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On the 300-year-old trail of Father Kino.

On the 300-year-old trail of Father Kino

It was 300 years ago--in 1687--that a 42-year-old Italian-born Jesuit priest on horseback, wearing a black robe, first set foot in New Spain's northern frontier. Known as the Pimeria Alta, the 200-mile-square saguaro-studded desert, ribbed with lush valleys, was home to some 30,000 Piman-speaking Indians.

Before his death 24 years later, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino had established 22 missions. Nine of them--those in Mexico near the Arizona border--are reported here. He also brought some measure of unity to the Indians, survived a bloody uprising, wrote two books, and built an ark in Caborca with the idea of sailing to Baja. He charted these lands for the first time, and was first to prove that neighboring Baja was a peninsula--not an island.

In fact, no single person has had more influence on this area--now Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona--than Kino, whose presence and contributions are being commemorated this year with murals, paintings, and tours (page 58).

In the past decade, Caborca and Magdalena have tripled in size and have new motels and restaurants, and restoration work can be seen at Caborca and Tubutama's missions, both with small museums.

But little else seems changed along the verdant Sonoran river valleys, so green and rich in this hot desert terrain that the words "Promised Land' keep coming to mind. Today, cattle ranches as well as the wheat, quince, and other crops that Kino introduced to these valleys remain the major sources of income.

Visiting Kino country on your own

Few of the predictable Mexican tourist attractions apply here--no fancy resorts, few crafts--but there's a charm in discovering this Sonoran mirror image to rural Arizona.

Biologically and culturally the Pimeria Alta--from Arizona's Gila River to Sonora's capital, Hermosillo--has been unified for many more centuries than it has been divided by an international border.

Yet when you drive along one of these towns' dirt streets early one morning, noting an old man and his grandson clomping by on horseback, watching roosters stretch as locals turn over for one more snooze on their cots, you could be a million miles from the U.S. border.

October's a beautiful time here--days in the 70s, fields of marigolds abloom for Dia de los Muertos (All Souls' Day) on November 2, and sartas of brilliant red chilies hanging everywhere. September 28 to October 4 also brings northern Sonora's biggest fiesta--in Magdalena.

Here lies Mexico's answer to our own farm towns: friendly, hospitable, not too much glamor or nonsense. (An exception: Caborca has had more than its share of busts for illegal drug trafficking.) Bring a dictionary or a friend who speaks Spanish, as not much English is spoken here. And bring binoculars and a bird book; this is superb birding country.

Visiting the missions gives a focus to your trip. You could see the nine Sonoran ones in a rushed two days. Plan to join worshipers for at least one Sunday Mass when the Mexican farmers in cowboy boots and hats arrive on horses or in pickups, side by side with teen-agers, some dressed every bit as outlandishly as in Los Angeles.

All the missions are close to rivers (or originally were--some have dried up or changed course). Only the mission at Cocospera has adobe walls dating to Kino's time. Most of the rest were built nearly a century after Kino, under Franciscan direction during the same era as California's missions, 1780 to 1820--but many have much more ornamentation.

History of their actual building is oddly sketchy. "If they hadn't survived, we'd hardly know about them,' observed University of Arizona's field historian Bernard Fontana on our recent tour. Though the priests often were good diarists and letter writers, none wrote about where the designs came from. None elaborated on what clearly were herculean efforts by the Indians to create these structures--so foreign to their own--out of earth, local timbers, and cactus ribs, and decorate them with hand-carved, slightly skewed baroque plaster shells, flowers, fish, roosters, and other liturgical symbols.

If any church is locked when you visit, ask for the sacristana, or key keeper, who'll graciously let you in. (A $1 donation for the church is appropriate.) The key can be hard to find in Caborca--but local historians promise us the church and museum are open 6 to 9 P.M. Fridays through Sundays.

About food. Regional specialties include, for breakfast, huevos con machaca--eggs scrambled with dried, pounded Sonoran beef, often flavored with garlic. Shrimp and fish, fresh from neighboring Puerto Penasco, are good. And Sonora is cattle country, so beef--leaner, chewier, and tastier than at home--is worth a try. Popular in Caborca are outdoor carne asada spots featuring mixed grills of steak and tripe served with Sonora's big flour tortillas, guacamole, and salsa.

Getting there. The only nearby rental companies that let their cars cross the border are Roadrunner and Ajax in Tucson. To drive on your own, the usual rules apply: buy Mexico car insurance in Phoenix, Tucson, or Nogales; bring proof of citizenship and car ownership; stop at the border to get a visa and change money.

Some 20 miles of a new four-lane highway due to connect Nogales and Hermosillo are complete; the other main roads are paved and have two lanes (but without shoulders, so avoid night driving).

Best books. If someone's along who will read as you drive, good companions are the 76-page Kino Guide II: His Missions, His Monuments, by Charles W. Polzer (Southwestern Mission Research Center, Arizona State Museum, Tuscon 85721, 1982; $8, including postage), and the fascinating 644-page Rim of Christendom: A Biography of Eusebio Francisco Kino, by Herbert Eugene Bolton (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1984; $40).

A pilgrimage to Magdalena

South from Tucson, Interstate 19 and Mexico 15 hold special interest for Westerners in that this was the exact route taken by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775, when he headed overland to Alta California with a large group of colonists.

Around fiesta time, from late September through October 4, the route from Nogales to Magdalena can be congested with foot travelers on a pilgrimage to recharge their spiritual batteries in Magdalena de Kino. Hispanic Mexicans, Pimas, Mayo and Yaqui Indians, and a few Norte Americanos join in this Chaucerian pilgrimage that blends, says Fontana, "piety and pleasure, priest and panderer, hope and hostility, miracle and malediction.'

The town fills with bowlegged cowboys with too much to drink, traveling salesmen peddling everything from pots to curing herbs, fortunetellers, shell-game artists, Yaquis doing masked dances on the church steps--but mostly with the earnest who have come to pay off a vow or a plea for help from San Francisco Xavier.

One popular story is of a Cananea man whose business went sour, so he pledged if things improved, he'd go to Magdalena on his knees. He did: kneeling on a pillow in the back of a fancy pickup truck.

Visitors are welcome to join the pilgrimage, and may particularly enjoy walking the final 6 miles along the Rio Magdalena, from San Ignacio to Magdalena.

On the mission trail, looping south and east from Nogales

Ample information exists on Arizona's two Kino missions, the beautiful San Xavier del Bac, off I-19 twelve miles south of Tucson, and San Jose del Tumacacori, 36 miles farther south, a national monument open 8 to 5 daily. The nine others:

Imuris. South of Nogales 43 miles is San Jose de Imuris, one of the first villages Kino visited. Its church, entirely 20th century, is known for its statue of a black Christ. At the bus station, just west of the Kino-on-horseback statue near the Cananea turn-off, stop for some delicious quesadillas made with local goat cheese.

Cocospera. If time permits, take a 24-mile detour east along Mexico 2 (follow signs to Cananea) to Cocospera over a winding, mountainous road through rural Cocospera Valley to the haunting ruins of the town's mission, whose tilting facade is shored up with scaffolding. It was one of three missions that Kino himself tended for years, visiting once a week by horseback.

San Ignacio. It's 9 miles south from Imuris to Tasicuri and a 2 3/4-mile drive west along a dusty road to Nuestro Padre San Ignacio de Caburica. Founded in 1687, it was Kino's second mission and is one of only two built in the Jesuit era that are still in use. Note the elaborately carved and weathered door and the staircase hewn from mesquite stacked like the vertebrae of some giant mammal; follow it to the roof for fine views of the countryside.

The sacristana, Senora Gallegos, lives in the white house to the left as you face the church. On your left as you enter the plaza is a casa de huespedes, with a pleasant room for rent for about $3 a night. A shady picnic spot is west by the river.

Magdalena. Six miles south is Magdalena de Kino. About a mile west of Mexico 15, near the river, you'll find the church. Landscaping has matured in the 15-acre plaza since it was built in 1970 to commemorate the finding of Kino's burial site. Murals new this summer in Kino's mausoleum depict his achievements.

The church has been heavily remodeled. A daily parade of the devout goes to the 6-foot statute of San Francisco Xavier. To lift it with one arm, as everyone watches, is said to prove you're pure of heart.

Plaza shops sell saints, ironwood sculptures, pottery, and the usual tourist items. For 38 years, the saddles of Luis Molina Romero, at Juarez and Allende streets, have been popular with ranchers and rodeo cowboys on both sides of the border. For dining, try Restaurante Tecolote.

The handsome new 45-room Hotel International, with pool, disco, and continental and Mexican cuisine, should now be open along Mexico 15. Or check the older Motel Kino, near the church. Try the river for birding or picnicking.

Along the Rio Altar

Ten miles south of Magdalena at Santa Ana (with truck-noisy Motel San Francisco and several restaurants), turn west on Mexico 2, then drive 46 miles to Altar. A paved road heads northward 22 miles to the Tubutama turnoff.

Before then, at 7 miles and 19 miles, are Oquitoa and Atil, smaller rural Kino mission towns worth a visit for their missions and their slow-paced life.

Oquitoa. Some pillars have been repaired and the fired-brick front plastered, but the rest of this church, with its narrow nave and original ceiling of carved beams covered with saguaro ribs, is probably 200 years old, and was most likely built by Jesuits. Below, a paved and pleasantly shady street leads through the quiet town; watch for ruins of an old adobe flour mill.

Atil. Near the rose-filled park and gazebo lie the ruins of the 1740s Jesuit church beside a newer church, in the same configuration as the original except for a bell tower added in 1941.

Tubutama. A favorite with many on the mission bus tours, the town of San Pedro y San Pablo del Tubutama clusters around the large mission on a mesa overlooking Altar valley. You've arrived when you've forded the Rio Altar (popular for wading). Riverbank ramadas provide shade for cookouts. Hospitable locals insisted on sharing with us their tasty barbecuded tripas (tripe), seasoned with grilled green onions.

The current church, the sixth for Tubutama, dates from 1788 and includes a wonderful assortment of baroque plaster carvings inside and out. Both the Sonoran Jesuit and later Franciscan fathers seemed to feel ornateness would impress their Indian converts. The gray carvings inside are recent restorations.

The town has made a prayer vigil that keeps the church open days. Ask to see historic photos and older church art in a museum at the rear.

Pitiquito. Back on Mexico 2, it's 11 miles west to San Diego del Pitiquito, a cattle and agricultural town of some 6,000. Streets are still mainly unpaved. The church, begun before 1786, faces west where most of the town once stood.

Don't miss the murals inside. The large mural of the Immaculate Conception surfaced recently, thanks to years of devout wall scrubbing. It was a miracle, some thought. Others saw it as a sign that treasure lay buried within the walls; they had gathered their pickaxes to dig when Mexican archeologists intervened.

Pieles Pitic, at 25 Calle Hidalgo, two blocks from the mission, makes chic leather clothing in demand throughout the United States and Europe. You can buy everything from slippers and belts to elaborate buffalo or fox coats at wholesale prices.

Ask at Pieles Pitic for directions to a newer shop, Maquiladora Muebles, whose specialty is custom-made oak furniture.

Caborca. Eight miles northwest, past miles of vineyards, along the Rio Concepcion, lies La Purisima Concepcion de Nuestra Senora de Caborca, a twin to Tucson's San Xavier. Its museum has ancient Piman and liturgical artifacts.

Recent restorations deliberately left the bullet holes in the facade, made in 1856 when Sonorans used the church much as Texans used the Alamo. The battle was with Californian Henry A. Crabb and a filibuster army. Locals today love to tell that their grandfather was one of the townfolk barricaded in the church on a battle on April 6, 1857, which ended with Crabb beheaded, the Americans defeated.

This is a prospering grape-growing region of some 30,000. Good motels include El Camino and the newer Posada Caborca. For dining, don't miss Las Taunas, a fish restaurant with woodcarvings of all Kino missions, including one 12-foot-tall replica.

Bus tours. Weekend Kino mission bus tours out of Tucson are still going strong. Led by a lively cast of Tucson academics, the tours not only teach history--but also what makes this area tick today.

Tours depart Friday morning, return Sunday evening. Dates are October 16 and 23, and possibly October 30 and November 6--and they will start again in April. Cost of $195 includes lodging and three lunches. To register, call Marjorie Gould at (602) 888-4037, or write to 101 W. River Road, Suite 251, Tucson 85704.

Photo: Father Kino on horseback and offering a blessing looks down from new tricentennial mural above his mausoleum in Magdalena, Mexico. At right, town's children romp on park-like plaza in front of 1830 church

Photo: Oquitoa's long, narrow 1780s nave was only as wide as local trees were long. Saguaro ribs cover the beams

Photo: Haunting crumbling ruins of Cocospera hint at its former grandeur. It's on a bluff overlooking the fertile Cocospera Valley

Photo: Eleven missions founded by Padre Kino are the focus for exploring southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico-- called Pimeria Alta when Spain ruled here. It's 60 miles from Tucson to Nogales, another 130 miles from the border to Caborca

Photo: A horse is still popular mode of travel in Tubutama. He lives around the corner from imposing 1788 Mexican baroque church

Photo: Fringed leather dress gets try-on in Pitiquito's chic Pieles Pitic wholesale shop
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Title Annotation:Father Eusebio Francisco Kino
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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