the ebb and flow of humanity with guns? Why is violence always our solution?

What worries me more: illegal Mexicans or Goldman-Sachs? How come there are no guns holding off Bank of America? From whom do we need protection?

Arivaca Cemetery
Arivaca is a good place to see one approach. The cemetery has that raucous  Mexican vitality but is equally comfortable welcoming the hippie and the cowboy. Anybody with a hammer and a saw can put up a mausoleum as fancy as the next person’s. I can imagine there’s been any number of parties here. I’d come help decorate the place, if there was a keg of beer. Maybe some tacos. They wouldn’t care if you were an Indian, either. Really, I think you could be a pasty white guy from New Jersey and still be buried here.

McGee Ranch Cemetery
Which is more than one can say for the Tohono O’Odham. Not only do they not want you walking in their cemetery, they don’t want you taking pictures of their cemetery. Even from the road. When I crouched down to take a picture of the “keep out” sign, two pickup trucks did U-turns and admonished me for ignoring the “no photographs” signs. That I hadn’t stepped onto the property didn’t faze them; the signs say “no photographs,” period. It didn’t seem I should argue niceties of the law with them, so I slunk back to the car and took a couple shots from the window as we were leaving. Take that! Now I have a camera full of Indian spirits that I don’t know what to do with.

Tohono O'Odham Cemetery
I made a quick visit to a large cemetery complex of some three or four cemeteries in Tucson, but didn’t begin to have time to do it justice—it demands several days; though my sister and brother-in-law did lead me to a darling ranch cemetery they knew of from having hiked past it with their hiking club, that I had ample time to enjoy: the McGee Ranch Cemetery. The ranch and the larger community of McGee Ranch are where the Sierrita Mountains begin thrusting their bare elbows out of the desert. It gets no lusher as one rises in these mountains. The ranch—the size of which I’ve been unable to pinpoint—has an unusual policy: any blood descendant (of age) of the original McGees is welcome to come to the ranch, carve out their couple acres, and build a home. They don’t care if you’ve been living in Mongolia for two generations, a desert plot awaits you in Arizona. Let me warn you, though. If you bring your wife (or other way around, if it applies) with you and you should happen to die, she’s out of there unless you had kids of age. They’re strict about that sort of stuff down here. At least that’s why I was told. Honest.

The cemetery’s up a draw leading into the mountains and is blocked by a gate. They’re happy to let you visit the cemetery (or they were happy to let us visit the cemetery), but they’d like the courtesy of being asked. Fair enough. Do stop and do ask and do walk the few hundred yards up the dusty road to the cemetery. The road got traffic on it while we were there, but nonetheless was pocked with numerous animal prints: deer, dog, and large cat. Larger than house cat. It’s a busy desert.

Each grave is delineated by a ring on stones, and they march in regular order underneath a canopy of trees. There more than a bit of whimsy and humor here and it’s devoid of excess sobriety. Just the place to visit on a sunny afternoon; provided it’s not too hot. They tell me…

Evergreen Cemetery - Tucson
If you ask me—which you didn’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway—it’s an uneasy truce, this border. I don’t know how long it can last; not forever, that’s for sure. Someone’s going to have to tell these people they’d better pray for cheap desalinization or else they’re going to have to pack up and move home. They should take hints from those ancient dwellings they find down here: civilizations come and go. Mostly go. They dry up and blow away. And if you’re thinking of getting water from the Pacific Northwest? Forget about it; we have fools enough of our own. And don’t think about moving here, either. I just said we have fools enough of our own.

My advice: if you’re going to die in Arizona, head for Arivaca. You’ll find good company there.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

1 comment:

Sheri Fenley said...

Merry Christmas Johan!