I wrote this piece for one of my journalism classes. I could only scratch the surface of the issues here, and I’d like to follow up with more stories that explore the ideas I encountered on my trip. Until then, enjoy, and please, as always, tell me what you think!
Tubac, Ariz. is a catalyst for reinvention, a kernel of creativity, an oasis in the midst of chaos.
Nestled in the desert just 45 minutes south of Tucson, it attracts artists, retirees, tourists and small-business owners from around the world who keep its small community of about 1,200 thriving year-round.
In the summer, fauna and flora paint the surrounding landscape green and pepper it with yellow blossoms. The sun is relentless, but the dusty pink earth keeps the town cool. Shop-owners, neighbors and visitors mingle in the shade between galleries and boutiques. Ceramic pots, larger-than life sculptures and trickling fountains decorate the streets.
However, this laid-back historic town lies within the Sonoran desert, which, according to some, is becoming more and more like the Wild West everyday.
“In certain places it’s nice and peaceful and lovely,” said Zack Taylor, vice chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, “but in other places it’s lawless.”
Taylor, who retired from his position as a U.S. Border Patrol Supervisor in 2003, said while those in Tubac keep an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude, illegal activity thrives just beyond their community.
That is why he supported a bill proposed by Rep. Peggy Judd that would have required the Department of Homeland Security to disseminate safety warnings about illegal activity it deemed potentially dangerous to the public.
“What we see on TV, we see in our own backyards,” Judd said. “People say nothing is happening, but things really are.”
Fearing Judd’s bill would deter tourists and hurt businesses, the residents of Tubac and other border towns voiced their dissent, and the bill was dropped.
“Everybody recognizes that that bill was an absolutely foolish thing to do,” said Shaw Kinsley, director of the Tubac Presidio State Park and president of the Tubac Historical Society. “This area is perfectly safe, and, in fact, the area across the border is as well.”
While Judd’s bill died, the conversation surrounding security and illegal activity in Southern Arizona is fresh as ever. As a native Arizonan who’d never traveled south of Tucson, I decided the best way to weed through the controversy would be to find out for myself what the region has to offer.
A day-trip to Tubac gave me only a taste of Southern Arizona living, but it was just enough to feed my curiosity.
All About Lifestyle
Most businesses in Tubac don’t open their doors until 10:30 or 11:00, so arrive a little ahead of lunch-time with an appetite.
Before your meal, head over to the K. Newby Galleries and Sculpture Garden on the south side of the village, past Tubac Road. In the garden, which features sculptures of all kinds, I found elegant copper figures, a cartoonish dairy cow peering over a blue metallic horse and kinetic pinwheels that stood together like groves of trees.
A path leads to the gallery, where you’re likely to meet Leroy Doyle, one of the “old-timers.” Doyle came to Tubac in 1989 to be an abstract artist only to fall in love with the other side of art– retail. He’s been working at the K. Newby Gallery for 23 years.
“Tubac’s got to embrace you, you can’t embrace it,” he told me.
For Doyle, Tubac is about a lifestyle.
“I like everything about it,” he said. “I like meeting the same people everyday at the post office. I like going out to dinner and knowing people sitting in the dining room.”
From the gallery, walk over to Shelby’s Bistro for Southwest flavor and a diverse menu of salads, wraps, pizzas and burgers. If you’re in the mood for salad, try the “Wine Country,” $11.99. For a heartier, spicier lunch, try the “Tequila-Lime Chicken Wrap,” also $11.99.
Make sure to save room for dessert. While exploring the plaza next door, Mercado de Baca, I stumbled upon The Chile Pepper Coffee Cup. This cafe is home to the “Iced Choffee,” a Tubac original. It’s a glass of cooled Mexican hot chocolate and frozen coffee cubes topped with whipped cream, $3.50.
See Some, Shop Some
For a dose of history, visit the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, the first state park in Arizona. It exists to maintain the ruins of the San Ignacio de Tubac, a Spanish Presidio that was established in 1752. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for youth 7 to 13 and free for kids 6 and under.
Fashionistas will enjoy Jane’s Attic, a thrift shop where both vintage and contemporary styles fill the racks. All of the merchandise comes from Tubac residents, according to Jane Lowder, the shop’s owner.
Lowder moved to Tubac from the Bay Area, leaving a career in finance behind. She didn’t know what she would do when she settled in the village, but she soon discovered it needed a retail boutique.
“I just decided I was tired of the rat race,” Lowder said. “So I thought, what the heck I’ll throw in the towel and see what happens.”
Outside of her shop, my newly purchased purse and jacket in a bag by my side, I asked her how she perceived Tubac’s relationship with Mexico and the border.
“I think we both feel that we need each other,” she replied. “It’s a relationship that I think really needs to be helped somehow.”
Meet the Artist
From Jane’s Attic, walk across the street and pay a visit to Purcell Galleries, where you might even meet the artist himself.
When I stepped through the door, Roy Purcell, the man behind the famous murals of Chloride, Ariz., sat painting golden cactus blossoms. Vibrant images of nature burst from the wall behind him. In the next room hung etchings of mythological goddesses, said to be the largest etchings in the world.
Purcell left a 35-year career in Las Vegas to “reinvent” in Tubac. He’s always been drawn to nature and the Sonoran desert never bores him.
“I came for the beauty,” he told me. “I wanted a place to put roots and further develop my career.”
As I began to explain to Purcell why I had come to Tubac in the first place, his director, Brent Land chimed in.
“Are you talking about the travel warning bill?” he asked. Land lives in Tubac proper and served on the town’s chamber of commerce.
“As a merchant, I think that really hurts us,” he said. “That bill would’ve made us a ghost town.”
If you plan to stay for dinner, try the Italian Peasants Pizzeria, next to Tubac Market. Every person I spoke to recommended it. You’ll find everything from New York Knish, $4.99, to a 10 oz. Peasant Burger, $10.99, to Shrimp Scampi, $19.99.
Remember that you’ll have to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint on your way north. The checkpoint was south of Tubac until the government moved it further up I-19 several years ago.
As I approached the uniformed officers and the frantic drug dogs, I remembered my conversation with Lowder:
“It’s scary for a lot of people who aren’t living with it,” she told me. “You know, we’re living with it everyday now so we don’t even think about it anymore.”
“What are you living with?” I asked.
“We’re living with the reality that we have a checkpoint north of us, that anytime we travel north we’re going to have to go through this checkpoint and answer questions. ‘Are you a U.S. citizen? Where are you going?’”
When I pulled up next to the Border Patrol officer, who still wore impenetrable, black glasses despite the setting sun, I rolled down my window, waiting for questions. Yet all he said was, “How you doin’, ma’am.” I replied, then he waved me through.
On the other side of the line, I recalled Lowder’s voice once again:
“Why do they believe me if I say I’m a U.S. citizen? And why do they not believe other people?”