The Pimeria Alta

Today’s southern Arizona – i.e. all the land below the Gila River, about 1/3 of the state – was, a few hundred years ago, under the governance of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and parcel to a large territorial Province referred to as the Pimeria Alta, i.e. the Upper Land of the Pimas.  The area was thus named because the indigenous peoples, the Sobaipuri, were principally of Pima and closely related O’odham (Papago) ethnicity, themselves each and all presumed to be descendants of the vanished Salado/Hohokam culture which had left behind, on the Sonoran Desert, the huge footprint of a highly advanced civilization, one which had endured for more than a thousand years prior to its mysterious disappearance a century or two before the arrival of the Spaniards.

In the late 1600’s the Spanish began the task of Christianizing the Sobaipuri, and assigned the responsibility primarily to Jesuit Fr. Eusebio Kino who established missions at Tumacacori, Guevavi, and Bac, all Sobaipuri place names — “towns” — alongside the north-flowing Santa Cruz River. The missions were eventually brought under the protection of Spanish military garrisons stationed at the Presidios of Tubac (near Guevavi and Tumacacori) and Tucson (near Bac).

Today, (visibly) little remains at Guevavi other than a few mounds of crumbled adobe wall. At Tumacacori, however, the ruins of a large church still stand, protected and maintained as part of Tumacacori National Historic Park. It’s approximately 17 miles north of the international border at Nogales, a hundred or so meters west of the Rio Santa Cruz, and within easy view of traffic on US Interstate 19. Some fifty miles to the north, again near the banks of the Rio Santa Cruz but on O’odham land stands the crown jewel of Pimeria Alta missions, ‘The White Dove of the Desert’, the Mission San Xavier del Bac. It remains an active church, and as ‘the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture anywhere in the US’ is also a National Historic Landmark under constant care, preservation, and restoration.

Those old missions are, to me at least, captivating places. The embedded history is of course fascinating, but even more fascinating is the ‘message’ each sends, subliminally, to I suspect most any visitor who is innately curious enough to take a look at the physical consequences of historical events and then ponder the new reality that resulted. In the case of the Pimeria Alta, the embedded Sobaipuri culture was forever changed, not often for the better, following the ‘invasion’ from the south of an alien people who spoke a ‘foreign’ language and were physically quite different in appearance (and I suppose some might suggest that with no Russell Pearce, Joe Arpaio, and/or Jan Brewer equivalents to stand in their way, the Sobaipuri paid the ultimate price . . . but that’s another story for another time).

For my part, I began regular visits to both Tumacacori and San Xavier in the mid-seventies, not long after my then ‘permanent’ relocation to Arizona. Following are a pair of photo-poetic essay “messages,” one on each church. The photos date back to around 1976; the most recent were taken on my last visit in October, 1999. The words? Same span of time plus a decade, I suppose. Ideas seldom seem to gel all at once. Don’t know why that is, but if I ever figure it out will surely advise.

In Hoc Signo . . . Vinces

       In Hoc Signo Vinces

Who knows but he will sit down solitary amid silent ruins,
and weep a people inurned and their greatness changed into
an empty name.”  (Constantine De Volney)



Tumacacori abstraction IIReflections on Mission San José de Tumacácori,
Established in 1691 by Jesuit Fr. Eusebio Kino of New Spain
in Pimeria Alta, on the banks of the Rio Santa Cruz
near Tubac, Arizona, in today’s
Tumacácori National Historic Park

A ruin rests on hallowed ground
In somber reverie;
‘Tis but a shell, an empty church
Called Tumacácori.

Tumacacori - Facade‘Twas built, it’s said, to cleanse dark souls
Of distant, heathen lands;
But conquered souls returned to dust,
The church to sculpted sand.

the church to sculpted sandThe priests and sacred chants are gone,
Old bells, in silence, hang;
Thick walls of clay shroud empty rooms
Where once the heathen sang.

old bells in silence hangBeneath an alabaster dome
In quiet, dark repose,
The Mass is sung by haunting wind
Which ex cathedra blows.

ex cathedra

Beyond the church, a graveyard lies;
Its walls enclose the dead
Departed souls, known but to God,
For whom no tears are shed.

graveyardAtop the dome a cross of life
Points toward what man aspires;
But on each grave, the cross of death
Marks that which he acquires.

on each graveThe breeze mocks sacred melody
While whispering o’er cracked stones,
Though only souls interred can hear
Hymns piped through hollow bones.

hymns piped through hollow bonesWith majesty, this crumbled church
Once served as mankind’s womb,
But men were born, then fled; it’s now
A vaulted, silent, tomb.

silent vaulted tombWild Flow’rs nearby in splendor bloom,
How sad they cannot see,
That splendor need not fade with time
Though life, with time, must flee.

Tumacacori - profile-aa


“These Temples grew as grows the grass.
Art could aspire, but not surpass.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)



Bac profile 1a-1Reflections on Mission San Xavier del Bac,
Established in 1692 by Jesuit Fr. Eusebio Kino of New Spain
in Pimeria Alta on the banks of the Rio Santa Cruz,
on today’s Tohono O’odham Lands near Tucson, Arizona

They stand in stoic, frozen – Silent – pose,
The Saints of San Francisco Xavier,
San Xavier, of Bac.
Niches of adobe’s sculpted clay
and Paints of earthen pigment
decorate their resting space;
Raiments borne of color
and of homespun cloth –
adorn the Votive silence

Bac saints composite 1One strains to hear the voice of God –
Encouragement of Saint –
Yet hears but prayerful murmur,
or creak of genuflect,
Or folding of the hands,
or splash of tears
Before the altars, circumspect,
Within the view of Saints,
Within domain of man’s devise —
Within the grasp of Silence.

Bac saints composite 2To ill define domain of man —
His quest of Power and of Wealth,
of conquering and punishment —
As gift of God Himself
Suggests that man perceives his worth
quite differently
Than gods, or saints
Or even wolves;
He sees himself as dominant,
As gifted, born in image of his God!
–and in his mind–
Angelic voices sing in praise!
Of his mightiness!

Bac-compositeThey stand in stoic, frozen – Silent – pose,
The Saints of San Francisco Xavier,
San Xavier, of Bac.

There sings no chorus –

1 thought on “The Pimeria Alta

  1. I so enjoy learning history through your photos and essays!

    The picture of the the snag captioned “In Hoc Signo Vinces” is so apropos to what the Spaniards
    did to the indigenous people:
    Conquering; building a sacred/holy structure (mission church) on ground that was already sacred to the Sobaipuri.

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