Arizona Centennial Week: Secrets of Southern AZ

Celebrating Centennial

Today kicks off Arizona’s Centennial Week, the Arizona Territory became the State of Arizona on February 14, 1912. This week A Traveler’s Library will take a look at Arizona from several different angles, starting with folk customs.

Destination: Arizona

Book: A Border Runs Through It, Journeys in Regional History and Folklore (NEW 2011) by Jim Griffith [A Top Pick Selection in the Best Books of the Southwest 2011]

Cascarone: Easter Egg Extraordinaire
Cascarone: Easter Egg Extraordinaire

Jim Griffith, an expert in the culture and folklore of the pimeria alta has served as my guru on a variety of subjects regarding my adopted state, including crafts, language and foods.  One of the first things I learned from reading and listening to “Big Jim” and other historians of Arizona is that I live in what the 16th to 18th century Spanish called this region–northern Pima land.  They extended their southern territory in today’s Mexico into what is now northern Sonora Mexico and Southern Arizona.  The Spanish dubbed the native people of those lands the Pima.  Today these natives have reclaimed their own name–Tohono O’odham, which means The Desert People.

A Border Runs Through It  starts with tidbits like that about place names.  Where did that unique word “Tucson” come from? My own question is why so many otherwise savvy people from news reporters to on-line writers insist on blending it with a region of Italy and spelling it Tuscon? Not right, folks–but understandable, I guess.  If we had stuck with the original pronunciation, Tuk-son’, Easterners would not be so confused.

And what does the name Arizona mean?  Despite pop linguistical analysis, it is not “arid zone,”  instead it comes from a perhaps surprising source–Basque.  Yep! Names reveal interesting facts.  Many of the names we think of as Spanish are actually Basque since many of the soldiers who explored and guarded the Spanish empire in the west were Basques and their descendants still populate these areas.

Tourists throng Mission San Xavier del Bac
Tourists throng Mission San Xavier del Bac
Quail marching on wall at San Xavier Mission Museum
Quail marching on wall at San Xavier Mission Museum, a Tohono O’odham design.

Griffith takes us to “time machines” like Mission San Xavier del Bac, just south of Tucson. Built in 1797 on a site first visited by Father Kino in 1692, the recently restored church is still an active parish. Father Kino left behind a string of missions in pimeria alta, and Griffith explains how we can remember Kino every time we eat beef wrapped in a flour tortilla, since he introduced cattle and wheat to the Pimas.



But Griffith does not just talk about “Old stuff”. He talks about the Baroque structure of San Xavier, the designs of low rider cars and street murals and grafitti in the same sentence. If people do it, did it, or talk about somebody doing it–Griffith is interested and finds a way to interest us.

Despite the fact that Griffith headed the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona for forty years, and is recognized as an expert in his subject, his books are anything but tedious scholarly tomes.  In fact, they are personal, humorous and downright folksy–as befits his subject matter. Anyone moving to Southern Arizona should have some of Griffith’s books on his shelf.  A Border Runs Through It is a concise summary of the high points of a lifetime’s work, and required reading for any resident who wants to understand his/her homeland.

As for travelers–A Border Runs Through It will suggest numerous places to visit and road trips that definitely get you off the beaten track.

  • Mission San Xavier del Bac
  • El Tiradito Wishing Shrine
  • A Yaqui Easter Celebration
  • Barrios and Street Art
  • Pilgrimages in Sonora
  • Picking Saguaro Fruits
  • And many more

If you would like an overview of the entire state, be sure to check out another of the Best Books of the Southwest, Jim Turner’s Arizona: A Celebration of the Grand Canyon State.  And for kids, we already reviewed Way Out West and Wacky, which has been chosen as an “Arizona Reads” book for kids for the next year.

Stay tuned this week for more about Arizona–a Valentine’s story, a memoir of a school ma’rm, a photo of surprising desert, and a novel view of the Navajo Reservation.

If you are from the U.S., what did your state do for its centennial? (Only Hawaii and Alaska are younger than Arizona and New Mexico). Were there books published to help us know your state?

(Photographs on this article are all my own, and I appreciate your respecting my copyright. Please do not reuse, without my permission.)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “Arizona Centennial Week: Secrets of Southern AZ

  1. So, what DOES Tucson mean? Is it Basque, too, or maybe one of the Native American languages? And how ’bout Arizona? Interesting that it’s Basque and doesn’t mean “arid zone”, but what does it mean?

  2. Isn’t history fun? You can keep going back farther and farther and watch a region’s culture unfold like layers of an onion.

    And thanks for not making us do homework to look up the meaning of Tucson. 🙂

  3. This sounds like an excellent book- I love finding out why things are named a particular name- or why people do a particular thing in the area. Will definitely check it out.

    Also- thanks so much the bag and the t-shirt arrived!! Bless you! My son-in-law’s favorite movie of all time is Shawshank- so I was able to give him the t-shirt and he loved it!

  4. Thank you for sharing “A Border Runs Through It” I will have to check it out. (Although—what does Tucson mean?) Will check it out. -r

    1. Should I make you read the book to find it, or should I tell you? Well, trusting that you’ll read the book….Schuk Shon is a Tohono O’odham Word meaning “at the black base”–or in other words the base of the “Black Mountain” (a small mountain on the west of the present Tucson, where an Indian village was located). The Spanish changed that to Tucso’n and the whole name was San Augusten del Tuqui-son.

  5. sounds like my kind of book. I have spent a long time in northern New Mexico and a good amount of time in Texas, so familiar with how cultures and history intersect in those parts of the southwest, but know Arizona mainly through its musicians. thanks for the intorduction to this book.

    1. Beware, Kerry. Once you read the book, you’ll want to explore Southern Arizona. Jim Griffith has also written extensively about folk music of the area in other books.

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