Studying Sonora

Just weeks ago, the second annual Ethnographic Field School students and faculty arrived in Rio Sonora, ready to experience our shared borderlands via a creative cultural immersion co-presented with the UA’s Confluence Center and The Southwest Center.

The class discovered its sense of place in the town of Banamichi, Rio Sonora, exploring the environs deeply, and studying arts, traditional food preparations, ranching, history, agriculture and community. With time also set aside to siesta or meander, the class turned learning into a rich folklife experience, from harvesting nopales and drinking homemade agave juice, to exploring nooks and crannies of the reconstructed plaza and milking cows in Banamichi.

Throughout the field school, participants observed how water infuses the daily life of this agricultural valley running through the desert. In documenting the interplay between rural Sonora and its waters, a cultural sound-photo essay of a universal life symbol emerged. As Ofelia Zepeda’s Ka:Cim Su:DAGĭ suggests, the class “…touched this laying water, and then we left it alone.”

Rio Sonora sounds, both a mystery and memory
Audio clip collected early June, Bamori Mill — listen:

Nourishing an Arid Land
Lisa Falk: A long tradition in the Spanish Southwest, waters of the communal acequia (or ditch) system, nourish the fields. Each land owner receives a turn once every 15 days to draw the life-giving water channeled off from the Rio del Sonora. Here the water has filled the ditch and has begun to seep into the field through a hole dug in the mud wall. When the hole is plugged and the gate is released, the water will flow to the next section along the field.

Sustenance for Riparian Residents
Gambel's quail
Ann Reichhardt: The Gambel’s Quail is just one of over sixty species of birds seen the week of June 1 through June 6 in and around the riparian and farmlands of Banamichi, Sonora, Mexico. The dynamic riparian lands of the Sonora River are home to an impressive variety of bird life, and an important corridor during spring and fall migration.

A Thirsty Acequias Seeks Its Moisture
Bill Steen: The acequias that flow through the town of Banamichi have traditionally been fed by a spring called El Tajo, just north of town.This year, since there has been no rain since last summer, the spring is unable to supply the demand for irrigation water. Consequently the acequias are being supplied with three different wells on the edge of town.

And Block by Block, It Shelters Community
Hand-formed adobe bricks
Alex La Pierre: Hand forming adobe bricks with earth mixed with straw and moistened with water from the acequia on the Rio Sonora homestead of Stevan de la Rosa near Banamichi.


Chubasco Churns

In its pinpoint gallery space, the oldest nonprofit artist coop in Tucson, Raices Taller, diffuses the summer heat with its art. The collective begins the monsoon season with its Chubasco show, gathering art from members of its community that flame messages of politics, folklore and the interconnection of water with the desert.

Ceci Garcia, one of the original founding members of Raices Taller 17 years ago, is an artist and teacher who welcomes a visitor to the exhibit, this year a collection of 60-plus pieces interpreting via mixed media beauty and pain in a desert summer.

Ceci Garcia of Raices Taller, with Tineo's painting

Ceci Garcia of Raices Taller, with Tineo’s painting

“In our culture the chubasco serpent touches the earth in the form of lightning, kicking out the rain,” she explains. “Our works are shown with that same intention, to gather the spirit of the season and convey its energy and messages in our art.”

Walking through the gallery, soothing cool painted water scenes…colorful tributes to migrants… mournful political messages of death and drug lords in the desert…all form a narrative for the collective’s Chubasco homage:

  • A watercolor, painted by African-American sign painter John Wilson, evokes a more traditional scene of an egret. Ceci wants the painting to remind us that the great birds still visit Fort Lowell Park, although recent wildfires have caused the big water birds much suffering.
  • One younger artist, David Contreras, titles his painting, “Coyotes need love, too.” His large canvas evokes drought and desperation in a shadowy scene of a drug lord coyote and a stricken, ghostly woman. It radiates the politics and the discontent of our borders, Ceci observes.
  • Storytelling jumps from colorful Tineo art, which precisely captures a glittering beauty of the Corn Maiden. Painting in characteristic thick strokes, Tineo has formed an image of the maiden cradling a migrant farm worker, with mountains in the background symbolizing journeys the worker will face in his walk through the desert.
In Chubasco show: works by David Contreras (l) and John Wilson (r).

In Chubasco show: works by David Contreras (l) and John Wilson (r).

Each painting, collage and sculpture continues to shape the story that Ceci helps reveal. One work references Sabino Canyon, reminding Ceci of family members who helped construct the dams, ponds and walkways as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Passing a fish enamel and ink gouache on wood, Ceci smiles, commenting, “that’s Big Jim’s sand shark!” Gallery walls also display Aztec symbols and photographic travelogues — cultural and current documentation of water’s influence. The mood throughout the gallery shifts from somber and provocative, to wonder, joy and laughter.

Ceci believes art always returns to a foundation that rests on our ancestors. She tells a story of her family — multi-generations of miners and ranchers from Superior, Mammoth and Oracle — always celebrating el El Dia de San Juan, “even if it was just dousing the kids with a garden hose.” She recalls other community stories, about the early days of Tucson’s arts cooperatives — busy times as the Chicano mural movement emerged in the city, with art acting as a conduit of political thought, inspiration, creativity and collective action.

Raices Taller started in resistance, as a place for Latinos to show their work. It’s now a diverse, multi-ethnic community, energized by new generations of artists who embrace tradition, yet interpret with contemporary meaning.

“We work in history but our work also looks ahead. There are fresh tales about a familiar landscape, and our art allows us to create cultural connections,” says Ceci.


Our Storied Waters

Wildly diverse and wonderful: These are our regional waters — from the Colorado River through the Gulf of California.

Wetlands, lakes, riparian areas, springs, rivers and the Sea of Cortez are responsible for sustaining plant, wildlife and aquatic life, for shaping geography, and for inspiring stories of tradition.

Colorado River Watershed (courtesy of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)

Colorado River Watershed (courtesy of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)

The Sea of Cortez also is responsible for the unique climate that provides the Sonoran Desert with its summer rainy season. Extremely diverse, the Sea of Cortez contains one of the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammals, the vaquita, sea turtles and other rare fish.

A center of Southern Arizona’s water story is Warden Aquarium at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum(ASDM). The Rivers to Sea exhibition tells an important in-depth story of our region’s ecosystem and the inhabitants who depend on it. The Aquarium conveys a progressive narrative about the desert sea over 2,500 miles of coastline. About 50 species live in the Aquarium’s freshwater and saltwater tanks, with interpretive displays that assemble a diverse undersea story.

Cool Summer Nights at the Desert Museum

From ASDM Marketing Director Rosemary Prawdzik:
“The Warden Aquarium focuses on the freshwater rivers of our region, as well as the Sea of Cortez (a.k.a. Gulf of California) and interprets how they were formerly connected. Currently we focus on the Colorado and Yaqui rivers and highlight several threatened and endangered freshwater species, many of which we are directly involved with efforts intended to help conserve them.”

From Craig Ivany, ASDM Executive Director:
“It’s always beneficial to remind residents of the importance of water conservation so that we have a better chance of conserving the amazing diversity of the Sonoran Desert Region. However, we don’t view it as nature vs. people. Sustainable water management strives to balance the needs of both.”

Morelos Dam

March 2014 pulse of water for restoration of Delta ecosystems flows through and around Morelos Dam.
(Photo: Franciso Zamora Arroyo, Sonoran Institute)

Rivers and riparian environments are critical to many species of fishes, amphibians, birds, and plant life. It’s important to understand how the adjacent desert is impacted by the Sea of Cortez, and how we impact the thousands of plant and animals species, many threatened by over-harvest and inefficient fishing practices.

The Warden Aquarium also includes a touch tank with marine invertebrates for hands-on, sea-life encounters. The Aquarium experience is a story well-told about the Colorado River, as it wends its way southward to the Gulf of California, creating watersheds and aquifers, and sustaining life.

Salt Pilgrimage
There are symbols on pottery as well as in stories that reflect the gratitude of a desert people for the gift of water. O’odham stories of ancient trade routes to the Sea of Cortez document the journeys made to procure seashells and other items for trade. A Salt Pilgrimage was a rite of passage for young O’odham men who came of age through the journey of tradition, ceremony and athletic feat.


(Ruth Murray Underhill. “Ocean Power” from Singing for Power (Berkeley: University of California, 1938). As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 162)

The Gulf of California is four days’ journey from the Papago country, and for unknown generations the Indians have been going there to hew out some of the rocky brown substance from the shores where standing water has left it. The almost waterless journey traverses some of the most sinister country on the North American continent and the Papago name for the south is ‘the direction of suffering.’ But they have never shrunk from suffering. Instead, they have made it the cornerstone of their philosophy and the passport of dreams. The salt journey has seemed to them difficult enough and the sight of the ocean amazing enough to bring a man into contact with the supernatural.

They regard the whole ordeal as they regard war. It is an arduous duty undertaken for the sake of the kindred, and the reward is rain. The ocean, say the Papagos, their sympathetic magic marching for once with science, is the source of rain, which is brought by the ocean wind. But they go on to say that the wind will only blow if men have been to the ocean and given it gifts. And men must take back with them those white kernels which the ‘out-spread water’ deposits on its shores and which resemble corn. In all the rituals, in fact, the salt is called ‘corn.’”