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By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
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By Stephen Lemons
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By Chris Parker
Ignacio Alvaraz does not know much about the "cross-cultural two-nation vacations" being touted by the newly formed Center for Arizona-Sonora Regional Tourism Development.
Then again, Alvaraz, a Yaqui Indian elder, didn't travel to the United States from his native Mexico to sightsee. He came to inform fellow Yaquis in Arizona about gunfights, murders and beatings that he says are part of what amounts to civil war in the Rio Yaqui area of Sonora, Mexico.
Alvaraz lives in V¡cam, one of eight Yaqui villages located about an hour's drive southeast of the coastal tourist town of Guaymas, which, along with the nearby resort of San Carlos, draws significant numbers of vacationing Arizonans. About 35,000 Yaquis live in the Rio Yaqui region.
This area is one that the Arizona-Sonora center, funded jointly by the two states, hopes to market internationally, says Phil Pappas, the center's director.
One idea the center plans to promote involves "cross-cultural" tours of Native American communities in both states--for instance, a trip that combines visits to southern Arizona reservations and the eight Yaqui villages in Sonora.
But wait a minute. Alvaraz says it's not even safe these days to drive a car in Yaqui country. Just a year ago, he and other Yaqui leaders set off by car to protest the human-rights abuses in Yaquiland to the Sonoran government, but they were ambushed by thugs. He says two men in the car were murdered--Ignacio's brother Aureliano Alvaraz and Milano Cupis, a friend. Alvaraz suspects the thugs were hired by political enemies in neighboring Yaqui villages.
Things haven't calmed down, Alvaraz says. To this day, he says, shots ring out at night "to intimidate people," and men armed with machine guns patrol the native Yaqui lands in new American four-wheel-drive vehicles. These men are employees of non-Yaqui Mexicans who have bought up or lease Yaqui farmland, Alvaraz says. Also, outsiders are cultivating marijuana in clandestine fields in the nearby mountains that are part of the Yaqui ancestral homeland.
But it's not just outsiders who are causing the problem. Yaquis are attacking Yaquis. Five villages have faced off against three villages, says Alvaraz.
The smaller group of villages includes V¡cam, where Alvaraz is a leader. According to Alvaraz, the dispute centers on the smaller group's conviction that the five-village coalition is siphoning off most of the money that the Mexican government sends to Yaquis as part of a program called Paticy, or Programa de Asistencia Tecnica Integral de las Comunidades Yaqui. The program, started by the government of now-disgraced former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was intended to help Yaquis with agricultural projects and housing.
Alvaraz says elders from the three villages have repeatedly complained to the Mexican government that they aren't getting their fair share of the funds--to no avail.
The Mexican Consul in Phoenix says he's never heard of the civil strife in Yaquiland, much less of Yaqui efforts to complain to the government. "Unfortunately," Nicolas Escalante says, "the economic conditions in Mexico are such that this kind of thing can happen." Except for a few Yaqui churchmembers in Guadalupe, most Valley Yaquis have chosen to ignore the problem, says Guadalupe lay church leader Bonifacio Alvarez, who is no relation to Ignacio. (Anselmo Valencia, vice chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson and that tribe's liaison with the Yaqui villages in Sonora, did not return telephone calls.)
But Ignacio Alvaraz says conditions in Yaquiland are more miserable than ever. Most people can no longer afford to subsistence farm, because they have no money to buy seed, pay bribes for irrigated water or purchase cattle. As a result, they are forced to rent their lands to non-Yaqui Mexicans.
Alvaraz and others are encouraging Yaquis not to rent to non-Indians because they are at risk of losing their land entirely. Under Mexican law, a person who does not work his land loses title to that land after seven years, he says.
This explains why Alvaraz is not popular with the non-Indians leasing land in the area.
A hectare, or 88 acres, once subsistence farmed by several families, rents for a total of $300 per year, barely enough money to feed and clothe one family for a few months in the post-peso-devaluation economy, says Alvaraz.
Mexican and American tourist books don't play up that sort of privation. Instead, they point out that the Yaquis, once fierce warriors who bravely battled Spaniards, still walk around with knives and weapons strapped to their waists.
The Yaquis are best known to tourists for their "deer dancing" ceremonies in which men dance with deer heads strapped to their own heads. A huge statue of a Yaqui deer dancer guards the main government buildings in Ciudad Obregon, a large Sonora city that also is home to a government Yaqui Museum. Yaqui deer dancers adorn postcards, mescal bottles and flags throughout Sonora.
A tourist book on Sonora, sponsored by the Mexican government, says that "Yaquis live in the heart of every Sonoran."
So how will the powder-keg conditions reported by Alvaraz affect the "two-nation vacation" cross-cultural tours promoted by the Center for Arizona-Sonora Regional Tourism Development?
Not at all.
"We will be marketing them," says Pappas. His staff recently toured the area and witnessed no violence, he adds.
"From a tourism standpoint, I don't see this intruding," says Pappas.
"The situation in Chiapas hasn't affected tourism, either. Some of the stories I've heard is that the guerillas like posing for photos with tourists.