our Sonoran row house sits in the middle of the barrio libre national historic district, which was created in the 1970s.
the name “barrio libre” (which is what the neighborhood was originally called before it got so old that people just started calling it “barrio viejo” or the “old neighborhood”) means the “free barrio,” and comes from all of the naughty stuff that went on in the area in the mid 1800s. back then, apparently, “a mescaline could imbibe his fall, and either male or female could, in peaceful intoxication, sleep on the sidewalk in the middle of the streets” with “all of their ancient rights respected” (whatever that means). so said one tucson city directory.
nor did the fun stop at public drunkenness. also among the amusements of the the old barrio libre, were “fandangos, monte, chicken fights, broils” and other pastimes of “the lower class of mexicans.”
this is not to say the barrio was all about brawls and chicken fights. in the 1870s one of tucson’s most elegant parks–planted in acres of peach, pomegranate and apricot trees, and with it’s own spring-fed ponds, restaurant, dance hall and zoo–opened on the western border of the district. then, too, there was the famous teatro carmen, which opened it’s doors in 1915, and hosted literary events, operas, musicals and plays, all in spanish for tucson’s more affluent mexican residents.
the barrio, however has also seen it’s share of tragedy. by the mid 20th century many of the adobe houses were run-down (and–oh the horror–filled with mostly brown-skinned people). in the 1960s the powers that be decided to remedy this “blighted” neighborhood by knocking about half of it down. the resultant shock spurred preservationists to nominate the remaining half of the barrio to the national register, where it remains.
today, the barrio is one of tucson’s most vibrant districts, acting as a magnet to artists and other creative folk. it’s also about as close as you can get to living in mexico without actually moving south of the border. think frida kahlo’s casa azule. think of the colorful, thick adobe walls. think of courtyards brimming with greenery. think that and you’ll have a small idea of how our barrio, barrio viejo–the “free barrio” feels.