It is late afternoon when I walk up the sidewalk to the shrine near the end of my street. Although it’s only a couple of blocks away from my home, I don’t visit El Tiradito often. The only Catholic shrine in the United States dedicated to a sinner, El Tiradito is a dusty, rectangular plot of ground cupped by scalloping adobe walls, shaded by a spreading mesquite tree with feathery green leaves. A thicket of prickly pears, agaves, and wildflowers blossoms under the mesquite. Candles, colorful plastic flowers, and photographs mark deaths and remembrances. Less noticeable, if no less significant, are the paper mandas—promises to god made in exchange for requests—that worshippers wedge into the adobe walls. The walls are riddled with mandas. Sometimes at night it’s all candles at El Tiradito. Sometimes it is dark. One recent night a “Happy Birthday Dad” candle burned in softening light. A framed photograph leaned against the back wall of a beautiful woman with long hair who looked down, her face serious. Veladoras glowed in metal holders. Visitors sat quietly on a bench against the wall.

I do not, as a rule, find Catholic places inviting. Raised Hindu, I have been told more than once, starting in childhood, that I am going to hell. But these secret communications with El Tiradito are the reason this shrine exists. They are the reason that El Minuto Cafe, the restaurant next door, exists. They are even the reason my home—the building in which I live—exists. I think of that for a moment and mentally write a small note of thanks, fold it away, tuck it in a secret place in a secret wall.

In Tucson there is a lovely collection of handmade adobe streetfront homes and old businesses edged to the west by the Santa Cruz River and to the north by the Tucson Convention Center, variously called Barrio Viejo (the old neighborhood), Barrio Libre (the free neighborhood), or the Lost Barrio by an influx of renters and home buyers. This neighborhood is all that remains of what was the largest stretch of continuous adobe architecture in the United States until the 1960s.

I live in Barrio Viejo in an apartment that’s rundown in a faded-jeans-saving-money-way, not a willful-neglect-involving-roaches way. The adobe walls crumble into small piles near corners. The high wooden ceilings flake paint. Nails buckle higher from floor beams than I’d like. I’m the third person in a row to live at the address while getting a graduate degree from the writing program at the University of Arizona. The landlords fix what breaks and otherwise leave tenants alone. They do not renovate extensively—the plumbing has caused me nighttime panics—but they also have kept rent low as the neighborhood has gentrified. Living here, I had space for a friend to stay with me after I had brain surgery. My rent was low enough for me to recover from the procedure and finish my master’s program without working for a few months, living on savings and my parents’ help. This place—this safe space for me to hole up and write and rest—exists because in the 1970’s neighbors fought to list El Tiradito’s shrine on the National Register of Historic Places so that Tucson could not destroy it in order to put another freeway, the Butterfield Expressway, in this part of town.

El Tiradito means “The Little Castaway” in Spanish. According to Arizona folklorist James “Big Jim” Griffith’s Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimería Alta, the Arizona Folklore Archives hold more than twenty different origin stories for El Tiradito. Griffith should know; the collection’s full name is the James and Loma Griffith Arizona-Sonora Digital Folklore Archives. In one version, a father mistook his long-lost son who was waiting to reunite with him at home for a stranger hitting on his wife and murdered him in a fit of rage. In another, a husband murdered his wife and wife’s visiting brother when he saw them talking together. Or an innocent man caught a bullet walking past a bar. Or a man was murdered and tossed (tirado) from a train. All of El Tiradito’s stories tend toward the lurid: gunfights, broken hearts, high speed tragedies. El Tiradito is a memorial; none of these stories have happy endings.

When registering the shrine as a Historic Place, Tucson’s city council chose an official story: A Tucson doctor, D.F. Goodwin, hired sheepherder Juan Oliveros to work his ranch outside of town. Oliveros started riding into town to have an affair with his mother-in-law, leaving his wife on the ranch. When Oliveros’ father-in-law caught the pair in bed one day, he chased Oliveros out of the house and hacked him to death with an axe. There is no record of what may have befallen Oliveros’ mother-in-law. The church refused to bury the adulterous Oliveros in the church cemetery; neighbors buried his body where it lay. Later, as visitors who came to his gravesite to pray found that their wishes were granted, the site became a shrine.

El Tiradito seems to be a quirky story from Tucson’s Wild West days, but only if you believe in the Wild West. If you believe in more complicated history, El Tiradito is preserving something other than a memorial: it’s preserving a mythology of Tucson that matters to people deciding which parts of town—which neighborhoods, communities, stories, histories—to keep, and which ones to cast aside.

In July, Tucson buzzes with glossy emerald scarab beetles, the big sisters of June bugs. They hover noisily like helicopters, bumping into things, collapsing into flower beds. In my dried out flower pots they gleam like chrome, legs curled, once insistently alive, beautiful still but vacant now inside. I think these buildings may work the same way.

For Mexican American Studies scholar Lydia Otero, El Tiradito’s listing as a Historic Place—and the saving of the adjacent neighborhood—seems to have been a hollow victory. In La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City, a detailed history of how urban renewal in the second half of the twentieth century destroyed the most diverse communities in Tucson, Otero barely mentions El Tiradito. By the 1970s, when local barrio residents were banding together to save the neighborhood using El Tiradito, the original barrio residents already had been displaced by Tucson’s redevelopment policies of the past century. Otero writes, “Historically minded Anglo Americans and speculators who moved into the barrio that survived changed the area’s power dynamic. They joined forces to have the area designated a historic district and to protect their newly acquired adobe houses. Their presence ensured the neighborhood’s survival.” In other words, gentrification—a new class and race of residents in the old parts of Tucson—saved the barrio. Not a grave of questionable authenticity, dedicated to a sinner of questionable identity.

By the time El Tiradito was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 80 acres of downtown Tucson had been razed for redevelopment. After World War II, Tucson worked hard to define itself as a modern—in other words, an Anglo American—city. This meant creating a downtown that beckoned car owners from the suburbs. The area that Tucson chose to redevelop into government buildings, a shopping center, a performance arena, and a conference center was the most densely populated 80 acres in Arizona. The area was imminently walkable, with business owners who lived at the back of properties fronted by shops and businesses. People who lived in the barrios of downtown Tucson couldn’t afford televisions, much less cars.

Approximately 80% of downtown residents were renters. Racist Federal Housing Authority policies and bank loan policies included redlining, or denying housing loans to inner city neighborhoods, and the denial of housing loans based on race or ethnicity. These policies ensured that people of color had low property ownership rates in Tucson as in most of the country. Tucson residents of color struggled to find housing in other parts of town because of structural racism, ranging from denied bank loans to restrictive housing covenants, designed to keep white-owned property values high by keeping neighborhoods segregated. After World War II, the downtown districts of Tucson diversified further as Black soldiers from Fort Huachuca, unwelcome when on leave in segregated parts of town, chose to settle in the more integrated downtown, joining a diverse community that included Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Syrian Americans, and Jewish neighbors.

This was the area chosen for revitalization by Tucson’s redevelopment plan, a process of erasure that took many decades. City planners could argue that parts of the area were in need of drastic measures, since the city refused to pick up trash or put in modern sewer lines—many of those adobe homes used outhouses. Otero lists the principal measures of city blight in the Tucson Regional Plan of 1942: “unsanitary and inadequate housing conditions” and the “intermixture of racial and ethnic groups.” An amendment to Arizona’s state constitution passed in 1930 specifically barred renters from voting on urban revitalization plans. Most of the people whose homes and businesses would be destroyed to build the new downtown buildings were unable to cast a vote on downtown revitalization. Otero’s parents both were born in the downtown area, which residents called simply la calle, or “the street.” Everyone you knew and everything you needed could be found just by walking down a bustling street.

Barrio Viejo—the old neighborhood—is a new construct, given a name that sounds authentic. It is the shell of old neighborhoods, the carapace of communities long gone. New residents live in apartments that have faded store names painted on them in Spanish and English from the time that they were businesses with homes in back. Residents drive to chain stores—Target, Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Food City—now.

If I wonder what to call my neighborhood, I wonder too what to call my relationship to my neighborhood. One fall day as I was about to jump onto my bicycle and head to class, a short Anglo American woman approached me at my front door. She had straight hair cut just above her shoulders and walked with a taller man. They appeared to be snowbirds—vacationers from colder climates—and Tucson’s early planners would have been thrilled to see them. For decades, Tucson steadfastly resisted the development of industry in favor of developing a tourism economy that catered to wealthier travelers, in particular Anglo American retirees who would flock to Tucson’s climate. “We’re looking for—El Centro de Barrio Viejo,” she said. I thought hard for a moment. Was that a community center? A nonprofit? A museum? I felt a pang of guilt. I’d been so wrapped up in my schoolwork and my employment, I’d barely explored the neighborhood where I lived. I didn’t know about this Centro.

I realized with a start that she was not looking for a place called El Centro; she had switched to a hesitant Spanish mid-sentence. She was asking me for directions to the center of the neighborhood Barrio Viejo. Perhaps she imagined a plaza, a town square, with storefronts or a church facing inward. Why did she think that existed? And why was she speaking to me in Spanish? Recovering from my confusion, I tried to think of where she might mean. There had been something like that on Church Street not too far from where we stood, but it was paved and turned into a parking lot long before I moved to Tucson. I’d learned recently that soon a high-rise apartment building would be under construction at that location.

During the downtown revitalization construction, La Placita de la Mesilla, a beautiful park with an old adobe church that parishioners made by hand, was razed and in its place La Placita was built, a garishly painted mixed use office and retail space that cost the city millions of dollars and failed to draw many users. As of the summer of 2016, the space had been emptied. Its new owners planned to raze the location again to build high density housing—much of what used to be there in the first place, only minus the community, diversity, and history.

“Most of Barrio Viejo was razed to build the Convention Center,” I replied in English, pointing north. She persisted, also, to my relief, in English. They were not in town for very long, and wanted a nice long walk to see the neighborhood. I considered how my neighborhood was flanked by an interstate, empty lots, construction sites, a waste transfer station. Most old architecture, even the original Presidio, was dismantled long ago. I pointed her toward South Meyer Street, saying honestly I thought it to be the most beautiful in Tucson. She wanted some kind of authentic borderlands experience. I did not point out to her that structural racism, on one hand, and gentrification on the other, were part of that experience. The cars parked on Meyer Street were expensive ones.

Am I part of gentrification in Barrio Viejo? I consider whether I would have lived here before the Convention Center first was constructed. I couldn’t have lived elsewhere, given Tucson’s racist housing policies. But this is a trick question for someone of my ethnicity. My landlords, an Anglo couple originally from Canada, tell me that my apartment was built in 1918, a time when my parents—had they been alive in a different generation—would have been barred from entering the United States because of race-based immigration policies. Although Punjabis arrived in the U.S. as early as the eighteen hundreds if not earlier, not until the 1960s did significant numbers of South Asians find entry into the United States—when my parents came. But let’s say my parents were alive and married pre-Convention Center. If they’d made it into the U.S. and driven to Tucson instead of Clovis, New Mexico—they would have rented. In 1923, South Asians were barred from becoming United States citizens. Those who had naturalized already had their citizenship revoked and property confiscated. My parents would have rented in the part of town where everyone else of color gathered, worked, found community, found life. So undoubtedly, I would have lived near to where I live now.

As a student I hadn’t earned enough money or had the job security to buy a place. I don’t think my presence has increased rents in my neighborhood. So the easy answer is that I am not causing gentrification. But I barely know my neighbors. I am not buying a house; I am not even buying a bookshelf. What I want to buy is a car so that I can leave if my sense of disconnection swells like a summer flood. Gentrification is also about detachment and possibilities.

Development continues apace in Barrio Viejo. A frenzy of roofing has taken place on Convent Street. Latino men climb up onto buildings in the blinding heat. They strip off tilework and put up aluminum that glares in the sun. Adobe and brick homes I was sure would be condemned are renovated and finished off in bright paint jobs—green, purple, pink. Young white couples spend a lot of time on their cell phones in doorways as renovations are completed. Someone began a practice of painting parking spaces on streets. I think it may be real estate companies flipping houses on narrow streets with no carports or garages, trying to reassure commuters that their SUVs at least will have places to rest. I wonder if the police are looking the other way—many of the painted parking spots are illegal by city law, painted too close to driveways. One property that my landlord told me was assessed at $400,000 was listed for $800,000. It sold about a year ago for $600,000. Recently I’ve heard children laughing behind the gate. Something has changed.

When part of the barrio was razed to make the Convention Center, residents were very poorly recompensed; many ended up in public housing, though they’d previously owned homes or businesses. Many elderly residents of la calle passed away within a few years of being relocated. Sometimes, families that moved away to Phoenix or south Tucson come back to see how their old homes are doing, if the buildings still stand. They walk through half-completed reno jobs, take photos on phones, talk to new owners. Sometimes new owners are taken aback by strangers wandering through their front door, though the old adobe bricks placed by those hands—after work, or on Sunday after church—still stand behind their new coats of paint.

Historian Tom Sheridan writes of Barrio Libre as a “wandering barrio” that moved south as Tucson grew. This fits with the smirks and eye rolls I’ve encountered about South Tucson—a small municipality one mile south of downtown Tucson—since I’ve lived in this town: It’s dangerous; you shouldn’t ride your bike there; it’s crime-ridden. What it is, is Mexican and working class; 84% of South Tucson is Hispanic, and 51% lives at the poverty level or below. From another perspective, each generation of Tucsonenses is pushed further south by gentrification or development. Recently, Anglo Americans I know have started buying property south of 22nd Street. I wonder where Barrio Libre will go next.

Monuments, too, turn out to be moveable in Tucson. El Tiradito’s plaque makes no claims of a final resting place. It reads only that it is “the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.” After much online searching I found a scan of a photograph from the 1800s of the original El Tiradito. A man in a cowboy hat and a woman in a long skirt and shawl sit near a metal rack of candles. The shrine was located a block east from where it is now, at the southwest corner of South Meyer Street and West Simpson Street. The city of Tucson razed the site for a development project. Because I live only a few blocks away, I walked over to see what the project was. It appeared to be a gravel parking lot. Leopoldo Carrillo, a wealthy Tucsonense businessman, purchased the shrine’s current location in the early 1900s and donated the land to the city of Tucson to erect the current memorial. I didn’t find any information on what happened to El Tiradito’s bodily remains. Even the location of the current Tiradito shrine is a mythology. This does not mean it has no value; only that in Tucson—as, perhaps, anywhere—memorialization is selective act.

In my family, we cremate our dead and then scatter the remains in rivers. Or we donate our bodies to science. Remains are a conundrum I’ve never had to consider. Left in the ground, paved over, walked upon, discarded, misplaced, lost—the possibilities concern me. Tucson has been continuously inhabited for 4,000 years, longer than any other region in North America. This means Tucson’s had a lot of generations of humans to raise, love, and then put to rest. And the Southwest—including Arizona—has one of the fastest population growth rates in the country, particularly in its cities. Each year sacred graves and other sites of cultural and religious meaning are uncovered in the Valley by development projects.

In 2014, developers of the Tucson Premium Outlet Malls dug up a Native American village that included cooking pits more than 3,000 years old. They also found, from a more recent Tucson Hohokam village that flourished in the desert for two and a half centuries, more than 250 burials. The Tohono O’odham tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Hohokam, wanted the village to be preserved as a park but knew that development would continue. “No developer will spend $5 million for a site and make it a park,” Tohono O’odham tribal historic preservation officer Peter Steere told the Arizona Daily Star. He was right: The mall opened with performances by the University of Arizona’s marching band—the Pride of Arizona—and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The town of Marana fast-tracked construction permits.

In the Southwest, bodies and histories are dug up and pushed aside all the time. Only some get memorials. They tell the stories that Tucson most wants to hear about itself.

One Thursday evening I walk to El Tiradito. I am feeling shy. I hear singing before I see the small circle, six retirees near the mesquite. They smile at me. Each week for more than fifteen years, human rights organization Derechos Humanos has prayed at El Tiradito for people who’d died trying to cross into the United States through the desert.

A woman in the circle asks me if I speak Spanish, tells me about the organization, invites me to come back the following Thursday. I think of my neighbors in Tempe, Arizona, who walked through the desert without water for days when they were just boys, trying to reach the United States from Mexico. In Tempe, they did construction work. The youngest brother had long thick eyelashes and buzzed black hair. He would sit at my kitchen table, tearing up, telling me all the bad words his Anglo foreman called him. That family left Tempe after Arizona passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2007. Where will you go? I asked. North, he told me.

I am trying to find a new meaning for El Tiradito, something that makes it feel like a refuge, like an answer of some kind. What Derechos Humanos does is the closest that I’ve come. In the borderlands where I live, I would like a monument to the people who are, in every sense, pushed to the margins; cast away.

The woman from the circle wipes her eyes. I wonder who she’s remembering, whether she’s remembering someone still in the desert, lost. I agree to come back the following week. I do not feel connected to my neighbors who are moving into the old beautiful carapaces, polishing them, making them new again. But here, at this strange shrine to a body that might be buried down the street under a gravel lot, stumbling in Spanish, praying in a borrowed religion, I grope toward something like community.

For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.


Maya L. Kapoor writes about nature in the urbanizing West. Her work can be found in Terrain.org, Essay Daily, and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, among other places. Maya holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in biology from Arizona State University. She is an associate editor with High Country News.

Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico

I spent one summer exploring forested canyons and mountains that are the ancestral homelands of Pueblo Indians in northern New Mexico. Tiny chunks of turquoise and potshards glittered on the ground next to trails. Tumbled old stonework marked ancient agricultural fields and villages. I spent one afternoon elaborately planning how to get to distant cavates I’d noticed on a far cliffside. When I finally arrived I found little carved alcoves inside, each of which held a perfectly smooth palm-sized rock, like they’d just been put there. In one canyon there were red handprints painted on the wall. When I pressed my hand against them, they were a perfect fit.