The San Xavier Mission – Tucson

Going through my old posts about my time in States, I realised I’d neglected to write about one of my favourite experiences – visiting the San Xavier Mission.

Located just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, the mission is a world away from the colourful, student-filled streets of the city centre and campus surroundings. In fact, it was one of the only times I felt I experienced the ‘real Tucson’, and understood that it is actually a complex city rooted with many (seemingly forgotten) socioeconomic problems.

We took a bus from the main bus station, still in the downtown area, and traveled just 20 minutes or so to another bus terminal where we would need to change buses. Just this short drive made me aware of the college bubble I had been living in for the past few months. The roads were less looked after, many stores looked closed or failing, and the people had changed too; instead of being mainly white and college-aged, they looked older and of Mexican or Native American heritage.

Being at the bus stop definitely cemented this idea; me and my boyfriend were by far the ‘whitest’ people there, not just in terms of skin tone, but the way we dressed, acted, spoke…we felt uncomfortable and like outsiders. This was new to me. I had been living in Tucson for a little over three months and had begun to feel comfortable with my surroundings, the people there, and the way of life. Waiting just 30 minutes or so in that bus stop made me realise that I’d merely scratched the surface on some of the complex issues embedded in Tucson’s core.

Even when the bus came, we were shocked. It wasn’t a bus: it was mini-van, and many of the locals used this transport everyday, as a way of getting around the mission. They knew one another, and the driver. Again, our tourist status was exemplified. The drive round the mission was also eye-opening. Tucson itself has a relatively modern looking downtown area, complete with skyscrapers and a tram. This was the complete opposite. Roads were dirt-tracks, houses were shack-like, and it looked as though the government had simply given up trying to improve it.

The church itself is beautiful, filled with stunning figures of Christ, amazing architecture, and if you climb the neighboring hill as we did, some amazing views of the area surrounding Tucson. You feel like you have stepped out of the mainstream, white America, and into a rural Mexican village of sorts. What I liked in particular was the way in which the brilliant white of the church contrasted against the sky – which is always bright blue in Tucson – and the orange of the sand.

Whilst you definitely won’t get a days visit out of the church, the whole experience of being in the mission and getting to the mission, will stay with you. Especially, if like me, you had previously only experienced Tucson’s relatively college-focused centre.

To this day, I still don’t fully know how to talk about my snippet of ‘true Tucson’. When I tell Americans that I spent time living in Tucson, I am either told that the school is really party-focused (which it is!) or that the city is a dump outside the campus. It’s sad to think that what Tucson was originally noted for is slowly fading away, and becoming less favourable. Sadly, this kind of reaction to missions in America is not unique. They are often surrounded by negative stereotypes and a general fear by outsiders.

However, the only way to ‘conquer that fear’ and prove the stereotypes wrong, is to visit one, and spend some time around the people who reside there. San Xavier is a great starting point, and it did really help me to appreciate the diverse society I lived in. I hope in the future to explore more places like this, and to create a conversation where people really know and understand these kind of areas.

For more information about San Xavier Mission, click here.


Cultural Traditions with a Twist

Living in Tucson has definitely opened my eyes to a few new traditions that I hadn’t experienced before. Most of us in England are already familiar with the typical American holidays – 4th of July, Thanksgiving. And we can all name some of the standard American societal behaviour – football games, burger bars, smores, hanging a flag in every classroom… However, as most of you may know, Tucson has a large Mexican population. Being only an hour away from the Mexican border, it has become one of the famous border cities where their community is thriving.

Consequently, many of the Mexican cultural traditions and holidays have also been carried across the border. Over the many years they have adapted into something unique, in which they are neither traditionally Mexican nor fully integrated into American culture. Instead, we are presented with a wonderful hybrid of what happens when two alternate societies come together.

Last weekend, I managed to witness two perfect examples of this ‘culture clashing’. Friday night, I was exposed to the odd and intriguing art of ‘Lucha Libre’, in other words, Mexican wrestling. You may have seen images of the brightly coloured masks around the internet – the sport has definitely gained popularity in recent years. Whilst I may not have fully been sold on it as a leisure activity (it is definitely more of a ‘guys’ thing), it was interesting to watch and highly entertaining. Rather than focus on the fights, it is more about the ‘show’ – the introducing of the competitors; the bad-mouthing of each-other; the staged flips; the extravagant costumes. Everything is an act, intended to shock and amuse the audience…and shocked and amused I certainly was.

A couple of days later was Tucson’s biggest festival – ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead). Again, images of the colourful skull have circulated around American and European culture, but many people do not know of its origins in the festival. The festival is intended to celebrate the dead ancestors of Mexican families, and all those who wish to join in. In fact, many of the groups walking in the parade were American, showing the adaptation and diversity of what was once a traditional Mexican festivity. On the final night there is an All Souls Procession, which I had the pleasure of attending. People gathered, dressed up in traditional costume, carrying photos of their deceased loved ones (pets included), and walked in a truly spectacular parade. At the end, a concert-type thing takes place, in which a huge urn filled with messages for the deceased is burnt. The whole thing was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In actual fact, the Tucson parade is the biggest in the U.S.A. and bigger than most in Mexico…although this is most likely because nowhere else besides Tucson celebrates it to such extremity.

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The blend of cultures in Tucson is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get over. I think it probably mostly stems from having such a lack of Mexican presence in the U.K. –a lot of my classmates can speak Spanish, and have knowledge of Mexican-American culture. It’s sad to admit that most of what I understood about Mexican immigrants came from movies and stereotypes! Thankfully, I am lucky to have spent four months in a city that has not only taught me about the standard American culture, but a little about the Mexican-American way of life too.

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Halfway There…And I Can Already Feel the ‘Tucson Blues’

It dawned on me earlier that I was already half way through my Tucson adventure…and it actually made me a little sad.

If I’m being completely honest, before my year abroad started I was mostly looking forward to the Australian semester. I’d been to the States a few times before, would be far away from my boyfriend, and I just didn’t expect to enjoy it as much. To me, Sydney was where the fun was going to happen, and where I’d truly experience my ‘year abroad’. Whilst this still may be the case, I will definitely be departing Tucson with a heavy heart.

This small city in the middle of the desert hasn’t failed to surprise me so far. Whilst statistically, it may not look like the most appealing place to spend 4 months – I was told by a taxi driver yesterday that Tucson was one of the top 10 poverty stricken cities in the U.S. – it’s small quirks and ‘hipster’ vibe make it an ideal student area. Plus…it’s a lot cheaper than San Fran!

Although the university area is a great example of the popular Greek life, and a mecca for any Starbucks/Chipotle/Urban Outfitters lovers, there is a lot more to the city than just University Blvd.

Venture down 4th Avenue and you’ll be greeted with an array of unique shops, individually owned Mexican restaurants, and bars. It’s a great place to walk down any time of the day, with always something new to discover for a tourist such as myself. Further along and you reach the historic downtown district. I walked around this area one evening, and was amazed to find how ‘un-American’ it felt. Here is where you truly feel Tucson’s Mexican influences. The houses resemble small Spanish villas, again many Mexican restaurants, and some beautiful graffiti artwork. It contrasts greatly from the capitalist environment just a 20 minute walk away.

As well as the differing districts of Tucson, another thing I will be sad to say goodbye to are the abundance of things there are to do here. Whilst we may not be London, L.A. or New York, I’m yet to find myself being bored here. Facebook is always suggesting a free food festival, fashion show, art show, film festival, book signing – you name it, and Tucson have hosted it. I’ve been to Tucson Fashion Week, Tucson Greek Festival, and Tucson Meet Yourself, to name but a few of the events hosted in the past two months. These are also all events I would never have discovered in England (or they would be ridiculously expensive!). If that isn’t quite enough for you, Tucson is also within easy reach of many of Arizona’s best attractions. The Grand Canyon, obviously, but also places like Tombstone, Nogales (in Mexico), many state parks, Apache Lake, and of course Phoenix.

I’m so relieved (and thanking my former self) that I picked U of A as my first choice, as otherwise I don’t think I would have ever discovered just how brilliant and unique Tucson is. I’m also glad that I’ve (so far) been proved wrong about how I thought my experience would go here. I’m loving every minute of it, have met some amazing people, and am actually kind of dreading that long journey home…back to the cold!

Weekends in Arizona: The Kartchner Caverns & Tombstone

The more time I spend here, the more I’m learning about the diversity of Arizona and just how much there is to do here. As I’m only here for a semester, I’m trying to fit as much of this fascinating state in as I can, so I can be sure that I truly experienced the real Arizona.

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Last weekend I got a taste of two of the many faces of Arizona. Tombstone portrays perfectly what life was like in the Wild West, being one of the best preserved western towns in the nation. On the other side, we had the Kartchner Caverns, displaying just a snippet of Arizona’s natural beauty with its famous limestone caves. Both these destinations are also just a little outside from Tucson, in the southeast of the state. We hired a car for relatively cheap (only $14 each) and headed out last Saturday, to see what all of the fuss was about.

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First stop was the Kartchner Caverns. In order preserve its natural beauty, visitors are restricted from bringing anything into the caves. This unfortunately means no pictures (!), but does also mean that you’ll have to visit in order to gain even a glimpse of this fascinating area. The caves were made a national park in the 90’s, and before that were kept relatively secret, being known only to a select few. Thankfully, nearly everyone can now enjoy the caves, and they still remain unspoiled. The delicate limestone formations are the reason behind these strict regulations. Although these can be a slight nuisance, it does mean that you can fully appreciate your surroundings without distractions, such as taking photos or using your phone. The caves are also eerily quiet and dimly lit, again for protection. However, this adds to the ambience of the place, and makes you feel almost as if YOU are the first discovers. We were all amazed at the power dripping water can have. It was this simple, natural act of water seeping through the hills and dripping, that over time formed some spectacular formations. The main attraction, Kubla Kahn, stands taller than a 5-storey building! When the water drips it leaves sediments that gradually build and form natural works of art. You still notice the moisture even today, it being a living cave. The rocks are shiny and slippery, and the air has a humidity that you’ll fail to find anywhere else in this arid region. To enter the caves, you have to go on one of their tours. These are relatively inexpensive at $23, and last for around an hour. You also get a lot of information from the park ranger giving the tour – definitely worth the price!

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Next, we drove the 30 minutes (ish) to Tombstone. Some of you may have already heard of Tombstone; it is one of the more famous Wild West towns in North America, and is the site of many iconic gun-fights. In order to preserve this rich culture, most of major buildings are listed, meaning that few alterations can be made. This is perfect for visitors like us, as it means we get a glimpse into what life back then looked like. Most of the inhabitants/workers also play on their Western heritage too, donning cowboy attire and thick accents. Every effort is gone to, in order to transport you back to the Wild West of Tombstone. We spent a few hours wondering around admiring the architecture, stopped off for lunch at the famous Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (another listed building), and then paid $6 for a fake gun-fight, which also told of the history of Tombstone. Whilst some may argue that the town accommodates too much for its tourists, exaggerating certain aspects of the old lifestyle for example, I would respond that it is all just a bit of fun not to be taken too seriously. Yes, it is clear that some parts of the town and people have been fabricated for tourist amusement. However, this does not take away from the uniqueness of Tombstone, which you unfortunately cannot find in many places in the U.S. today. The town is relaxed, homely, and welcoming, and definitely makes for an enjoyable day out.

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On our way out of Tombstone and back towards Tucson, we stopped at the famous Boot-Hill Graveyard. It is a graveyard for people that mainly died in the late 1800’s in Tombstone. Because of the time period, many of the graves had engravings which we wouldn’t see today. For example, a lot were unnamed. Others had details of the horrific ways they died, such as lynching, suicide, or murder. The graves that stood out for me, were the ones reading ‘one Chinese’ or ‘two Chinese’. We definitely wouldn’t get that kind of disrespectful labelling in a modern day graveyard!

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My visit to two of Arizona’s most popular sites, definitely gave me a glimpse into how diverse the state can be. Arizona is typically known for its desert region, and of course the Grand Canyon. However, I am learning that there is so much more to it than that. The natural wonders show the further beauty of the area, whilst the diverse towns display a piece of history vital to the identity not only of Arizona, but the whole of U.S.A. I can’t wait to further explore the state, and find out what else it has to offer me!