Going through my old posts about my time in States, I realised I’d neglected to write about one of my favourite experiences – visiting the San Xavier Mission.
Located just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, the mission is a world away from the colourful, student-filled streets of the city centre and campus surroundings. In fact, it was one of the only times I felt I experienced the ‘real Tucson’, and understood that it is actually a complex city rooted with many (seemingly forgotten) socioeconomic problems.
We took a bus from the main bus station, still in the downtown area, and traveled just 20 minutes or so to another bus terminal where we would need to change buses. Just this short drive made me aware of the college bubble I had been living in for the past few months. The roads were less looked after, many stores looked closed or failing, and the people had changed too; instead of being mainly white and college-aged, they looked older and of Mexican or Native American heritage.
Being at the bus stop definitely cemented this idea; me and my boyfriend were by far the ‘whitest’ people there, not just in terms of skin tone, but the way we dressed, acted, spoke…we felt uncomfortable and like outsiders. This was new to me. I had been living in Tucson for a little over three months and had begun to feel comfortable with my surroundings, the people there, and the way of life. Waiting just 30 minutes or so in that bus stop made me realise that I’d merely scratched the surface on some of the complex issues embedded in Tucson’s core.
Even when the bus came, we were shocked. It wasn’t a bus: it was mini-van, and many of the locals used this transport everyday, as a way of getting around the mission. They knew one another, and the driver. Again, our tourist status was exemplified. The drive round the mission was also eye-opening. Tucson itself has a relatively modern looking downtown area, complete with skyscrapers and a tram. This was the complete opposite. Roads were dirt-tracks, houses were shack-like, and it looked as though the government had simply given up trying to improve it.
The church itself is beautiful, filled with stunning figures of Christ, amazing architecture, and if you climb the neighboring hill as we did, some amazing views of the area surrounding Tucson. You feel like you have stepped out of the mainstream, white America, and into a rural Mexican village of sorts. What I liked in particular was the way in which the brilliant white of the church contrasted against the sky – which is always bright blue in Tucson – and the orange of the sand.
Whilst you definitely won’t get a days visit out of the church, the whole experience of being in the mission and getting to the mission, will stay with you. Especially, if like me, you had previously only experienced Tucson’s relatively college-focused centre.
To this day, I still don’t fully know how to talk about my snippet of ‘true Tucson’. When I tell Americans that I spent time living in Tucson, I am either told that the school is really party-focused (which it is!) or that the city is a dump outside the campus. It’s sad to think that what Tucson was originally noted for is slowly fading away, and becoming less favourable. Sadly, this kind of reaction to missions in America is not unique. They are often surrounded by negative stereotypes and a general fear by outsiders.
However, the only way to ‘conquer that fear’ and prove the stereotypes wrong, is to visit one, and spend some time around the people who reside there. San Xavier is a great starting point, and it did really help me to appreciate the diverse society I lived in. I hope in the future to explore more places like this, and to create a conversation where people really know and understand these kind of areas.
For more information about San Xavier Mission, click here.