This is our 11th Local Heroes issue, started as a way for us to celebrate what's good in Tucson and tell everyone to take a break from criticizing us for being, well, so negative all the time.
Perhaps in this day and age, dear reader, it's no longer about us taking a moment to redeem ourselves. Local Heroes is a reminder of the good that exists in our community. It's a map. When we start to wonder what kind of change we can have in this big bad world of ours, here's a guide to your own backyard.
That backyard is waiting for you, and perhaps someday, you can be a local hero or maybe you already are in your own wonderful Old Pueblo way.
Here's a thing that Vanessa Bechtol really loves about her job as executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance: She gets to tell stories.
"I get to talk about all the things that make Tucson and the greater Santa Cruz Valley something that people appreciate," she says. "It's a fun way to connect people to our history and culture."
Bechtol has headed up the Heritage Alliance since 2007. (For most of that time, she's also been the sole employee or, as she puts it: "It's a one-woman show"—with, of course, full support from her board of directors.) Before landing this gig, she worked as a planner with a conservation organization. But her work with the Heritage Alliance "brings people back into the mix, so I thought that was a fun way to do conservation work: Instead of just doing land conservation, really talking about how people are connected to the land."
Over the last eight years, the Heritage Alliance has accomplished a lot: It has published maps and guidebooks to the region. It has a digital presence on the web and mobile devices that guides people through a variety of "heritage experiences": the sky islands; streams in the desert; bird habitats and migration patterns; Native American life ways; desert farming; ranching traditions; Spanish and Mexican frontier; mining booms; U.S. military posts on the Mexico border; and U.S.-Mexico border culture. It has developed a "heritage foods" program celebrating local farms, ranchers and chefs, which fits into today's emphasis on farm-to-table ethos. And in conjunction with Visit Tucson, it has developed an app that helps people find historic and locally owned businesses in downtown, which is often accompanied by a historic photo so people can compare yesterday's architecture to today's.
That's a big deal in the modern tourism market; as many as 90 percent of travelers these days are seeking out authentic experiences in geo-tourism, eco-tourism and heritage tourism.
"It's going somewhere and getting engaged to community," Bechtol says. "When you go somewhere, you want to eat where the locals eat. You want to experience all those things that make that city special to the people who live there. So for Tucson and the Santa Cruz Valley, there are really obvious things like the Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park and San Xavier Mission, but there are also the smaller hidden gems, such as Old Tucson and the Historical Society Museum or little shrines like El Tiradito in the barrio."
The Heritage Alliance also played a key role in a recent application to the United Nations to declare Tucson a "City of Gastronomy" under UNESCO's Creative Cities project. There are roughly a half dozen cities of gastronomy across the world and Bechtol learned a few weeks ago that the city did not pass muster with this year's application, but the proposal's boosters—who include chef Janos Wilder, Native Seeds/SEARCH founder Gary Paul Nabhan and UA Dean of Sciences Joaquin Ruiz—plan to try next year.
"We will be reapplying in March and it may take an extra year but perhaps by this time next year we will be an official UNESCO City of Gastronomy," Bechtol says. "I think we still have something we can put to use over the next year and we have a great resource for the community. We're going to keep plugging away as if we got it."
The Heritage Alliance was originally formed with the notion of persuading Congress to declare the Santa Cruz river valley a National Heritage Area. That kind of designation helps put the marketing power of the National Parks Service to work on behalf of the region, which is especially valuable in tourism today because vacationers are increasingly seeking authentic experiences. Up to 90 percent of the economic benefit of leisure travelers came from people interested in cultural and heritage tourism, according to a 2013 survey by Mandala Research and Consulting.
Bill Doelle, a Heritage Alliance founding board member, says the Heritage Area designation seemed like a natural when he first began meeting with other stakeholders about lobbying Congress in 2003. At the time, there were about a dozen Heritage Areas across the country; now there are nearly 50.
Doelle remembers that Bechtol "hit it out of the park" during her job interview.
"She communicated an enthusiasm about something that everyone on that interview panel was very committed to," Doelle says. "It was clear she got it and she was going to be the person you could go out there and sell this idea and keep the ball rolling."
Bechtol came to Tucson from the Napa Valley to attend the UA. She earned a bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies and a master's in planning and then went to work for a conservation organization before she landed the Heritage Alliance job.
"For me, it was such a great fit," Bechtol says. "I was at a point in my career grows looking to do something different."
The one thing that remains out of reach is the federal designation. Although the U.S. House of Representatives has twice voted to grant the designation, Arizona's Republican senators have blocked it over worries that it could someday new restrictions on land use. But Bechtol—who insists those fears of restrictions are unfounded—says the push will continue.
"The hold up is always been in the Senate," Bechtol says, "so we will continue to work with our representatives in the Santa Cruz Valley and our two senators to get them on board."
It's not every day you meet a woman who majored in cultural anthropology, went to graduate school for art history, created programs for local Chicano artists, and worked in a handful of Tucson's best kitchens—but that's only part of Liane Hernandez's diverse and fascinating resume.
Hernandez just celebrated the one-year anniversary of her café at the YWCA on Dec. 9, a program that has brought her life full circle. At the café, she's able to teach women who have difficulty finding employment for a range of reasons, but it's more than that.
"I try to take aspects of the service industry-- especially the hospitality and the passion—and translate them into other areas of their lives," Hernandez says.
In high school, Hernandez dreamed of being an archaeologist. In college, she switched to cultural anthropology with a minor in art history, focusing on why people ate, danced and made art the way that they did. Although internships during her graduate program seemed to be pulling her in the direction of museum studies, she says her first job in Tucson as a dishwasher and then at the counter at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea started taking her on a different path.
"I've been incredibly lucky since I got here in finding mentors," Hernandez says. "I've also had the incredible blessing of being surrounded by incredibly passionate people."
Hernandez worked at Bentley's for 12 years, citing owner Jo Anne Schneider's motherly herding, encouraging, guiding and challenging of her young staff as one of the reasons she stayed with the café so long. As a woman who lost her mother at a young age, finding that caring female role model in Tucson was pivotal.
However, Hernandez says her mother definitely had a role in her career path. While she admits that she's always been an eater with a love of "making messes" in the kitchen, something like the distinct memories of eating her mother's homemade warm buttered tortillas when she was five years old reinforced that lifelong love of food. She says to this day she still can't make tortillas, though many have tried to teach her.
While she loved cooking innately, following along (somewhat comically, as she puts it) to Julia Childs' cooking show as a 7 year old, Hernandez didn't know for certain that the kitchen was her career path until she went on a trip to Paris in college and met a Cordon Bleu graduate who sparked her passion for the craft. From there, she attended culinary school and worked in a number of different kitchens, including Hacienda del Sol, Casino del Sol, Ventana Canyon, Hub, and Proper.
Despite the long, physically demanding hours in the kitchen, Hernandez says she found the flow of dinner service relaxing. However, she recently began really thinking about women's roles in commercial kitchens—a place that's usually regarded as a bit of a boy's club. She knew that she wanted to do more with her life and working in kitchens, especially upscale resort kitchens that were "money-making enterprises in the middle of communities choking on poverty," wasn't the end of the road for her.
"I started thinking about what allows a woman to survive in a kitchen and it came down to one thing: confidence," she explains. "Mostly, I just had this goal of creating a little group of badass girl cooks."
Now at the YWCA, Hernandez says her love of local art is displayed on the walls of the center, her love of activism is shown in community discussions on topics like mass incarceration in America, and her love of food is obviously shown in the organic fare that she and her staff put out every day.
By now, you should know it's more than that, though. It's the ability to invite people in and make them passionate, whether it's about sourcing from local farms and purveyors, all of which she lists off with pride, or if it's giving someone a second chance to rejoin the community and expose them to those mentors that helped guide her in Tucson.
"It's so important to find pathways and hubs to keep kids involved in the community so they don't end up making the same bad decisions," she says.
Looking back on every mentor that has brought her where she is today, Hernandez is grateful. She may not quite realize it yet, but through that process she's become a mentor now, too. Her infectious passion and indiscriminate warmth incites respect from her staff—instilling self-worth and a new skill set in each of her workers.
David "Kidd Squidd" Squires
Every Saturday afternoon David "Kidd Squidd" Squires takes over the airwaves on Tucson's 91.3 KXCI, filling our heads for a couple of hours with a mix of his latest discoveries or a theme he's put together inspired by a song, a movie or event.
To his avid listeners, Squires provides is an Old Pueblo soundtrack—music that reflects all that we are in our gritty desert paradise. He's been doing that for 31 years, which happens to be the length of time the community radio station has existed.
Squires says he was living in Venice, Cali. in the early '80s, "a great place to be for music at that time," with punk, rockabilly, ska and new wave a big part of the scene back then. Music was everything to Squires, who describes himself as an arrow pulled back on a bow with huge desire to share his knowledge.
The DJ's brother was living in Tucson and during a California visit he brought Squires a brochure on the new community radio station starting in Tucson. He decided to leave the Los Angeles area and the station gave him a chance to "audition."
"I got to do a two-to-three-hour show and the phone was lighting up the whole time," he says.
"I had written a little script before I went on air the first time and about five minutes before I went on I decided, 'I don't need this,' and wadded it up in the trash."
Sitting in his room in St. Luke's Home, a retirement home for low-income seniors in the Feldman neighborhood north of the UA, Squires is surrounded by music. Bookshelves against his walls are filled with CD's, and on his door and walls are posters, postcards and magazine clippings of rock 'n roll and blues greats.
The computer in his room is where all the magic happens—where he puts together each show—hundreds of what are essentially Kidd Squidd mix tapes are stored, past shows, future shows and those currently being crafted for shows or DJ gigs Squires does for hire, from schools to family birthday parties.
As part of Tucson's music life since 1983, Squires says he's told often by people who listened to him growing up and became musicians that they learned a lot listening to his show and it inspired them to go into music.
"To have inspired musicians feels wonderful," he says. "I've been through my own up and downs while I've lived in Tucson, but what's been steady all along has been my radio show. It's something I feel so blessed to do."
He's discovered that there's something special about radio, something intimate and mysterious that is never replicated in other mediums like TV or movies. The result is that it never occurs to him to take a break or not show up to the station's Armory Park studio.
"Maybe it has to do with KXCI. Listeners know they won't be bullshitted. They won't have the wool pulled over their eyes. KXCI is real. It's why we say 'Real people, real radio,' it is a damn good honest radio station and the main focus is music."
Squires says he was an athlete in high school, a basketball player. It was a Rolling Stone's cover of an old Buddy Holly tune, "Not Fade Away," that changed his life trajectory.
"Something changed inside me. The rhythm in that song and the passion in the singing revved up with an extra Bo Didley beat. That one song made me start pursing kool tunes with a K."
At high school parties he was the guy who stood closest to the record player and after graduations he realized how important music was to him and became so immersed that he's practically a rock 'n roll and blues historian.
"I've always had snob control. I could easily be a snob, but I keep an eye on myself, plus there's so much great music and I try to keep up. Oh it's so true. Every generation has good music," he says.
All through Squires' DJ career he never desired to become a musician and has always been content to be a lover of music and spinning tunes for people. "I guess I'm a historian too and a musicologist. An archeologist digs up old bones and I dig up old and new tunes."
While Squire has been this music voice for Tucson, those ups and downs he mentioned have only derailed him briefly—like the 1986 incident, what he describes as a suicide attempt jumping in front of a car after an argument with his girlfriend. "I remember saying to myself, 'Anything is better than this.' I did a number on myself."
It took time, but he recovered. Today, he says, he has a huge universal love in his heart. "I feel it all the time. It's a real gift."
Is that why people tune in on Saturday afternoons? Squire says he thinks it's a combination of things, that he talks to his listeners just like he's talking now and maybe they can tell he's inspired by music, just like they are. "And I add a lot of stories and history, but make sure I never get too dry. I want people to feel happy and be entertained and then if you get some knowledge too, all the better."
When the U.S. Border Patrol released hundreds and hundreds of Central American women and children this summer, they dropped them off at the Tucson Greyhound bus station. One morning, one such person—a Guatemalan woman named Carmelita—sat on Tucsonan Laurie Melrood's living room floor with her legs splayed, clutching her pregnant belly in pain.
Only 48 hours earlier, Carmelita was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border clandestinely. Like so many others, she was walking through the rugged, hot desert when the Border Patrol arrested her. When she was released and dropped off at the bus station—pregnant and clenching a clear plastic bag filled with scant belongings—she looked chewed up and spit out by that most massive immigration enforcement regime in the history of the United States. She didn't expect people from the Tucson organization Casa Mariposa to be waiting at the bus station to orient her, help her buy a bus ticket, or, in the case of Melrood, offer her a place to stay.
Carmelita was having contractions on the living room floor that summer morning. Hours later, she gave birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy. This was, however, just one event of many that exemplify Melrood's tireless work in the community. Her focus has been working with families, and keeping them together, in an era of authoritative, and often harsh, immigration enforcement.
"She's always so giving, she is always willing to do whatever the community needs," says Lauren Dasse, executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. "Whether it's pulling together a Thanksgiving meal for a family whose father was just deported, or giving a workshop in her spare time to families separated by detention or deportation, her dedication is exemplary."
Melrood's altruism and profound commitment to social justice isn't a surprise. For dozens of years, she has worked as both a community activist and social worker. She worked with Central American refugees fleeing wars in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, and was one of the founding members of the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, which gives trainings to health promoters in repatriated refugee communities in Guatemala. She has worked at the juvenile court and was founding director of a local center for relatives caring for children.
"Immigrants tell me their stories, and in the process identify their needs. Then we work together to connect them to tools and resources so they can go forward," Melrood explains. Along the way, most people realize that even with all they have endured, or perhaps because of it, they can still go forward. "The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire taught us that learning occurs best when there is balance in the give and take. I learn from the immigrants' narrative of their journey, then offer my thoughts and perspectives. Neither they nor I have all the answers but we have much to teach and much to learn from one another." In each situation—and at any given time she is juggling her schedule around to fit in another family or another community workshop—Melrood distributes tools for change. And she is happiest when she can get creative about it.
For example, on the day that his first child was born, Tucson police pulled over longtime resident Norlan Flores Prado for a minor traffic violation and transferred him to Border Patrol in the typical fashion of Arizona in the SB 1070 era. He ended up incarcerated in Eloy, Arizona for approximately six weeks, fighting a deportation charge. Once a week, Melrood went to visit him in Eloy with his newborn daughter. "He fell in love with his baby," she said, "and I truly believe that kept him fortified."
In another case, Melrood met with a woman who feared that she and her two children would be separated from her detained husband, who was also facing deportation. First Melrood helped the family connect with a lawyer, who helped free the husband. Then, she connected them to a protection network, a community group comprised of non-citizens and citizens dedicated to supporting the undocumented community in myriad ways, including halting the notion that routine traffic stops, like that of Norlan Flores Prado, have to result in the forced separation of families.
In this sense the work, for Melrood, is also about connecting people to broader grassroots movements and community organizations that push for political and policy changes, and break feelings of isolation families often have in such tough situations.
"It gives me a lot of joy to be out in the community helping people identify solutions," says Melrood, "because people have a right to dignity in their daily life."
The late Chris Carroll
Back in the late 1970s, when other people looked at the row of boarded up buildings that lined East Congress Street and the set of dive bars that seemed to go well with a downtown Tucson in nosedive, friends of Chris Carroll will tell you he saw something that often most of them couldn't see.
The row of boarded up buildings Carroll saw as the future of downtown redevelopment slowly became, under his vision, the row of galleries and other arts spaces, like Dinnerware and WomenKraft. In today's shadow of parking garages, student housing complexes and the constant hum of activity in new restaurants and bars, it's hard to imagine what existed before.
Carroll, with the help of Tucson tradesmen he counted as friend, he restored a series of buildings that eventually became home to artist collective spaces like Dinnerware and WomenKraft, and other galleries and art spaces. It was the beginning of downtown's redevelopment renaissance, and looking back it's good to remind ourselves how easy it is to forget where we came from and maybe Carroll's original vision can help us remember where we want to go.
Carroll, who passed away in July 2013, died in the Franklin House, a El Presidio neighborhood property in his family since 1898, built by his grandfather as a gift to his grandmother bride. Recognized for his historic preservation work downtown and other properties, like his family's Franklin House, Carroll was also a beloved UA English literature professor, loved by his students and known for sitting cross-legged on his desk in front of his classroom.
His wife, Susan Aiken, sitting in the Franklin House's front sitting room, says downtown's troubles seemed to begin when El Con Mall was built in the 1970s and almost every store left downtown for this new shopping venue.
"It was the kind of place nobody wanted to be at night," Aiken says, describing the row of buildings Carroll's family owned in the area now across the street from the Ronstadt Transit Center. Her husband was talking about restoration before anybody realized downtown could be revitalized or before they recognized it needed to be.
Carroll persuaded his family to back him financially as he went from building to building. One project was where Shot in the Dark stands. Another made a home for the forever missed Café Magritte.
"He was really the prime mover and visionary about what those stores could be. He took the old decaying plaster off that exposed the beautiful old bricks and restoreed the floors and turned what had been this rotting row of stores into something really attractive," Aiken says.
Once done, Aiken says her husband went about finding tenants for each space—almost hand picking them. For Shot in the Dark, it was Café Ole. The group of young artists who moved into the same building that later became Cafe Magritte and called themselves Dinnerware, but only because of the faint outline of the old business sign that Carroll purposefully left on the brick in the restoration.
"It was the ghostly remains of a crockery shop," Aiken says. "They liked the name."
The care put into making a home for Café Margritte was also important to Carroll—he had a friend do the walls in a pale peach color fresco. The restaurant's unique stove was made out of car fenders—a work of art, she says.
Before what we call Second Saturdays, there was Downtown Saturday Nights—lively evenings of gallery walks and bands performing at the transit center. Carroll was key to organizing those—thinking about the need to get more people to enjoy downtown and visit the galleries.
Besides leading downtown into a new era, Carroll didn't stop at East Congress Street. He served as acting director of the Tucson Art Center, which became the Tucson Museum of Art at the Knox Corbett House. He served on a variety of boards, including the Downtown Development Corporation and the Industrial Development Authority. He and his wife were honored for preserving the Franklin House, as well as the Zeckendorf-Hughes-Flores House at 433 N. Main Ave.
Aiken wonders if her husband's love of Tucson history and preservation came from his work as a medievalist and his love of medieval literature and other history.
"He understood that history doesn't stop with Homer, Virgil or Chaucer, but continues," Aiken says, adding that Carroll was interested in place and space and the important of place to community and the importance of community to place. "That reciprocal relationship he felt profoundly."
"Chris was a remarkable person of great depth and spirit and enthusiasm and very talented and bright," she says. His father owned a hardware store and worked with his hands, so Carroll never saw a machine he couldn't fix. He was a college professor with a deep respect for the trades and tradesmen who helped him do the restoration work he felt so important to Tucson.
Part of the city's yet-to-be-developed pocket park projects include one near the museum. Aiken says that one will be named after Carroll and most of the funds needed for the project have been raised.
"We're excited. It's fitting that it's right there near the Knox Corbett House," Aiken says. "An honor."