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Traffic, time slow in Guadalupe, Ariz., town rich with Yaqui traditions

Despite fast-growing cities around it, tiny Guadalupe, Ariz., is in no hurry to change its native traditions

The entrance to the town that time passed by is marked by brake lights.

The speed limit is 20 mph, about half what it is on the surrounding streets of Phoenix and Tempe. So on weekday evenings the traffic backup can stretch for hundreds of yards — longer if Guadalupe's only stoplight turns red.

"It's for safety," says Fidelis Garcia, a lawyer who lived most of his life here. "We have a lot of pedestrians."

If not for the rushless rush hour, drivers could blink and miss the town altogether.

Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe's main street, is less than a mile and a quarter long. The entire town covers just 420 acres, making it only slightly bigger than the parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium. Its population of 6,000 is smaller than the Dodgers draw for batting practice.

Yet its resiliency far exceeds its size.

Guadalupe sits smack dab in the middle of one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S., but has protected its weathered buildings and clapboard houses while preserving the centuries-old native traditions that define it.

The chain restaurants, warehouse stores and trendy boutiques that have flooded into Maricopa County have not reached the heart of Guadalupe, which is populated mainly by small, noisy markets fronted by faux adobe arches.

"It looks like little Mexico, doesn't it?" said Garcia, whose family in the 1960s forced the rerouting of a freeway project that would have sliced through town. In fact, little of what has happened here happened by chance. Guadalupe dates from a 40-acre homestead given to a group of Yaqui Indians in 1914, two years after Arizona became a state.

The Yaqui had fled Mexico's Sonora state after decades of war against a Mexican government intent on seizing their land. Most settled around Tucson, but about three dozen others continued north to Tempe and the Salt River Valley, where their experience in irrigation helped local residents turn desert into farmland.

"It made them millions," Garcia says of the landowners. "Still does."

Although the local farmers valued Yaqui know-how, they didn't want them or any other Mexican immigrants as neighbors. So the Indians were relocated to an arid 40-acre homestead nearby. That also appeared to be by design; because the land was too barren for the Yaqui to grow their own food, the landowners could continue to count on the Indians' low-cost labor to work their farms.

The slight eventually became a gift. The homestead provided a protected place where the Yaqui cultural traditions could flourish. As other, non-Indian Mexicans moved into the area, they too settled in Guadalupe.

Now a hundred years later, a stout, round-faced man with a touch of pneumonia sits on a wooden bench between the dirt-floor Yaqui temple and the neighboring Catholic church, the first buildings erected in the center of the 40-acre homestead plot.

Rafael Armenta has lived in Guadalupe for each of his 65 years. He grew up listening to tribal elders tell stories of how the community was formed. He has passed on those stories in "talking circles" within his own family. The Yaqui culture is a spoken one, he says, so Armenta rarely uses a pen or paper.

The Yaqui, Armenta says, are best known for their centuries-old religious celebrations, especially at Easter, on the Day of the Dead and for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December. When Phoenix and Tempe threatened the community with annexation in the 1970s, Armenta says, residents feared it would mean an end to traditional ceremonies, which often feature public dances with deer heads and masks and massive parades through the streets.

"That's when the people got together and decided to incorporate," he says. "They didn't want anybody to tell them what to do. Or tell them you can't do these ceremonies anymore. They wanted to keep their culture."

Now, the culture is fading from within, he says with a sigh. He is one of the few in the community who still speaks the Yaqui language. And intermarriage between Yaqui and Mexicans is so common that the number of full-blooded Yaqui in Guadalupe is declining as well.

"Once you forget … your language, you forget your culture, you're no longer a Yaqui. You vanish," he warns. "We have to keep up those values. I know that it's hard. Social media takes over and sometimes they rob you of all this stuff."

Across town — which, in the case of Guadalupe, means about two blocks — Carlos Valencia works with a nonprofit group that tutors schoolchildren at the Pascua Yaqui tribal complex, a modern 37,000-square-foot brick building that opened in February. The dropout rate in Guadalupe is too high, Valencia says, and so is the unemployment rate. Nearly a third of the population lives in poverty.

When Valencia was growing up in Guadalupe, his mother taught him to respect the culture, he says, but he didn't learn to appreciate it until he became an adult. Now, he shares that appreciation on his Facebook page, Yaqui Pride, which has become a modern talking circle.

"Old people like it the way it is. Younger people want to improve it," says Valencia, 35. He wears a black-and-gray polo shirt with the tricolor Pascua Yaqui Tribe emblem stitched above the right breast and a Reebok logo on the left sleeve.

His shirt bridges a cultural divide that in most ways no longer exists. Thirty years after incorporation forced them together to defend the community, Guadalupe bills itself as the town "where three cultures flourish": Yaquis, Mexicans and descendants of the original farmers.

Yaquis and Mexicans are evenly split on the town council.

"As far back as you can go, they weren't necessarily friends. But they became friends over time. Now, they work together," says Valencia who, like many younger Guadalupanos, has moved out of the town but still spends much of his time there.

Garcia, a lawyer, has also moved away, as has his sister Maria Zanotti-Garcia. But their mother still lives in the family home on the edge of town, within sight of the rerouted freeway.

The family is first-generation Mexican American, but after living in Guadalupe for more than half a century, it has filled its home with objects celebrating the unique history of both Yaqui and Catholic traditions.

"That's what makes this community so different," Zanotti-Garcia says. "It's sharing your traditions and your family."


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