The Barrios: Tucson's Link to its Spanish and Mexican Past

Tucson's barrios have become a critical part of revitalizing the city's oldest neighborhoods.

For almost as long as it’s been part of the United States, Tucson was a Spanish-speaking territory and settlement. That heritage is evident in the city today through its cuisine, street names, large Hispanic population and older barrio neighborhoods, now part of a major city revitalization effort.
 

Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was the first European to pass through the Tucson area around 1540 in search of the “Seven Cities of Gold.” More than a century later, Spanish Jesuit missionaries moved into the area, establishing missions and converting the local Tohono O’odham Indians.

One of the more spectacular missions they built was the nearby Mission San Xavier del Bac, which blends Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

Not far away, modern-day Tucson was established as a Spanish presidio, or fort, in 1775, around the same time that the Declaration of Independence was being signed on the other side of the continent. Built where the Pima County Courthouse and other downtown buildings now stand, the presidio had a walled fortress surrounding a garden and residences. The new city was named Tucson, a Spanish word borrowed from the Tohono O’odham Indian name “Cuk Son,” pronounced “Chook shon.”

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, and Tucson became part of the new nation.

History of the Barrios

The barrios, some of which still stand today, were built in the early 19th century to house the growing population. In 1854, the city became a U.S. territory along with the rest of present-day southern Arizona under the Gadsden Purchase. While other parts of the city were Americanized, the barrios retained their own culture largely due to their distance from the railroads, which brought in the newcomers.

By the late 1950s, those barrios had fallen into disrepair and the city began bulldozing them to make way for progress in the form of a convention center, government buildings and downtown skyscrapers. An outcry by residents forced them to back down before all were destroyed.

The Barrios Today

In the 50 years since, artists, younger couples and other Tucsonans slowly began moving into those that remained, bringing revitalization money into the old neighborhoods.

Barrio Historico, immediately south of the Tucson Convention Center, is one of the best preserved. The nearly 20 blocks of Sonoran-style adobe row houses painted in yellows, reds, purples and other colors of the rainbow give the area the feel of a Mexican village more than a turn-of-the-century American city. The homes house artist studios, young couples and some longtime Hispanic residents, making it one of the more diverse neighborhoods in the city.

Nearby, Barrio Santa Rosa, has been hailed as a new urban model for the way architects and builders fit new adobe row houses, rammed-earth and hacienda-style homes into the existing neighborhood. Like Barrio Historico, it’s home to a mix of longtime Hispanic residents, younger families and couples without kids. Older homes in the neighborhood start in the lower $100,000 range with newer ones fetching up to $500,000.

Meanwhile, the city and private developers are beginning work on Rio Nueva, a $250 million mixed development project in nearby areas building on those early successes. Plans call for several unused downtown buildings to be converted into lofts, construction of walkable neighborhoods with new single family and multi-family homes built in the old Spanish style and close to restaurants and businesses, a new Arizona history museum and science center.

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