Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Culmination of a Cycle: El Hoyo, a Tucson Barrio Neighborhood: Two Books and a Song.

The book by Edward Spicer "Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico and the United States on Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960", University of Arizona Press, is the basis for my titles. I start by looking at the tailend of the last cycle, when the United States is firmly in control of the land it had acquired with the Gadsden Purchase and the Mexican people and their descedents are living in barrios as were Mario Suarez and Lalo Guerrero. Next week, I continue with Part II, focusing on the inception of the United States cycle with the book "Images and Coversations: Mexican Americans Recall a Southwestern Past" by Patricia Preciado Martin with photographs by Louis Carlos Bernal

I think it’s exceptional that two of our most illustrious Latinos hailed from the same small barrio in Tucson. The barrio in question is called by different names: Barrio Viejo, Barrio Historico, El Hoyo and Barrio Libre. Here is Lalo singing about his place of origin, Barrio Viejo and then we turn to Mario and his stories of the same barrio.

I met Mario sometime in the late 1960’s when he showed up at our Con Safos Magazine workshop clutching a manuscript of one of his short stories. He was a medium sized man with graying hair, a pleasant quiet disposition and a soft round body. He had with him a good story and Arturo Flores our Mero Chingon editor decided to include it in the next issue. One evening while we were laying out the magazine Mario, who had become a regular at our workshop, noted that Arturo had removed a comma and vehemently objected. Arturo just as vociferously stood his ground, resulting in a shoving, pushing and shouting match. No one could believe that this mild mannered author could be so determined about a comma but eventually he had his way. 

 Los Coyotes published by Con Safos Magazine Illustration By Magu

We eventually published two of his stories, Las Comadres and Los Coyotes, both stories that take place in El Hoyo, the Tucson barrio where he grew up.  Many years later his short stories were collected and published as"Chicano Sketches" by the University of Arizona Press. It’s a wonderful collection, most of the stories centered in El Hoyo and populated by the many characters he created from the people he had observed while living there 

 An Excerpt from his story Southside Run

“Past the two blocks on Pike from where the back yards of El Hoyo are most visible there is the Pike Street Garage, a grey building with blue letters clarifying the why of its existence. With cars jacked up and their motor strewn about. With bearded mechanics in greasy overalls smoking cigarettes and wondering where to begin. Immediately past the garage is the Tiradito, the wishing shrine which is said to perform miracles even though there is doubt in the minds of many as to who lies beneath the cement cross and the wax-heavy candle racks.  The bus came to its next stop in front of the Sunrise grocery store. School children got off saying, “G’bye Pete.” “Come back for us Pete.” Pete nodded and said he would. Meanwhile cars chugged past him as he waited for the smallest and consequentially slowest of the children to get off. Then the doors of the bus closed and Pete drove on. He glanced at the big sad faded-red school building where dozens and dozens of children ran after one another, shrieked, hopscotched, played marbles and wore out shoes waiting for the bell which would call them to classes. The school building sits exactly where there was once an immense land enclosure. On it, it is said, lived many years ago a rich Chinese land baron who went from restaurant to restaurant, from dumping area to dumping area, and collected scraps for his hundred pigs or more. Even his food he gave to the pigs. And good pigs they were for when he sold one he always received for it a good price. Under the rickety shack he lived in, situated in the very center of the enclosure, he buried the money. One day he fell ill from lack of food and was unable to get up. This was a bad thing because his weak cries could not be heard above the snorts and oinks of the pig. So when the pigs got hungry they ate his bony carcass pigtails and all. His ancestral philosophy never told him of the Chicano adage which says, “Its no crime to be a pig, only to be snouty.” (sic) 

I always found Mario to be a thoughtful observer of human nature and particularly interested in the ironies and foibles found in the behavior of people and events. He had a playful nature and he always had fun talking about the incongruities or the blantant corruption that he saw around him. All of those traits are found in his stories. There is no moralizing or nostalgia found in his writings, as if he were just a casual observer writing what he was seeing.  

 An excerpt from Las Comadres published by Con Safos Magazine Illustration by Sergio Hernandez

Whenever two chicanos find that they have many things in common, they often end up baptizing each other’s children and becoming compadres. If they work together, one compadre will often say to the other for all to hear, “ Compadre, you are the best boiler maker in Arizona. Tell them who is number two.” If they drink together it means they constantly seek each other’s company, share the most intimate of secrets, and even cry over their beers, at least until they become cosigners. All of this automatically makes their wives comadres. When two comadres meet, no matter how much they criticize one another behind each other’s back, they hug one another as though they had not seen each other for years. Then they sit down somewhere and talk over the latest mitote, gossip, flying over El Hoyo’s back fences.

Mario and his family moved from Tucson in 1958 and to my knowledge never wrote any stories not based in Tucson. His move from Tucson took place while his old barrio was yet intact, thus his stories besides providing great entertainment are also worthy as sociological treatises because a great part of El Hoyo was demolished under the guise of urban renewal. And we thus turn next to a book that explores at length the machinations by the politicos and the money people to eradicate a barrio full of Chicanos.

Lydia R. Otero was a graduate student at the University of Arizona bent on writing her doctoral dissertation on Tucson barrios when going through materials at the Arizona Historical Society ran across the papers of Alva Torres. Three boxes of material containing documents and hand written letters to and from elected officials made it clear to her that Tucson decision-makers had historically made blatant efforts to phase out established communities south of downtown to advance local tourism.

Thus was born her book "La Calle; Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwester City," published by The University of Arizona Press. In it, Otero compiles the evidence showing that 80 acres were slated for demolition because the politicos and the money people wanted a downtown that would be more attractive to tourists and having a sizable population of Chicanos living adjacent to the heart of downtown was detrimental to that plan.

Those 80 acres included a portion of El Hoyo, portions of other barrios and the streets where the businesses catering to the residents of those barrios were located. It was a devastating plan, ripping out the heart of those barrio  where 45% of the residents were of Mexican extraction. But there were also Chinese and African Americans living there. And along with the Mexican restaurants and bakeries there were Chinese grocery stores, Japanese barbershops and small commercial businesses run by Syrian, Lebanese, Jewish merchants.

 From the book page 36 Otero writes

The tucsonense downtown welcomed newcomers and a sizable number of African and Chinese Americans, who often spoke Spanish for social and economic reasons, also called it home. Howard Simms, who shined shoes as a child, recalls that blacks and Mexican could work on Meyer Avenue and the south side of Congress but were not welcomed north of the corner of Stone and Congress because police would “arrest us and run us back down to the lower [southern] part of town”

Alva Torres, whose papers led to Otero’s book, was instrumental in forming opposition to some of that urban renewal plan but it was inconsequential in the overall destruction of what was to take place in the late 1960’s.

Otero notes that the Tucson Board of Realtors hired an outside advisory group called the Build America Better Committee that produced the 1963 report, An Action Plan for Tucson. From that report Otero quotes “A thousand people a month settled in Tucson seeking happiness in a modern land of health and opportunity while others born in the city go home each night to mud huts a stones thrown from the central business district.”

Otero writes that the report’s indictment of South Meyer Avenue had severe consequences because in 1964 the Citizens Committee on Municipal Blight used the report when it presented to the mayor and city council an urban renewal plan calling for its destruction and much of the surrounding area.  

In the late 1960 those 80 acres were cleared and the construction of newer buildings was commenced.
There is a lot of humorous irony that I think Mario would have loved, foremost being the fact that the downtown that the politicos and money people hoped would thrive and attract tourists was a total fiasco. It was a time when shopping malls were taking away customers from downtowns all over the country and Tucson faced the same pressures. And guess what has revitalized the downtown area?; residential housing, bars and restaurants! The new Placita Village with its garish colors that replaced the original Placita is, as a I write, being torn down to be replaced by residential units.


Tom Miller said...

Loved the literary account of how eighty acres went from community to commerce. And a fight over a comma! Any writer could appreciate that.

Tom Miller

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, a fine, and necessary, post. Mario's stories, like those of many Chicano and Chicano
fiction writers, aren't just literature but sociology and anthropology, documenting life in a disappearing world. Thank you.