The Arizona-Sonora Border:
Line, Region, Magnet, and Filter
. . . Belonging truly to neither
nation, it serves as a kind of cultural buffer zone for both, cultivating
its own culture and traditions. Like other borders, it both attracts and
repels. Like them, it is both barrier and filter. It is above all a stimulating
cultural environment. . . .
--James S. Griffith
The Arizona Sonora border was established
as a result of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. It runs through desert and
mountain country, from the western Chihuahuan Desert by New Mexico through
a zone of grassland and oak-covered hills to the classic Sonoran Desert
west of Nogales. The land gets more and more arid as one travels west, and
the western third of the border is essentially devoid of human habitation.
It is this stretch of the border, once a major road to the Colorado River,
that has earned and kept the title El Camino del Diablo, "The Devil's
There are six ports of entry on the Arizona-Sonora border. From east
to west these paired towns are Douglas/Agua Prieta, Naco/Naco, Nogales/Nogales,
Sasabe/Sasabe, Lukeville/ Sonoyta, and San Luis Rio Colorado, which has
no corresponding town on the Arizona side. Between these towns stretches
the border, for the most part marked by a three-strand, barbed-wire fence
and a series of monuments. The border monuments are spaced so that each
one is visible from its counterpart to the east and to the west. The fence
traverses valleys, mountains, lush thickets, and sparse desert shrubbery.
Where it crosses true desert, truly deserted country, it is a simple
three-strand, barbed-wire fence. In other stretches it changes to chain-link
or, as recently between the two Nogaleses, to metal strips.
In the local Spanish, one enters the country illegally "de alambre,"
"through the wire." One who does this is an "alambrista,"
a "wireist." There are more sophisticated techniques as well.
In 1990, customs officials discovered an elaborate tunnel leading from a
warehouse in Agua Prieta to a similar structure in Douglas, Arizona. Hydraulic
equipment had been installed at either end, and the whole set-up was capable
of handling considerable quantities of goods. At least three corridos have
been written and circulated about "el Tunel."
The fence serves other, more localized purposes from time to time. During
the 1980s, an international volleyball game was regularly held near Naco.
Each team played in its own country, with the chain-link fence serving as
To the east, in Agua Prieta, match racing has long been an important
form of recreation. In 1957, a horse named Relampago (Lightening) won an
important race and became the instant target of many challenges. One of
the challengers was Chiltepin (named after the fiery local wild chile),
from Pirtleville on the U.S. side. Hoof-and-mouth regulations made it impossible
for either horse to cross into the other's country. The solution: each horse
ran on its own side of the fence. Relampago won that one, too.
The international border creates more than a fence between countries.
It also creates a denationalized zone, a region extending for many miles
into each nation.
I keep being told that Nogales, Sonora,"isn't the real Mexico."
That is perfectly true, of course, just as Nogales, Arizona, "isn't
the real United States." Each is a border community, attracting business
from the other side of the line. Folks cross the border each day to shop,
work, and socialize. Each town has taken on some of the character of its
counterpart on the other side of the line. For the traveler from Michigan
in the United States or Michoacan in Mexico, the foreign flavor starts long
before one arrives at the border crossing, and reminders of home persist
long after one has crossed over into the other country.
The border attracts. Manufactured goods gravitate to it on their way
into Mexico, and enough vegetables are attracted northward to feed much
of the western United States. The border region attracts tourists and travelers
from the United States, seeking just to sample the charms of a foreign country,
or passing through on their way further south into Mexico. An increasing
number of businesspeople and investors are drawn here, too. It attracts
tourists from Mexico as well as those in search of economic opportunities.
Those may involve the assembly plants known as maquikadoras on the Sonoran
side of the border, or they may lie farther north in the United States.
Many opportunity-seekers cross the border illegally.
This brings us to another important function of the border. As well as
defining a subregion that is neither one place nor another, as well as serving
as a magnet that draws goods and people from both countries, the border
is also a barrier. It is intended to filter out undesirable influences going
in both directions. So the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and
the Border Patrol fight an unceasing and frustrating battle to ensure that
only authorized, documented individuals cross into the United States. On
the other side, Mexican Customs fights an equally endless campaign against
the importation of untaxed goods, especially automobiles, into Mexico.
Another battle--a war, in fact--is constantly fought across the length
and breadth of the border region between drug smugglers and those who would
prohibit their traffic into the United States. This war touches the lives
of everyone living within a hundred miles of the border, while at the same
time it remains almost completely invisible. Traces of it may be seen, of
course, in newspaper headlines, in robberies by addicts, in the magical
spells and prayers to dark powers which show up in displays of religious
articles for sale, and in restrictions on travel to some deserted areas
near the border. But many border residents shrug, remark that only drug
people seem to be involved in the shoot-outs, and go on in their everyday
The border has touched the region's Native Americans in special ways.
The Tohono O'odham claim ancestral lands on both sides of the border, and
many interpret the Gadsden Purchase agreement as having granted them the
right to move freely across the border within their lands. But O'odham land
is being encroached upon by Mexican farmers and others in Sonora, and the
stretch of the border that runs through O'odham land is vulnerable to smugglers.
As a result, one needs a permit nowadays to travel along the southern portion
of the Tohono O'odham Nation near the border, and crossings are not as easy
as they once were for the O'odham themselves.
Yaqui Indians live on both sides of the border as well. Those living
in southern Arizona claim as their homeland the valley of the Rio Yaqui,
which is three hundred miles south of the border. Especially at Easter time,
Yaqui ritual musicians and dancers who live in Mexico travel north with
their necessary regalia and instruments, crossing the border at Nogales
and going on to Tucson to help their kinfolk perform necessary religious
ceremonies in the United States. Their ritual equipment has long puzzled
some U.S. customs officials, and a booklet was issued around 1980 to convince
government employees, for instance, that a long string of dried cocoon-husks
is a leg rattle rather than a device for concealing heroin.
There is one more important observation to be made about the Arizona-Sonora
border, or at least about its central part. It runs right down the middle
of what is still, after almost one hundred and fifty years, a cultural region
in its own right. When Eusebio Francisco Kino, S..J. arrived in this region
in 1686 as its first permanent European resident, he called the country
he moved into "la Pimeria Alla," or "Upper Pima Country."
This distinguished it from regions to the south where Piman languages were
also spoken, as well as from the lands to the southeast and southwest, occupied
respectively by Seris and Opatas. To the north of the Pimeria Alta were
lands occupied by other peoples, most particularly the Apaches. Three hundred
years later, the Pimeria Alta is still a cultural region, even though it
has been divided between two nations that did not exist in Kino's day.
The region is unified by several elements. There are still Piman speakers
(O'odham in their own language) on both sides of the border. Also, much
the same in both countries is Mexican ranching culture, many of whose principal
families straddle the border. The traditional, Jesuit-introduced, folk diet
based on wheat, cheese, and beef is consistent throughout the region, as
is the use of the unique tortilla grande de harina, the huge wheat flour
tortilla that can measure well over a foot across, and whose lard content
often renders it translucent. And finally, the region is bound together
through a strong devotion to the composite San Francisco, whose statue stands
in Magdalena de Kino, Sonora.
Although the image in Sonora represents St. Francis Xavier, the day on
which the annual fiesta is celebrated is October 4, the Feast of St. Francis
of Assisi in the Roman Catholic calendar. This composite San Francisco is
of tremendous regional importance, and his fiesta draws thousands of pilgrims
from north of the border: Mexican Americans, Tohono O'odham, and Yaquis,
with a few Anglos thrown in for good measure. Among the religious goods
offered for sale to pilgrims at the Fiesta de San Francisco are colorful,
reverse-painted glass frames for holy pictures.
These frames are made by several extended families of craftspeople. Each
frame consists of a sheet of glass which has been painted with geometric
or floral motifs on the back. Both opaque and translucent paints are used,
and a rectangular space is left undecorated, for the holy card. The glass
is then backed, first with a layer of crumpled tinfoil, and then with either
cardboard or tin. The tinfoil gives a wonderful, shimmering quality to the
translucent paint on the glass. While holy pictures are inserted into many
of the frames, others are left bare, so the purchaser can insert a favorite
saint's picture or even the portrait of a family member.
Many of these frames are purchased by Tohono O'odham and are taken back
across the border to the altars of the small chapels which dot the Tohono
O'odham Nation. Others are bought by Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Yaquis
and used on home altars. Some, however, are bought by Anglo Americans, especially
in the past ten years, during which time the painted frames have been exhibited
in Tucson and Nogales as traditional art. In Mexican and Indian hands, the
frames are colorful decorations for beloved holy pictures or family portraits.
In Anglo hands, however, the frames themselves become the icons symbols
of the region and of its traditions.
In a like way, pinatas and cascarones (decorated eggshells which have
been filled with confetti and mounted on decorated paper cones and which
are broken over party-goers' heads to increase the festive ambiente of the
occasion) are purchased by some Anglos for their original, intended use,
by others for use as wall decorations. In this guise they become visible
symbols of the region and statements of their owners' sensitivity to the
region. By the same token, some folk Catholic shrines in Tucson and elsewhere
have become tourist destinations for Anglos wishing to understand regional
This then, is the Arizona-Sonora border. Belonging truly to neither nation,
it serves as a kind of cultural buffer zone for both, cultivating its own
culture and traditions. Like other borders, it both attracts and repels.
Like them, it is both barrier and filter. It is above all a stimulating
cultural environment. After thirty years as a resident, I can honestly say
that I can think of no other place I would rather be.
About the Author
James S. Griffith is Director of the Southwest Folklore Center of Arizona.
He is a native of southern California and has called the Pimena Alta home
since the early 1960s.
Griffith, James S. Southern Arizona Folk Arts. Tucson: University of
Arizona Press, 1988.
_______________. Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria
Alta. Tucson: University
of Arizona Press,1992.
Weisman, Alan. La Frontera: the United States Border with Mexico. Tucson:
University of Arizona Press, 1991.
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