Friday, March 27, 2015

Searching for Tucson's Lost Heritage

I was very inspired by the lectures on border issues at the Tucson Festival of Books. I went to the panel about ranching on the Arizona-Mexican border as research for a screenplay I am working on. I figured I would hear the usual complaints about “illegals” trashing their property or robbing them. (As I had from ranchers around Tombstone.) But I was delighted to find that in all their years of ranching, these three ranchers never had any problems with Mexicans. The female rancher shared how she always felt safe riding across her property alone. She reminisced about the old times when the cows from the Mexican ranchers would roam freely back and forth across the border. And how she and her cowboys would take coffee breaks with the Mexican cowboys. In the eighties, when the government passed stricter laws about undocumented workers, migrant workers were forced to cross the brutal desert in search for work in America. When they crossed their land, these ranchers gave them a meal or temporary work fixing fences and such. The ranchers had nothing but positive experiences.

Tucson's Presidio

Living in Tucson for 25 years, it’s hard for me to understand the current attitudes about undocumented Mexican workers. The Old Pueblo used to be part of Mexico. Mexicans were the first settlers. When the portion of Sonora that contained Tucson was sold to the US, the Mexicans settlers were given a choice between returning to Mexico and receiving a piece of land or becoming full American citizens. Many of these new citizens still had family across the border, so it was common to travel back and forth to visit them.

In the border town of Nogales, there were no walls between the Mexican and American side. It was treated as one city. Their annual Christmas Parade procession crossed the border. Later, hard-working Mexicans were hired as seasonal farm workers, so they were encouraged to migrate across the border. This migration has always been a part of Tucson’s culture. It’s as Tucson as apple chimichangas.

On another panel at the book fest, Peg Bowden, author of “Land of Hard Edges,” reminisced about growing up in the ethnically diverse, culturally rich Tucson. Later Peg told me that the ethnic breakdown was about 20% African American, 30% Latino, and 8% Asian. She heard Spanish and Mandarin spoken in the hallways of her high school. Mexican-Americans were active in politics and were revered. This got me thinking about my first impressions when I moved to Tucson. One of the first things I noticed was memorials with prayer candles and ribbons by the side of the road and altars to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was struck by the incredible talent in the Latino community represented in art galleries, on murals, Borderland Theater Company, and Tucson Cine Mexico.

The first place we take out-of-town guests are our authentic Mexican restaurants such as El Minuto by the El Tiradito (the castaway) Wishing Shrine in Barrio Viejo. Then we head downtown to the restored Presidio near the Tucson Museum of Art to see the large Mexican nativity, El Nacimiento. The Mexican influence is evident in our cultural events. Tucson school children get two days off every year for rodeo days. 150,000 people gather for the annual rodeo parade to watch Vaqueros sitting high on their saddles, high school bands performing Mexican marches, and Mariachi dancers. 100,000 come out to experience the spectacular Dia de Los Muertos (The All Souls Procession). Mexican culture enriches our community. It is an integral part of our Tucson heritage. 

While researching Mexican culture in Tucson, I discovered that what had once been a thriving, vibrant community had been relegated to a museum exhibit. Before the urban renewal project of 1967 destroyed Tucson’s largest barrio, descendants of Tucson’s Mexican, Chinese and Jewish settlers still lived in their families’ traditional adobe row homes just outside of the Presidio walls. The Mexican barrios were tight-knit communities where family and church were valued. They gathered for holidays in the square. Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other and looked after each other. People shopped in neighborhood stores.  When Peg Bowden was at the U of A Nursing College, she did home visits on Convent and Canal Street. "People had chickens in the backyard and no electricity. They put their food on the back porch at night to keep it cool. They gave me warm tortillas fresh off the griddle when I visited. Great memories."

Politicians used the fact that some of the houses were ramshackle with backyard outhouses and that there was a rough neighborhood. They called the barrios a "blight" on the city. In the name of progress, the barrio was condemned to be replaced by a money-pit: a failed convention center and shopping center. This close knit community was torn apart, leaving some destitute. 

There are remnants of that vibrant barrio in what remains of the Historic Districts in Barrio Viejo including Teatro Carmen, the first venue in Tucson devoted to Spanish language productions and later used as a cinema, meeting hall, ballroom, and boxing arena. In Barrio El Hoyo there is a small garden and plaques that commemorate what used to be the Carrillo Gardens. The eight acres of garden boasted several small lakes and bathhouses fed by natural springs surrounded by cottonwood trees, fruit trees, and roses from around the world. There was a pavilion for music and dancing or skating. There was even a shooting gallery and a small zoo. Every weekend in the park was like a fiesta. 

When the barrio was gutted, Tucson lost much of its charm and history; in fact, its very heart and soul. In this time when politicians create an atmosphere of fear using undocumented workers as scapegoats, it’s important to remember those who built the adobe walls that became the Old Pueblo and their descendants who carry on our shared traditions.

Read more in my blog, "Footprints in the Dirt."  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Dare to Be Mediocre with Children's Writer Katherine Paterson

Tucson Festival of Books
Lorna Kerin Beall 

For years my daughter Jana has invited me to go to the Tucson Festival of Books and I finally went. The fest was amazing.  In addition to street fair vendors, book signings with your favorite authors (500 of them!), entertainment, a science pavilion, and kids’ activities; they had authors speak on every topic imaginable.  I was delighted to find that there were at least twenty-five authors who spoke about writing for children.

The speaker I enjoyed most was two-time Newberry winner, Katharine Paterson, the author of one of my favorite children's books, The Great Gilly Hopkins. I found her encouraging, humorous and humble. She told us that no one thought she had the makings of a writer. In fact, when she was growing up, she wanted to be an actress or missionary. She ended up marrying a minister and joyfully becoming a missionary. But she still harbored thoughts about writing. Then a wise friend (and writer?) said, “Maybe that is something God is calling you to do.” Katherine protested that she didn't want to be mediocre. The friend replied, “If you don’t dare to be mediocre, you won’t be a writer.” 

I’m sure Katherine’s words inspired beginning writers, but they also rang true for me. I believe in plunging ahead and getting that first draft done, warts, typos and all. But I take it a step farther. Some of my friends only write when they’re inspired. Maybe that works for them, but I’d never get anything done.  I've discovered that I've accomplished some of my best writing when I didn't feel like it, and that the writing seems to have more depth. Then I go back later and  smooth out the rough spots. 
Katherine’s minister husband became her first supporter and editor. If he had insisted that she strictly maintain the traditional role of a minister’s wife, she would've never found time to write.  He informed his parishioners that she had her own calling!

Listening to Katherine Paterson
I related to this. Having six kids, we often had difficult financial times, but Richard never insisted that I get a job, and he always encouraged me to write. When he sees me puttering around the house, he’s known to  grumble, “Why aren't you in your room writing?”  This was in spite of the fact that I got (and still often get) enough rejection slips to wallpaper that room.

In addition to being inspired by Katherine, I felt a special camaraderie with the other writers.  With free lectures, panels and workshops on writing in every genre, as well as panels on self-publishing, marketing, and getting an agent, I would recommend this free festival to any author or aspiring author.

I was delighted when Katherine held up her brand new book and said, "It's called, The Story of My Life." It touches on both her life and her writing. My hubby claims that I totally ignored my own writing (not to mention cooking and housecleaning) while reading her amazing book. I hope all of you enjoy it too!