The stories behind Flow (2020), an Arroyo Chico neighborhood mural.
The images and symbols in the Flow mural at Mission Church (17th St. and Tucson Blvd.) were inspired by both the natural and human stories of the Arroyo Chico neighborhood. Arroyo Chico itself is a large wash that, along with the smaller tributary Citation Wash, forms the watershed for its namesake neighborhood. The seasonal waterway snakes west from Reid Park through central Tucson, eventually emptying into the Santa Cruz River downtown.
Currently, it provides a beautiful green space for the people living in our city, but that wasn’t always the case.
Prior to WWII, what we now call “Central Tucson” was the eastern edge of a small, dusty desert town. The land was primarily ranch land used for horses and cows to graze. Arroyo Chico flowed, but it was straightened into more of an irrigation ditch. Even so, there are stories of kids using the waterway to escape the heat of the summer.
The Fontes sisters, who grew up in Arroyo Chico, told of hearing the sounds of horses at night. When the small girls climbed out of bed to investigate, they were puzzled by their quiet suburban street. Where were the horses? Soon, tales of ghost horses spread among the family.
I imagine the horses arriving with a real crash-bang Tucson monsoon. And with the pouring rain, the wash was brought to life. Set free!
With the rain came the return of native plants and wildlife.
Including the unofficial mascot of Arroyo Chico, the vermilion flycatcher.
Arroyo Chico wouldn’t be a neighborhood without its residents, both human and animal.
Here we see Raphael and Victoria Soto (grandparents of the Fontes sisters). Victoria would regale her children with stories of arriving in the Old Pueblo from Mexico in a covered wagon. Raphael, of Tohono O’Odham and Mexican heritage, and Victoria, of Yaqui and Mexican heritage, represent much of the rich cultural history celebrated in Tucson. Andy Littleton of Mission Church and I had opportunity to sit down with Hortensia Fontes, the grandmother and matriarch of the family, as she handed us one family photograph after another. The image above is from one of those photos that caught my eye. It was taken sometime in Tucson in the 1920s at the wedding of Raphael and Victoria. Don’t they look fancy?
You can’t paint a mural about Arroyo Chico without including the coyote pack that prowls the neighborhood grabbing up the bunnies of Reid Park. Late at night, you can often hear them howling along with the sirens of our first responders. Getting a glimpse of an Arroyo Chico coyote is always a treat, but make sure to lock up your cat!
FORE! The University of Arizona soccer fields just southwest of Broadway and Tucson used to be the UA golf course. Residents of Arroyo Chico remember regular storms of golf balls raining down on their houses. In this panel, we see the creek straightened and tamed as Tucson grows and becomes more developed.
From WWII on, Tucson saw a boom in population. Arroyo Chico featured several blocks of Quonset huts, which served as homes to the soldiers stationed at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, some of whom trained on the famous B-17 Flying Fortress (seen in the yellow bomber stencils).
These four girls in matching outfits represent the new families moving in from all around the country. The photograph I used as a reference was a wonderful one of the Fontes sisters and cousins at Christmas. From tallest to smallest we see Rosie, Dora, Carmen, and Mary Fontes. I fell in love with this photograph as it reminded of my own daughters growing up and playing with their cousins who live just on the other side of Reid Park.
From bombers to babies, post WWII was a time of incredible growth in Tucson. Arroyo Chico featured the now famous post-modern homes for modern families. Yellow buses not only shepherded our children to school, but were and still are serviced in the neighborhood. But where is our arroyo? In the move to develop, much of our watershed was transformed into highways designed to hurry water out of the city as quickly as possible, with no chance to recharge our water table or invite native plants and animals back into our communities.
As we reach the end of the mural, Arroyo Chico has returned to its wilder roots. It is my hope as an artist and resident of Tucson (and the Arroyo Chico neighborhood) that we learn how to grow in a smart way that invites the water back into our city. Water will invite growth. Growth will invite native species of birds and animals. Growth will also create shade, cooling our nights and reducing the heat island effect. In this last panel, I ask you the viewer to imagine your neighborhood. What could water, and a wild and flourishing greenway bring to your home?