Tales From the Outskirts: Arivaca

This historic community adjusts to economic woes and border

To reach Arivaca, you take Interstate 19 south and hang a sharp right at the tiny burg of Amado. From there, you'll follow a winding road through history, controversy and camaraderie to this tight-knit town, hunkered alongside the Atascosa Mountains.

On most mornings, you'll find Roger Beal chatting folks up in his neat and lively Arivaca Mercantile, just as he's been doing for the last 30 years. Over that time, says Beal, this sprawling village of some 1,000 souls has seen a few changes. Sure, he says, Arivaca remains a swell place. But the outside world's problems have elbowed in a bit.

In particular, a huge influx of illegal immigration through these parts—and the accompanying contingent of Border Patrol agents—has made everyone a little more edgy.

"But our relationship with the Border Patrol is frustrating rather than adversarial," he says. "We support the Border Patrol, and yet you hate having to pass through a checkpoint. You used to go out there in the hills all day long and not run into anybody, and just appreciate the vastness of this place. Now you get questioned as to why you're there."

His point is driven home by the steady parade of Border Patrol rigs rumbling past on Arivaca's main drag. Still, the agency and the community have shared growing pains, Beal says, and have learned how to cohabitate a little bit better. "They've really smoothed things out quite a bit. These days, they're certainly more sensitive to people in the community and their issues."

Those issues include a serious shortage of gainful employment, and the concurrent lack of funds for such things as utility bills, food and medical care. That's where the Arivaca Coordinating Council Human Resources Group comes into play.

Today, Tom Hafford is jawboning in the dining room of this cheery social-services outpost, surrounded by a photo gallery of past supporters, and several current ones who are here in the flesh. Among other things, this bustling hub provides meals for hungry area residents, transportation to important appointments, and help keeping the lights on. "If you have an appointment in Green Valley or Tucson or something, we have volunteer drivers who can drive you in," Hafford says. "I'm one of the drivers, so that's how I know."

Down the table, 83-year-old J.J. Johnson says he used to be a circulation manager for the Arizona Daily Star, before retiring to Arivaca. Now his likeness as a chipper young chap hangs on the wall. But that was J.J. before this human-resources bunch got hold of him. "I signed on here to help out," he says with a grin, "and before I knew it, they had me cooking for 50 people. I was a one-man show."

Donna Sala directs the social-services center, and at the moment, she's outside examining a huge stack of lush, donated tomatoes. She explains that such donations—and the help of volunteers like Tom and J.J.—are vital to keeping Arivaca afloat. "This is a very poverty-stricken area," she says. "Our office alone serves 200 to 300 people."

"And don't forget to mention how much the Border Patrol helps our community," somebody else chuckles.

That good-natured sarcasm belies a fundamental truth: Arivaca has outlasted more than one bright idea. Indeed, this town's roots reach back at least to the 17th century, when Father Eusebio Kino, the pre-eminent Jesuit missionary, listed it as "Aribac" on his maps.

These hills were later noted for opulent veins of silver; one strike in the 1730s turned up nearly 3,000 pounds of the precious metal. Originally part of an 18th-century Spanish land grant, much of this area was purchased in 1856 by influential territorial entrepreneur Charles Poston, who commenced an ultimately unsuccessful mining operation.

By 1917, Arivaca had become an outpost for the U.S. Army's famed black 10th Cavalry, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers. These enlistees patrolled the border during the Mexican revolution, and their presence eventually prompted a parade grounds, a shooting range and a permanent set of officers' barracks across from the mercantile. The camp was finally disbanded in 1920.

Arivaca took another turn in the 1970s with the arrival of free-wheeling bohemians. Perhaps not universally loved when they landed in this traditional ranching community, many of those hippies started businesses or went on to run government offices here, and now constitute the community core.

This town also boasts a stubborn reputation for narco activity. That image was hardly diminished last month, when an alleged dealer and his daughter were murdered in their home, in what appears to have been a drug rip-off. To some, that simply underscores Arivaca's perceived apathy.

"I think the majority of the people there are sympathetic and tolerant of the trafficking that goes on," one Drug Enforcement Agency official told the Arizona Daily Star.

But others believe that overall, this community is returning to less-troublesome times. Among them is Mike Geib, an Arivaca native who lives with his lively family in a former dance hall on the corner of Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue. "And before this was a dance hall, it was part of the Buffalo Soldiers' barracks," he says, proudly.

Geib himself returned here after 23 years away. What brought him back?

"This is home," he says. "It's quiet, and everybody is tight. Used to be tighter before than it is now, because of all the illegals. But still, your kids can run up and down the street, and you don't have to worry about it, because if they get in trouble, Mom and Dad will know."

He adjusts his glasses and leans against a rail running along the deep old porch. "We've had our problems, but we're bringing it back to where it's a quiet little hole in the wall," he says. "More Border Patrol is bringing her back to where she should be."