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. …