A Journey to the Spanish Missions of the Pimería Alta

Caborca through the gate

After reading that the National Park Service (NPS) was partnering with the Southwest Mission Research Center (SMRC) to sponsor a tour for teachers (for free) of the Spanish Missions of the Pimería Alta, I knew I had to go. The three-day, three-night workshop was open to teachers in Arizona, tribal lands, and Sonora, Mexico. This had never been offered to teachers before, and it may never happen again. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Map of the Pimera Alta by Ron Beckwith from SWMRC

The Pimería Alta (which means northern Pima Indian lands), is made up of parts of Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora, Mexico. It’s a fascinating area that doesn’t receive much attention. Southwest historians like to focus on the Four Corners area and places like Chaco Canyon. In Mexico, Mayan and Aztec culture, and places like Chichen Itza get all the attention. That leaves the Pimería Alta woefully neglected. After the Thursday evening orientation in Tucson, we departed Friday morning on a charter bus, to a place I had visited many times before.

Tumacacori on a sunny day
Behind the altar at Tumacacori

Tumacácori

The first day of the trip day started in stark contrast to the hot, dry Tucson weather the day before. It was cold and drizzling by the time we arrived at Mission San José de Tumacácori, a place I visit often. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino founded the mission at Tumacácori in 1691 along with many other missions in the Pimería Alta region. Tumacácori is just five miles from the artist town of Tubac, Arizona.

Resting place of Father Eusebio Kino
The new Magdelena Church

Magdelena

Father Eusebio Kino established the mission at Magdalena in 1687. He died in 1711, and his crypt and mausoleum are at the center of town. The Father Kino museum is also in Magdalena. It contains objects from the indigenous culture of the region, as well as many other artifacts and photographs.

This is also the only place to buy a few little souvenirs if you want something to take back home. Although the current church has been heavily altered over the years (the current facade dates to 1830), Magdelena is a place of spiritual significance to many Catholics. On October 4 every year, thousands of people gather here to celebrate The Festival de San Francisco.

Oquitoa Mission
Cemetery at Oquitoa

Oquitoa

A stop at San Antonio Paduano del Oquitoa begins the second day of the tour. Oquitoa and Tubatuma are my favorite missions of this trip. Oquitoa was founded in 1691 by Father Kino and is older than both Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac in Tucson. Oquitoa may mean “white woman” in the Piman language. Oquitoa is special for many reasons. The mission is beautifully preserved, and still in use today. The village cemetery is also at Oquitoa, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Old adobe mission ruins at Atil

Atil

San Francisco de Atil is a perfect example of the old and new side by side. The mission was founded in 1687. Before the mission at Atil changed hands from the Jesuits to the Franciscans, it was called, “The Seven Archangels of Atil.” Not much was going on in this sleepy little village during an overcast day, but we were warmly welcomed by the mission caretakers.

On our way out I noticed that the road into Atil was blocked off by several heavily armed policemen. Although I didn’t take a photo, I wondered if it had something to do with our presence. Who can miss a luxury coach deep into this tiny village in Sonora?

The mission at Tubatuma (and my favorite)
Tubatuma

Tubatuma

My favorite stop of the entire trip was the mission of San Pedro y San Pablo de Tubatuma. Founded in 1691 by Father Kino, an air of mystery surrounds Tubatuma. I could feel it. The deserted plaza and overcast day only contributed to the mystery. Once I heard that Tubatuma had a “treasury,” we practically begged the caretaker to let us have a look. Said she would, if she had the key, but she did not.

Tubatuma was once the headquarters of all mission activity in the Pimería Alta. The architecture at Tubatuma is what caught my eye. It is much more ornate than the other missions we visited. Research indicates that it is constructed in the Mudéjar style of Islamic architecture that was common in medieval Spain.

Lunch with a Sonoran family, the highlight of the trip
Down by the river at Tubatuma

Like many of the other missions we visited, Tubatuma sits right in the middle of agricultural land. We were supposed to have a picnic lunch by the river, but the rain changed those plans. Instead, we were welcomed into the home of the caretaker for a delicious meal of barbacoa. After lunch, a few of us walked down to the river.

Pitiquito Mission

Pitiquito

Although we didn’t stay long at San Diego del Pitiquito, it was enough time to check out the historic drawings inside the mission. The mission was founded by Father Kino in 1694. By now, I have a new respect for the amount of traveling this Jesuit missionary did on foot and horseback. While I travel in a luxury bus with a restroom, Father Kino likely traveled alone and on horseback.

Pitiquito is important because it is the oldest church with surviving indigenous art in Sonora. A legend surrounding these drawings states that a family was attending church one day when a little girl looked up and screamed that she saw “demons.” No, it wasn’t a figment of her imagination, but the drawings bleeding through a century of whitewash plaster. After that, the drawings were cleaned and restored by conservationists. The stations of the cross are also painted around the inside of the church.

The “demon” drawing at Pitiquito
Another drawing at Pitiquito
Caborca plaza

Caborca

The last stop on day two is the mission at Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Conception de Caborca. It’s also the first time I’ve seen the sun in two days, and it just happens to be sunset. That means the best photos of this trip are from Caborca. This is a town of almost sixty-thousand people, which means that there are plenty of shops and hotels. Although Father Kino founded the town of Caborca, he did not build this particular mission.

The first priest at Caborca was Francisco Xavier Saeta. He was killed in an O’odham uprising in April 1695. I’ve always wondered if the revolts and uprisings in Sonora were influenced by the Pueblo revolt of 1680, far to the north. The mission at Caborca was destroyed and rebuilt several times in the aftermath of O’odham revolts and uprisings. Flooding has also caused major damage to the mission at Caborca over the centuries.

If you go to Caborca on your own and have time to explore, you can visit petroglyphs at Rancho Puerto Blanco. Beaches are also nearby. We stayed for two nights at the Hotel el Camino. Everyone was friendly, I felt safe (there was a security guard at the gate), the room was clean, and the food was good. There really isn’t much more to ask for than that. A grocery store and convenience store are directly across the street.

Trincheras archaeological site in Sonora (this was once an ancient ball court)
Plainware pottery sherd at Trincheras (I left it where I found it)

Trincheras Archaeological Site

On the way home on the third day, we made two stops. The first was at Cerro de Trincheras, a pre-Hispanic terraced town. There are many of these terraced sites located throughout Sonora and the Southwestern U.S. if you know where to look. These sites date from 220 C.E. to 1400 C.E. When we arrived, it was completely deserted, leading me to wonder if they had opened on this sunny morning just for us. We only had an hour to explore. I split my time by climbing half-way up the terraces (for great photos) and checking out the exhibits in the small, but well laid out museum.

San Ignacio
San Ignacio plaza

San Ignacio

The last stop before crossing the border again is San Ignacio de Caburica. We had several guides along with us from the Southwest Mission Research Center. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to listen to the stories about San Ignacio. It was so cold inside I opted to wait out in the sun. Father Kino himself did not build San Ignacio, but he did spend time in the area. The exact year of construction is unclear, but it was probably built around 1700 by Father Agustín de Campos. After Father Kino’s death, Father Agustín de Campos continued Father Kino’s work in the Pimería Alta and served an astounding forty-three years at San Ignacio de Caburica.

Beautiful old door at San Ignacio

Once again we were invited for lunch by a welcoming Sonoran family. I was told that the property was owned by the previous church caretaker, who was nearly a hundred years old. I observed an elderly woman peek her head out while we were enjoying the sun and the picnic, but didn’t get a chance to talk to her. These meals with Sonoran families stand out as much as the missions, and I will never forget the hospitality and welcome we received in Sonora.

Our last meal at a Sonoran family’s home before crossing the border in Nogales

Logistics

  • If you want to go on a similar tour with the Southwest Mission Research Center, it’s $575 per person (double occupancy) and includes meals and lodging. It does not include personal expenses and a required visa after entering Mexico.
  • A valid passport is required
  • Be prepared for all types of weather, especially in Spring and Fall
  • Forget what you may have read about the drug trafficking and shootouts in Sonora. The people we met were nothing but warm and welcoming.

 

 

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