Pioneering People

The stories of area Mexican Americans show love for a land largely lost to development and industry

Patricia Preciado Martin, an oral historian, and José Galvez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning lensman, have teamed up to produce Beloved Land: An Oral History of Mexican Americans in Southern Arizona (University of Arizona Press, 2004). They highlight 10 people who reveal through interviews and pictures what life was like for the legions of Mexican-American families whose roots and history were tied to la tierra, the land.

"It is difficult now to imagine and appreciate fully the cultural, spiritual and linguistic legacy of--and the economic and intellectual contributions made by--the pioneer Hispano and Mexicano families in 'El Norte,'" writes Martin, a former recipient of Arizona Author of the Year accolades.

Of the five women interviewed, Agatha Cota Gastellum, now approaching 90 years of age, is one of the younger ones.

"We lived in a homestead house built by my grandfather in Tumacacori," she remembers. "Life was hard. We either grew what we needed, built it, shared it with someone else, or did without because there wasn't a convenience store nearby to buy it--or money to pay for it either. Whatever extra we had, whether it was fruit, vegetables, or honey, my father would put on the side of the road for others to make use of."

Life in a country that overlooked the geographical demarcation between the United States and Mexico is eloquently chronologued in the vignettes from each interviewee. Gastellum's husband, Luis (who passed away in March 2000), represents the feeling of most in his reflection: "I cannot help but feel nostalgic for the beauty and the spirit that prevailed in the valley when I was young. The giant cottonwood trees and thick willow groves have disappeared from the Santa Cruz Valley because of the water being pumped by the mines, and the big cash crop farms have replaced the truck gardens of the original settlers. It was a time when one could freely travel the horse-and-wagon trails that linked the valley. Few fences blocked the way, and gates could be easily opened and closed. The sense of community is completely gone now. I don't think that there is enough mingling of the old natives with the new people coming in. The old families are completely out of the picture."

Galvez's photographs--his reading of the faces of the storytellers themselves--bring the stories alive for modern-day readers. Chapped hands, wrinkled brows and weathered skin are a testament to labor, to endurance and to the land. The former Los Angeles Times cameraman has been capturing character and revealing drama on film since he was 10 years old.

"This was a totally different kind of project than my previous work in Vatos, my first book," he says. "Although the images are posed rather than spontaneous, they came out dignified, and this is a book about the history of pioneering families who didn't have much aside from their dignity. These people had very little, but they made the most of what they had, and I hope my photos convey that."

Author Martin introduces her work with a heads-up, what-to-expect introduction. "This is not a book about the powerful or the wealthy, the famous or the political. It is a book that documents, in the voices of 10 pioneers, the history that thousands of us of Mexican descent share through our ancestors, hardy individuals who settled in often isolated regions and lived off the land."

Martin spent several years and made repeat visits to the featured families in order to elicit poignant memoirs, and sums up the essence of the collection of essays this way: "They have helped us to understand and appreciate their strong sense of family values as well as their passion for the land and the environment in which they live. The stories are about interdependence as well as independence, about struggles as well as harmony with the land, but mostly about love affairs with the land and a way of life that is rapidly disappearing."

Historian Tom Sheridan, who wrote the book's foreword, expresses similar sentiments: "This book pulses with life--food, family, music, work. But it is also an elegy. A few of these families have held onto their ranchos, but most have lost their land to Anglo ranchers or Anglo developers. This hard, self-reliant way of life is nearly gone north of the international border and the end of this way of life is a profound loss."

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