barrio el hoyo, barrio ochoa, barrio hollywood, barrio santa rosa. and my favorite: the lost barrio (because that one, a few miles east of the others, got “lost” apparently).

barrios stud the map of tucson’s historic center. if you’re not from here, however, you might be wondering just what the heck a “barrio” is anyway, or even if you know, if it’s a word that you can use in polite conversation. (before we moved here i mentioned ‘the barrios’ to chris one day–i had attended the U of A some years earlier, so i knew tucson a little–and he said ‘i’m not sure you should say that.’ i think he thought it was the spanish equivalent of saying someone lived in ‘the hood’!)

all of which is to say (in case you’re still in doubt) that ‘barrio’ simply means ‘neighborhood’. and our barrio, barrio viejo, is one of the oldest in tucson.

though in the beginning it wasn’t the ‘old’ neighborhood, of course. back in the mid-1800s it went by the name of ‘barrio libre’ because of all of the naughty stuff that went on there. a tucson city directory from 1881 explains:

‘it means Free Zone, and in earlier times was allowed to remain without legal restraints or the presence of a policeman. here, the mescalian could imbibe his fill, and either male or female could, in peaceful intoxication, sleep on the sidewalk or in the middle of the streets, with all their ancient rights respected. fandangoes, monte, chicken fights, broils, and all the amusements of the lower class of mexicans were, in this quarter, indulged in without restraint; and to this day much of the old-time regime prevails, although the encroachments of the american element indicate the ultimate doom of the customs in the barrio libre.’

while i’m not sure what ‘ancient rights’ may have been due to drunk people sleeping it off in the middle of the streets, the description rocks. besides the licentiousness, there was also carrillo gardens–an eight-acre park on the west side of the barrio founded in the 1870s. the park was planted in peach, pomegranate and apricot trees, and had a huge rose garden. there were also three spring fed-ponds on which visitors could take boat rides, twelve bath houses, a saloon, shooting gallery, restaurant, dance hall, zoo and circus, according to La Pilita museum. even more refined was the teatro carmen a couple streets over from the gardens. begun by one carmen soto de vásquez, it opened its doors in 1915. it was designed by architect manuel flores in sonoran-mission style, seated 1,400 and in its heyday there were literary events, operas, musicals and plays, all in spanish. though the park (which was eventually renamed elysian grove) disappeared after its popularity waned in the 1950s, and the theatre is long defunct, you can at least still see the old teatro carmen doorway on meyer avenue.


photo by os ismael.

the fate of both park and theatre proves that city directory authors were, not surprisingly, right about the ultimate doom of the barrio’s more colorful aspects. even more tragic than this demise, however, was the end a large portion the barrio itself. in the late 1960s about half of the district was bulldozed in the name of ‘urban renewal,’ and the tucson convention center–surrounded by giant, concrete parking lot islands–was put in its place. it goes almost without saying that the city elders responsible for the tearing down were anglo, while the barrio residents who were displaced–many from homes their families had occupied for generations–were not.

there is one barrio place, though, that does persist today: el tiradito, or the ‘wishing shrine.’ sited near a dried-up spring that was once the water source for the entire barrio, the exact details of how the wishing shrine came to be depend on the source consulted, though all agree it’s a tale of tragic lovers. (this version from the tucson museum  has to win hands down for bloodiest–axe murdering, anyone?) at any rate: what you’re supposed to do is make a wish at the shrine while lighting a candle. if it’s still lit the next morning, your wish will be granted. i’ve been thinking i should go over there and wish for good fortune on our barrio house restoration (god know we’re going to need it), though i’m too worried the candle would blow out to try!


el tiradito.