In Tucson, Ariz., Cultures Combine At 300-Year-Old Catholic Mission

Jan 11, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 6:26 pm

When Donald Trump won the presidential election, he made a pledge to every citizen: that he would be president for all Americans. In the weeks before Trump's inauguration, we're going to hear about some of the communities that make up this nation, from the people who know them best, in our series Finding America.

Gabriel Otero's family has lived in Tucson, Ariz., for five generations. The region about 70 miles from Mexico has a complicated history. Lots of people have called it home.

Otero is both Chicano and a member of an indigenous tribe, the Pascua Yaqui. At the Catholic Mission San Xavier del Bac, you can see this blending of Tucson's heritage. Indigenous people, Latinos and people of European ancestry all worship there.

It was founded more than 300 years ago, when the area belonged to Spain. Later, it became part of Mexico and finally the United States.

For Otero, it is a sacred place.

"If someone's ill, we visit 'em," Otero says. "If someone's hungry, we feed 'em. That's just our culture. It's native, Hispanic, Mexican, Chicano. Our culture is very colorful, and you know, if you come here, you'll feel that. And you're gonna love it."

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In our series Finding America, we're hearing voices from communities across the country. Today we go to Tucson, Ariz., 70 miles from Mexico. That's a region with a complicated history. Lots of people have called it home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLURPING)

GABRIEL OTERO: Should have brought my to-go cup. Not thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE AND BEEPING)

CORNISH: That's Gabriel Otero. His family has lived in Tucson for five generations. He's both Chicano and a member of the indigenous tribe, the Pascua Yaqui. Otero is taking us to the Catholic Mission San Xavier del Bac. It was founded more than 300 years ago, when this area belonged to Spain. Later it became part of Mexico and finally the U.S. Today it's a place where you can see the blending of Tucson's heritage. Indigenous people, Latinos and people of European ancestry all worship there. And for Gabriel Otero, it's a sacred place.

OTERO: When life gets really hectic, and I haven't made enough time to sit down and pray, I go there to at least spend 30 minutes and be in prayer. And that's all I'm thinking about - is to pray.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

OTERO: It's adobe painted white, and it has beautiful balconies. And that wood - who knows how old that wood is. You know, I've seen lots of missions, and this one probably has, like, the most traffic and most people come. And it's still alive. A lot of missions - they don't even have services in there, you know. So this one's still going very strong since it's been built, so that's amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

OTERO: I have a little corner inside the church where I like to sit. All around, you got the stations of the cross molded in - little cactus garden. But - yeah, you can just, like, feel the heat of the room. To me, that just kind of reminds us of, like, all the people's prayers 'cause each candle lit is offering a prayer. And my grandma's was in the hospital, so I've got to pray for her.

This is the first church - Catholic church - here in Tucson, but it is still, like, a very indigenous church, you know. They have, like, fireworks and stuff, and the - some of the Yaquis will play the music and stuff. It works. Like, there's people that accept, and, like, yeah, we're here. We're here together. That's the beauty of Tucson and the Southwest - is just - it's a mix. It always has - always has been.

You know, and the Yaquis have been here. Spaniards have been here. Tohono O'odham have been here. And then you've got your - your cowboys have been here (laughter).

Oh, congratulations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: My little girl.

OTERO: You just did it right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).

OTERO: Sure, sure.

The people are leaving mass right now. And when we're coming in, they just got done with the baptismal, which is a very big part of, you know, our faiths, being Catholics. And I see the little kids here - oh, he's wearing a Yaqui cross right there. Oh, how cute. And they - the children come dressed in white, representing purity. More on the native side - they celebrate it differently, too. They have a whole tradition. They'll get the dancers and all that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hi, there, bro.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Good to see you. Good to see you. All right. Have a good one. Are you going to be out there (unintelligible), too? Or are you...

OTERO: We are a community of praying. We're a community of support. I got - I'll get, like, third cousins coming to visit me if I sprained my ankle (laughter), you know, because that's just part of our faith. Someone's ill, we visit them. Someone's hungry, we feed them. That's just our culture. It's native, Hispanic, Mexican, Chicano. Our culture is very colorful, you know, and if you come here, you'll feel that. And you're going to love it.

CORNISH: That's Gabriel Otero in Tucson, Ariz. His story was produced by Sophia Paliza-Carre. It comes to us from Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. You can find more stories at NPR and at Finding America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.