A Couple Of U.S. Wanderers Take Mexico's Road Less Traveled.
By Margaret Regan
The Road to Mexico, by Lawrence J. Taylor and Maeve Hickey (University of Arizona Press). Paper, $17.95; Cloth, $45.
HOW DO YOU get to Mexico from Tucson? Why, you take the interstate of course. Speed south on Interstate 10, and then maneuver your way onto I-19 for a quick jaunt to the border, just 64 miles from the Old Pueblo. It'll take an hour--hour and a half, tops.
The ascendancy of slick, four-lane highways notwithstanding, Lawrence J. Taylor and Maeve Hickey decided to go another route. Their new book, The Road to Mexico, details their desultory travels up and down the Old Nogales Highway from Tucson to Santa Ana, Mexico, some 100 miles south of the Nogales crossing.
Invoking the spirit of meandering travelers like Jack Kerouac, they go where the slow back road leads them. Along the way, they take all the time they need for leisurely conversation with mariachis and ropers, waitresses and devotees of Jesus, prim social workers and expansive folk artists. Hickey took some 35 black-and-white photos that sometimes, but not always, correspond, with the subjects in the text.
Taylor is an anthropology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and armed with some funds from the University of Arizona's Southwest Center, he seems to have approached the project as a kind of laid-back anthropological field trip. He's assembled a wide cast of characters, making appointments with artists and newspaper columnists and the like, while allowing serendipity to lead him to the salt-of-the-earth types. Yet his book makes no claims to a thorough analysis of the multi-layered society these varied people inhabit. Falling somewhere in an unmapped domain bounded by traditional scholarship, journalism and popular travelogue, Taylor's text resembles the road that he's traveled: It's divided up into unrelated stretches, some of them more interesting than others.
"We set out to learn something about a particular road to Mexico that nature and history have conspired to make unique," Taylor notes in his preface. "Though this book is by no means a comprehensive account of what can be seen along the road. It is a fragmentary view, but there is a particular truth to be found in fragments." The road in question is the old colonial camino once used by Spanish soldiers traipsing into the northernmost territories of New Spain. On it traveled the Irish mercenary Hugh O'Connor, who more than two centuries ago established the presidio at what's now Tucson. So too did the wandering missionary Father Eusebio Kino, who famously started a mission here. To the highway's west lies Baboquivari, the sacred peak of the Tohono O'odham. For the purposes of their trip, the couple chose to define the road's northern and southern ends at holy Christian sites, at San Xavier Mission and at Magdalena, Mexico, where San Francisco is also venerated. "Between these poles of sacred power," the modern travelers become pilgrims on an uncertain quest. Deliberately countering the colonials' northward movement, they travel south.
They begin at Tucson's San Agustín Cathedral, an historic piece of architecture they rightly see as adrift in the modern city's monuments to the automobile. But despite the loss of the oldest barrios, the authors delightedly delve into barrio culture, attending weddings, hooking up with an amiable mariachi horn player by the name of Fernando. The muralist Antonio Pazos gives them a quick course in gang warfare in South Tucson. From the Old Pueblo, they head to the mission, to cowboy country, to an Indian casino, the border, Magdalena at fiesta time, and some woebegone Mexican towns themselves bisected by the modern highway.
One of their best stories is about the three Mikes, members of a three-generation roping family south of Tucson. The Mikes' horsey antics and makeshift outdoor quarters make for an entertaining account of the survival of old cowboy ways. There's a nice portrait of a diner that could be Anywhere, U.S.A., and a chilly tale of the tunnel kids in Nogales.
Taylor relishes the metaphor of the open road and the literature it's spawned. His road book fits right in with the tradition; his journey is not only into the desert landscape, but into the idea of culture and boundaries. But the road methodology has its flaws. The road defines the enterprise, but it also limits it. When Taylor and Hickey put the people they've happened to meet along its perimeters into their book, these people become the parts defining the whole. And in between the "fragments" that the authors include, there are some curious lacunae.
The section on manicured Green Valley, for instance, begins in promising fashion, with some comments about the relentless Arizona efforts to subordinate the landscape to culture. The nice retired lady they visit there turns out to have a hellish tale. She and her husband retired first to Guatemala, where they naively settled in a war zone. Her husband died at the hands of guerrillas; one can readily understand her need now for a tightly controlled community. But her particular story hardly sheds light on the larger issue of the proliferation of desert retirement towns, strange places that uproot their residents from what's familiar and openly defy the local ecology.
The author is a deft writer, with a good eye for specifics and a fine ear for dialogue, though his writing is occasionally burdened by highfalutin' philosophizing. His book is at its best when he lets his engaging characters speak for themselves. Likewise, Hickey's photos go for the telling detail, but they're reproduced rather small. An exhibition opening this weekend at José Galvez Gallery should show them off to better advantage.
Lawrence J. Taylor and Maeve Hickey sign their collaborative book, The Road to Mexico, from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway. For more information call 881-6350. Taylor will sign and discuss the book from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, March 16, at Barnes & Noble Bookstore in the Foothills Mall, 7325 N. La Cholla Blvd. For more information call 742-6402.
An exhibition of Maeve Hickey's photographs opens with an artist's reception from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at José Galvez Gallery, 743 N. Fourth Ave. The show continues through Saturday, April 4. Regular gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For more information call 624-6878.
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