Filler The Road To Soyopa

A New Book Explores the Back Roads of Sonora.

ALTHOUGH HE BEGAN writing his new book Sonora: An Intimate Geography, just published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1991, David Yetman figures he has been working on it nearly all of his adult life. "My fascination with Sonora began when I was 20 years old, in the early 1960s, but even then it was a longtime goal to get there," he says. "I was a sickly child, and at the age of eight, back in New Jersey, I began to dream about living in some Mexican tropical forest. When I came to Tucson to attend college, I decided I wanted to find out what was south of Nogales. I took off on my scooters--first I had a Cushman, which they don't make any more, and then a couple of Vespas--and headed south."

Over the last three decades, Yetman figures he's covered most of the Mexican state to our south, and Sonora reports what he found: a changing landscape and economy, a thriving society with a strongly independent streak, wary of the ambitions of Mexico City and Washington alike.

In writing the book, Yetman says, "I was trying to find out what Sonora was really like. Many people know the highway from Nogales to San Carlos, or maybe Mazatlan, but I wanted people to know what else was there--especially what's up there in the Sierra, where not so many people, Mexican or American, travel."

Yetman, a former Pima County supervisor, "kicked the politics addiction" several years ago. He is now a research social scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona and a frequent contributor to the Center's publication Journal of the Southwest. He also travels frequently to Sonora, studying indigenous agriculture and plants in the manner of one of his heroes, the plant geographer Howard Scott Gentry.

"I will continue to visit Sonora--six, eight times a year," he writes in the book's epilog. "I will camp in the tropical deciduous forest, sleep by the Sea of Cortés, watch chiruzas in Cucurpe, and sit in the plaza of Bacadéhuachi. I will chronicle the changes, the gains, the losses. I hope the people will be understanding of my attempts to describe them. I hope our common humanity unites us before technology and nationalism tear us apart."

In this passage, Yetman and his collaborator, Tucson psychiatrist and photographer Virgil Hancock, venture off well-traveled roads to visit the Pima villages of Nuri and Onavas.

AT THE TIME of the Spanish Conquest Pima Bajo Indians, who occupied lands along the middle Yaqui seventy miles upstream from the delta, found themselves squeezed between the expanding Opatas from the north and the obdurate Yaquis from the south. Their lands included the present-day villages of Movas and Onavas, several villages on the Río Nuri, including Nuri itself, and Yécora and Maycoba in the Sierra Madre. Their discomfort at being pressed between two great powers may explain why in the early 1500s one Pima village moved as a group to Sinaloa, where they requested baptism and settled on more peaceful lands.

Nuri, an ancient Pima village on the Río Nuri, a tributary of the Yaqui, is built on a terrace above the stream at the base of the Lomas Las Cuates (Twin Buttes), an imposing range covered with dense tropical deciduous forest, the dark pine-covered slopes of the Sierra Madre looming in the distance. Nuri seems unmoved by the paved highway that was completed nearby in the late 1970s. Someone from the village took advantage of the new route and maintains a fifty-foot-high painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a sheer cliff face so close to the highway that rivers of wax from candles left by the faithful have run onto the pavement. The new road has killed much of the town's commerce. Travelers no longer linger in the village to buy food and drink or stay in a rented room. Indifferent vehicles whiz by on the highway as Nuri declines into oblivion.

Many of Nuri's older buildings are crumbling adobes, magnificent in their senescence. I first visited here in 1967 after a summer of abundant rains. Grass was bright green in the valley, including the grass growing from the mud rooftops of the village. A goat stood atop one home, chewing away energetically at the rooftop pasture. The streets were rutted, with only a few cobbles to hold back the soil. There was no electricity. The men wore white calzones, the traditional white Mexican pants of the peasant. The girls and women all wore long cotton dresses.

Image The town's appearance has changed little, although the men now wear Levis, and the younger women and girls wear slacks. Electricity has arrived, but Nuri still has the atmosphere of a once-busy village slowly dissolving into history. No fence protects the plaza, and cows and burros have nibbled the pathetic vegetation to the roots and below. Virgil found the place starkly photogenic, as I had hoped he would. While he set up a giant camera, I ambled into a nearby general store and ordered two cokes. There must be fifty thousand such stores, known as tiendas de abarrotes, throughout the republic. Seldom illuminated with more than a bare light bulb, they always appear dark from the outside. Even at night, their source of illumination is a single sixty-watt light bulb. If the door is open, the store is open. If not, it's closed. It's that simple. This one was open.

Conversation ceased among the nine or ten locals inside the store. Ten pairs of eyes stared at me soundlessly as the grocer, a stout fellow in his forties, pulled the bottles from an ancient, belt-driven refrigerator. I explained to him what we were doing. He nodded in approval. "Your town is a lovely place," I told him.

"Why don't you move here?" he replied, hope and curiosity in his eyes.

"That's not a bad idea," I confessed. "It's peaceful here, not as hot as Ciudad Obregón, plenty of open space. I might like it." I wasn't being completely sincere, perhaps, but it was a tranquil place, I thought.

"I can sell you a house--cheap," he offered.

"Ah," I said, lacking any response more articulate. "A house for sale!"

"Yes," he smiled. "I own eight of them here. From the top," and he pointed up the street to the base of the mountain that towers over the town, "to the bottom," and he indicated the river below.

I expected him to offer me a prospectus next. I assured him he would be the first person I would consult if I were to move here. Then I moved on outside with the cokes. What is it about real estate salesmen, anyway?

A block away, two white-haired old men were seated on the high curb, enjoying the pleasant afternoon weather. I sat down near them, and we watched Virgil adjusting his camera. I explained to them what he was doing. One of the men immediately launched into conversation. "Siéntate, joven," (Sit down, young man), he said in an old voice. He was eighty-two, he said, and had had a serious fall a few months ago. Fortunately, he had dragged himself home and managed to undress himself, but he had broken several ribs and cut himself. Finally his children had come to help him.

He didn't feel comfortable living in Nuri any more, even though he had lived here all his life. He thought it had become very dangerous. He looked at me with expectant seriousness.

"Dangerous? In Nuri?" I asked.

"Yes," he nodded forcefully and pointed across the plaza. "Dangerous. That man down the street, there he sits right now, shot the school teacher to death. Just like that. He shot the school teacher to death, and they've let him go free. What a disgrace!" Maybe he had a point. I suddenly felt a desire to make sure the exits from town were unobstructed.

"So now you have no school?" I asked him carefully.

"No school. But all the rest of us in town have gotten up a petition to the Ministry of Education to send us a new teacher. That bastard!" He glared at the man seated along the plaza.

Well now, I thought to myself, I doubt if I'll apply to fill the vacancy. As a matter of fact, I'll just bet the list of applicants is rather short, especially once they become informed about the early retirement of the previous teacher.

It seems there's intrigue in Nuri I don't know much about. I decided I wouldn't stick around to learn more, even if it is a beautiful place, but just remember, houses are plentiful there--and surprisingly affordable. It is a place of undeniable charm, rich history, and small-town neighborliness.

Image In 1992 I found Onavas, on the Río Yaqui downstream on the Río Chico from Nuri, much changed from the first time I visited it in 1967 in a pouring rainstorm. I'd come to find Pima Bajo Indians who were said to be owners of an ejido near Onavas. I found none and learned that the ejido is made up entirely of non-Pimas.

The village sits on a gentle slope, green rich fields separating it from the river to the west. The ancient church, built in 1622 according to residents, was in a state of magnificent decay, the nave collapsed, the bell tower listing, but still resplendent. The town was peaceful and rural, my truck the only one to pass through there on that gray rainy day.

In 1992 the church was being restored. The bell tower stands upright, visible for several kilometers. The nave has a roof. The facade has been plastered and painted: the tower white, the nave yellow. Services, masses, and rites of passage are performed, although the interior is empty. There are no pews, no organ, and no piano.

A group of men sat on a bench under a grand guayacán tree. I chatted with them, while Virgil photographed the church. They wanted to know if Virgil is a professional photographer. I explained that he is a psychiatrist as well as a semi-professional picture taker. "He ought to come live here," one of the middle-aged men quipped. "He'd have plenty of business." They got a good laugh out of that, each of them pointing vigorously at the others.

An older man, thin as a rail, bowlegged from riding two thousand too many horses, wearing worn but expensive boots and a new cowboy shirt, wandered up to the group. He looked at me. "What the hell's a gringo doing here?" he asked the others. Some of the men snickered.

"He and his friend are taking pictures. He speaks Spanish," one of them told the older man, pointing at me. They all laughed as I grinned.

The old fellow sat down next to me on a low wall within the shade of the guayacán. "Well, gringo, my name's Lorenzo." His eyes twinkled.

"Mine's David," I said and held out my hand. He grasped it and laughed. "I suppose you want to buy some Marijuana?" The others were expectantly silent.

"No," I said slowly, trying not to burst out laughing. "I don't use mota (slang for Marijuana)."

The crowd murmured. This was fun. "You got your hat in Nacori, didn't you?" he asked, pinching the brim, verifying its double weave.

"Close," I answered with a compliment. "Buena Vista. A few kilometers down the road."

"You want to buy gold?"

"How much?"

"Ten grams. It's all I can afford to hold onto."

"No, I mean, how much do you want for it?"

"200,000 pesos. That's all."

"Nuggets or dust?"

"Dust, of course."

"I think I'll pass, but tell me, were you born here?" and we lapsed into other conversation. He told me of gold mines in the area, of Texans hoping to strike it rich, opening up old mines.

"Strange folk, those Texans. Didn't speak much Spanish. Spoke funny English, too." His body shook with a cough as a truck sputtered by. He hopped in. Another fellow walked up, carrying several caguamas (liter bottles) of Tecate beer. The gathering dispersed and headed for the local pool hall. TW

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