Debating Preservation in the Southwest's Spanish Missions

by Ariana Brocious

TUCSON, ARIZONA

The temperature drops dramatically as you step through tall church doors into the cavernous interior. The ancient five-foot-thick walls have the dignity of living ruins. Where plaster is missing, you can see graying adobe bricks, and the painted decorations on the whitewashed walls have faded. Yet the Tumacácori mission still seems to breathe, and it still provides sanctuary from the shimmering desert heat.

The tower bells toll, and 10 gray-haired men and women enter, singing in Latin as they make their way to the altar past the dozens of people in the transept. A man in a black cassock and wide-brimmed hat addresses the audience with a heavy Spanish accent. He introduces himself as Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuit priest who, beginning in the 1680s, founded a chain of Spanish colonial missions in the Pimería Alta -- modern-day southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan priests established hundreds of missions as far north as San Francisco. The missions served as bases for the Spanish effort to colonize and convert Native Americans and secure the sprawling empire of New Spain. They typically included crops and livestock as well as living quarters (conventos) and a church. Father Kino visited this spot in Arizona a few times, and Franciscans began building the current church in 1800 near the site of a previous Jesuit church. Construction was never finished, but the church is now the centerpiece of Tumacácori National Historical Park, 60 miles south of Tucson. The man in the cassock is really Don Garate, the park's chief of interpretation, who portrays various historical characters to highlight the mission's cultural value.

Soon, Garate changes into a red outfit with a blue cape and a jaunty black hat: He has become a Spanish captain, Juan Bautista de Anza. He poses for photographs, his white handlebar mustache dancing above his smile. "I can bring history to life inside that building a lot easier than I can in an auditorium somewhere," he says, pointing to the church. "That's the beautiful thing about a place like this -- you do have the ruins, the actual building they were in. So that's why you have to do preservation."

Yet despite their importance as tangible symbols of a thorny history, the Southwest's missions survive today in a wide range of conditions. Some are just decaying piles of melted adobe. The National Park Service and other preservation experts are still learning how to take care of them, using earthy materials such as mud and cactus glue. And there's an ongoing philosophical argument: Do we honor history more by arresting its progress or by letting it run its course -- even if it means the loss of historic artifacts?

Slap! Whap! Pedro Tanori throws handfuls of mud into a rectangular wooden frame and carefully presses the mixture of clay, sand and silt into it. You have to keep it flush with the ground to make clean edges on the adobe bricks, he explains. Once he removes the frame, he'll let the bricks dry in the sun for three or four weeks. "Two guys can make about 200-300 adobes a day if they're working pretty quickly and the mud is being made for them," he says.

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Images from the restoration of the San Xavier mission.

Tanori is narrating a video about making adobe bricks. It was filmed during a 2008 workshop at Tumacácori -- a fitting venue, since more than 90,000 adobes went into building the original church. Missions  Initiative -- a group of academics, Park Service staff and craftspeople who support using traditional materials to preserve missions -- ran the workshop. They're working on a comprehensive list of all Spanish Colonial mission sites in the borderlands as well as a manual of the best preservation practices and instructional videos like this one, all posted on a bilingual website. Other hands-on workshops have been held over the last 15 years or so on both sides of the border.

"Adobe preservation is so specialized -- there are really no written manuals," says Pat O'Brien, a National Park Service cultural resource specialist in Tucson. "One of our biggest concerns is losing traditional methodology," says David Yubeta, Tumacácori's former exhibit specialist. "(We're) trying to get people to remember how to do it like they did in the old days."

Since Tumacácori became part of the Park Service system in 1916, it has served as an experimental site for preservation techniques. Its walls record the changing philosophy. Early on, the agency believed that structures had to be fully restored -- even rebuilt if necessary -- for visitors to understand and appreciate them. But over the years, a different approach has emerged. It holds that historical authenticity is better served if ruins are stabilized and preserved, but not completely rebuilt.

Preservation crews constantly search for better ways to extend the lifespan of ruins. From the 1930s through the 1970s, they used synthetic resins, latex paints and Portland cement. But those are not compatible with natural materials like adobe mud and lime plaster, which expand and contract from moisture changes in what Yubeta calls a rhythm of "breathing and moving and twisting and turning and dancing and doing the hula-hoop." In many places, cement-hardened adobe walls eroded internally to such a degree that they became little more than hollow shells. The church at Tumacácori suffered from those methods; rebar was even drilled into walls to keep the plaster in place. "Things the NPS did come back to haunt you," says Yubeta. "At the time they were done, that was the best method, but what they didn't realize was the incredible damage it caused."

The Park Service began to take an even more hands-off approach -- simply stabilizing ruins with mostly natural materials -- in the late 1970s. That's apparent at Tumacácori's sister missions -- Calabasas and Guevavi -- which share the 360-acre site along the Santa Cruz River and were brought under Park Service management in the 1990s. At Guevavi, the roof fell in long ago and has not been replaced.

"We view buildings as artifacts," says Jeremy Moss, chief of resource management at Tumacácori. The value lies in the oldness, he adds. "With every restoration project, you're masking the original. ... It's hard to impart to people the importance of the places in the past when the material isn't from the past."

Even the minimalist approach requires substantial work, and it's difficult to round up money and skilled craftspeople. Concerned about the deterioration of ruins, national park preservation workers in New Mexico and Arizona began a grassroots campaign in the mid-1990s to get more support. "The Navajo and Hispanic guys in New Mexico got to talking, saying, 'When we're gone, there's no more like us,' " Yubeta recalls. The "Vanishing Treasures" campaign started receiving congressional funding in 1998 to assist preservation in 45 "earthen resource parks," including four mission ruins, in seven Western states and Texas. These parks compete for a share of $1 million each year. That's small change compared to other federal programs but noticeable on the ground: Vanishing Treasures funded more than 60 new preservation efforts in its first 10 years and still covers the work done by Moss.

But the workshops and campaigns have not succeeded in recruiting young people to the cause. Yubeta has spoken to students at Hispanic college conferences, but even those with a cultural connection to the missions want the "computers, three-piece suits and money" that come with more  fashionable -- and lucrative -- professions. He worries that much of the preservation work might end up going to recent college graduates who majored in historic preservation, rather than to talented masons. "They'll be great architects but they'll never touch the mud" -- unless they attend workshops or get other hands-on experience.

Yubeta, who recently retired, spent 25 years holding entropy in check. He and his crew traveled around the Southwest working on ruins on Park Service and other federal land, using traditional materials like adobe and lime to repair and stabilize the sites. Often the work involves triage, as crews do emergency repairs. Comic and gregarious, Yubeta is widely regarded as the region's foremost expert on adobe preservation. "It's just dirt," he says modestly. "I understand dirt. It's very simple, very forgiving."

Yubeta picked up some of his knowledge when his Hispanic relatives taught him how to repair his grandmother's adobe house. But Yubeta's Apache mother was not so keen on preservation. "When I came to work at the Park Service ... my mom really balked," says Yubeta. She scolded him for forgetting that everything must grow old and die; in her view, preserving a decaying building goes against the natural order of things. Some feel that's especially true of the missions because of what they symbolize.

The biggest churches, with their European architecture, can look absurdly out of place in the desert, looming over mesquite and prickly pear cactus. They are also relics of the colonization of tribes, including the Tohono O'odham's ancestors. Dale Brenneman, assistant curator of documentary history at the Arizona State Museum, points out that the Spaniards may have forced the Natives to labor on these buildings. The missionaries -- and the soldiers that accompanied them -- had a permanent impact on the locals.

"To us (people of European descent), the missions evoke something romantic," Brenneman says. "To the Tohono O'odham, they might represent something different: domination, extermination."

But Austin Nuñez, chairman of the San Xavier district of the Tohono O'odham nation, says that most hard feelings about what the missions represent have faded. "Now, it's just a given," says Nuñez. "From a spiritual standpoint, 80 percent of this community is practicing Catholic." (Many still practice traditional beliefs as well.) "The church binds families together," Nuñez says. "It's good."

One of the liveliest mission churches, San Xavier del Bac -- nicknamed "the White Dove of the Desert" -- stands on the Tohono O'odham Reservation on Tucson's southern fringe. At a Sunday Mass, Tohono O'odham, Mexican-American and Anglo patrons pack the wooden pews, their choruses of "Thanks be to God" echoing in the vaulted domes, as a bearded Franciscan friar leads the congregation in prayer. This is no re-enactment, and San Xavier is not a national park. Since its construction in the late 1700s, San Xavier has been an active Catholic church, hosting baptisms, funerals, weddings and quinceañeras (elaborate 15th-birthday celebrations for Hispanic girls).

On any given day, tourists wander around the church and visit the tiny museum and gift shop. An adjacent smoky candlelit chapel is dedicated to St. Francis, and Tohono O'odham sell fry bread in ocotillo-roofed lean-tos.

Four generations of the Morales family have tended San Xavier, supervised since 1989 by historic preservation architect Bob Vint. There is very little missing plaster, and the inside walls are covered with colorful murals that gleam brightly after careful cleaning by European specialists. Statues of saints are tucked into niches, and the walls are so heavily decorated with gold and silver leaf that they resemble the Vatican. Outside the church, Vint points out blue barrels that hold slaked lime (calcium oxide), explaining how the limestone is heated, pulverized and mixed with water to achieve a good plaster. The preservation crew, at least half of whom are Tohono O'odham, boils prickly-pear cactus pads and presses out a natural glue they add to the lime plaster. The cactus glue helps the plaster flow smoothly, adhere well and cure without cracks.

When Vint started working here, the Morales family was still using synthetic materials. Vint's mentor in Mexico City recommended a switch to traditional materials. So the crew stripped layers of cement and latex paint off the church, scraping the walls down to the original adobe brick. Then they applied lime plaster, bright white and smooth to the touch. The work is funded by the Patronato San Xavier foundation. And the Tohono O'odham are proud of it, or at least accept it, say Nuñez and Vint.

Caring for a functioning church is different than caring for ruins, says Vint. "We're preserving it on into the future because it still has a life, so we're renewing it. ... The guts of it are old, it just has a new skin." The skin -- the lime plaster -- will last a couple hundred years with proper maintenance, he says proudly, sliding his hand across the wall.

But recently, the reconstruction has been struggling. Owing to a budget crisis, this year the state withdrew a $150,000 grant, which would have helped complete the unfinished left tower. Two workers were laid off and the rest of the crew now works a four-day week. The slower pace means that the east tower (still under a cement casing) will deteriorate further and ultimately cost more to repair.

Near downtown Tucson, dust devils swirl on roughly 15 bulldozed acres at the base of Sentinel Peak. The vacant lot is occupied by a single square adobe wall. You'd never guess that this was the site of the city's humble beginnings, where Franciscan friars built the Mission San Agustín in the O'odham village of Chuk-shun around 1800. The historic buildings are long gone, and the city of Tucson destroyed the remains of the old mission in the 1950s. For a while the site was even used as a landfill.

The reconstructed adobe wall, built to surround a reconstruction of the mission gardens, is the first phase of the planned Tucson Origins Heritage Park. If completed, the complex will eventually include a brand-new Mission San Agustín, with a reconstructed chapel, convento and walled orchard as well as a re-creation of Native American settlements.

Archaeologists recently found evidence here of settlement and maize cultivation dating back 4,100 years. They also found North America's earliest known irrigation canals and the Southwest's oldest known pottery, according to Jonathan Mabry, Tucson's historic preservation officer. The site also holds artifacts from Chinese tenant farmers, remains of mission-era Native American pithouses and the foundations of a 19th-century brick factory. "With the archaeological findings from this project, Tucson can arguably claim to be the oldest continually inhabited place in the U.S.," says Mabry. "There's no other place that lays claim to that deep of a history."

But the mission reconstruction might not ever be finished. The work has stagnated for a decade, and not just because of the money problems of its parent entity, the ambitious Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project approved by voters in 1999. It's also caught up in the philosophical argument over the meaning of historical preservation.

People like R. Brooks Jeffery, coordinator of preservation studies at the University of Arizona, see this reconstruction as an assault on history, not an homage to it. Jeffery, who's also involved in the Missions Initiative efforts around the Southwest, says the contextual relationship between the Santa Cruz River, Tucson's old presidio (the original walled fort) and Mission San Agustín has been lost due to urban development. The historical place "has been completely desecrated," he says. Furthermore, he argues that it will be close to impossible to recreate a historically accurate building using modern materials and without any existing physical remains or documentary evidence of how the mission was built. To people in Jeffery's camp, new structures would dishonor the existing missions that Missions Initiative is working so hard to help maintain.

Vint, at the San Xavier Mission, also strongly opposes the reconstruction. "We have a real, intact 18th-century building (at San Xavier). If people want to go back in time, they can come here and walk inside this intact architectural space." Vint calls Tucson's reconstruction "a waste of money and a falsification of history."

Supporters include the Friends of Tucson's Birthplace, a nascent group that is collecting donations just to cover the mission gardens. The garden wall and gates are finished, and the Friends group is launching a fund-raising effort to pay for water and electricity. They would like to start planting by March 2011; meanwhile, a joint city-state effort is planned to plant 100 "(Father) Kino Heritage trees" next year, grown from cuttings of very old trees -- direct descendants of the Old World fruit trees brought here by the Spanish missionaries.

Diana Hadley, former director of Ethnohistorical Research at the Arizona State Museum, envisions the downtown park as a living history museum for newcomers as well as longtime Tucson residents. "There's no hands-on instruction of our history here," Hadley says. The park would be an "unparalleled teaching tool." She acknowledges that the reconstruction would not be totally accurate but believes that people would "still get the wonderful feeling of what a mission was really like ... (understanding) that the mission wasn't just the church but rather a Native American village with a Spanish settlement laid on top."

Tumacácori's Don Garate shares Hadley's reasoning: "Tucson doesn't know its history, especially its Spanish history. Like all big cities, it's buried its history and built stuff over the top of it."

Unfortunately, the general public is not exactly clamoring for historical missions in any condition. None of the missions attract the throngs of visitors that charismatic natural recreation parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite do. Tumacácori attracts only 40,000 or so visitors each year -- one of the lowest totals in the national park system. Mission supporters hope to draw more visitors in the future, but they also believe, as Moss says, "You can't measure resources by the amount of people that visit. (The missions have) a larger meaning."

That notion seems to be shared by everyone involved. Despite his skepticism about Tucson's fumbling reconstruction of the downtown mission, Jeffery says the importance of preservation work in general lies in cultural identity -- in the feeling of connection to a specific place. "The next generation is one of placelessness -- we're already a very transient society. This is about what makes this place unique."

Ariana Brocious, a former High Country News intern, is a native of Tucson. Don Garate passed away on Sept. 21, 2010.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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