A fifth generation Tucsonense slows down and soaks in plant medicine
by Alisha Vasquez
When we moved into this house, I knew the creosote bush in the southwest corner of the front yard was magic. Like old school curandera magic. A relic of my Tucsonense ancestry, a connection to a time before me, bound by memories and blood. I knew that she was there for me.
This porch was a selling point for me and my partner-in-crime, Adam—but so was the fact that the house had floors, faucets, sinks, and a roof, amenities other houses we could afford lacked. Not too shabby for our first home.
Ms. Creosote, as I began to call her, was fresh and keenly trimmed when we moved our belongings and two cats into the house. My most beloved cat, Judah, would majestically scope out the yard from underneath Ms. Creosote, and I morbidly jested that once his kidneys gave way, we could bury him under her ever-growing buds. I don’t know what the atheist version of kitty heaven is, but when Judah entered it, we buried his earthly remains out back, under the mesquite instead. Years later I would discover we made the right choice.
A few summers ago, I offered Ms. Creosote a tiny agave pup from my mother’s backyard where it has grown happily near her roots ever since. And Ms. Creosote has grown, too. Last spring her enormous arms shadowed over the senita cactus, who grew so large her long, lean green appendages snapped off, making way for new faint-green arms to form.
As spring 2020 sprang, I gave Ms. Creosote a trim, mirroring my own pruning a few months earlier when I cut twelve inches of my own frizzy hair. With my haircut went all the pregnancy hormones and only a fraction of the grief I’d suffered after losing my Tío-Dad, the man who helped raise me. With her trim, Ms. Creosote became more manageable; her branches no longer formed a blockade over the sidewalk, smacking those caminando en la face. We can better see Tumamoc Hill behind her, too, where her cousins grow—saguaros, palo verde, barrel cactus, all the chollas, and 300 other species of native Sonoran Desert plants.
The new ‘do helped spread fuzzy white creosote seeds all over the yard like a blanket of desert snow and unveiled a tiny creosote offspring right next to the ever-regrowing senita. Nothing goes to waste. I offered Ms. Creosote’s chopped locks to my community of Facebook friends so they could make teas, pomadas, potions, or just pretend the monsoon is rolling in every time they shower. Ms. Creosote is medicine.
The chop job happened right before “pandemic” became a word in our everyday, occupying the news, feeding our anxieties, shifting our realities, and altering our futures. The world either slowed down or sped up, depending on your labor and whether or not it was deemed essential. I had already said “¡Ya basta!” three years earlier to my overly occupied life. I left an academic career path that was fragmenting me, forcing me to discount messages from my body-mind-spirit to keep up with an unnatural pace. A midwife amiga told me no baby could exist in a body as stressed out as mine was. So I listened.
When my abuela arrived to Tucson from San Francisco with her Tucsonense husband to sow their budding family’s roots in 1956, she cried because everything was dirt. Her familiar landscape was towers, trolleys, and big-city swiftness.
Tucson was my abuelo’s home—La Calle. Family carne asadas, long Sunday drives, picnics under the shady cottonwood and pecan trees along the free-flowing Santa Cruz, and hot, hot summers. Back then, people knew all their neighbors, and everyone had a nickname. My abuelo’s father called the vecino with the wheelbarrow “Señor carretilla.” He called his own son, my abuelo, “Lemoncito” because he always made a sour face when things went wrong.
I learned these stories from my abuelo when I was young and he became my best friend. I was his “mechuda” since my hair was always disheveled and I loved splashing in muddy puddles. His stories were a guidebook not only to our family’s history, but also to living a fulfilling and happy life. It just took a while for me to see that.
After my husband and I bought the house, I would sit on the porch wrapped in an inherited, blue-and-white striped Mexican blanket, happy to be building the next phase of my own Tucsonense life. It seemed that whenever I looked at Ms. Creosote, visions would come in. I daydreamed of a black-haired, dark-eyed child running around the front yard. We’d been trying for our first child for what felt like forever. Was this little person from the past or the future?
In another vision, my mind animated the black and white photo of my mother at age four sitting next to a younger version of my abuela, who is teaching her to sew. My mom is now her generation’s seamstress.
My mind also conjured up my bisabuelos, Rudalfo and Guadalupe, in a yard not all that different from my own, putting care and energy into the tierra that surrounded them.
The story goes that every time my mom’s family would visit the three-room casita on Herbert Street, Grandma Lupe would be sweeping the dirt or watering the yard’s many plantitas and Chinaberry trees. My tias and tios laugh every time they tell me how often Grandma Lupe would sweep and water the dirt, and I can almost always feel the mud between my toes.
It turns out the dark-haired child I saw running around the yard was a vision from the future.
Now, like Ms. Creosote, I have a little piece of myself growing amongst the senitas, agave, and mesquites—my daughter Athena. This diosa digs holes, collects rocks, and rides her hand-me-down tricycle with the wonky front tire, a mini hell on wheels. She doesn’t understand the science behind Covid-19, but her earliest memories will be of people wearing masks. And hopefully, too, of her loving, present parents and days spent with plant medicine passed down by her family’s deep-seeded connection to the land.
The ability to cultivate life in the arid desert is a trait passed down from my bisabuela and abuelo to my mother and sister whose green thumbs have long been able to harvest tomatoes, chilis, yerbas, and flores year after year. Sadly, my own brown thumb has always just struggled to keep succulents alive.
But as quarantine continued, I decided I couldn’t live in a world without salsa, so mi’ja and I dug up the tierra, Ms. Creosote supervising, and planted chiles, tomatoes, and cilantro.
My mom and sister stood by, quipping, “We’ll pray for those poor tomatoes.”
But every evening after Jeopardy!, Athena and I watered the plantitas with the “awa” that flows so easily, a blessing, from the hose. It became our daily ritual: watch Jeopardy!, water the plants, wait in the cooling air outside for dada to return home from work, and repeat.
“I’ll take ‘Pandemic’ for 800.”
“It’s the Daily Double!”
“I’ll make it a true Daily Double, Alex.”
“Answer: A mother and child nurturing plants in their yard on their own time, waiting for rain. “
“What is actively rejecting the neoliberal doctrine of working until you’re sick with no time to stop and smell the creosote?”
“Correct! You’ve doubled your happiness.”
“Let’s close out Pandemic for 1000.”
“Answer: A foundational Chicana history text and a way of life that happens when you look to your ancestors, spend time with creosote, and trust your gut.“
“What is ‘The Decolonial Imaginary’?”
Soon, our victorious garden produced two juicy, large, green tomatoes near the citrus tree. What a wonder that is my little house, my tiny garden, my beautiful offspring, and mis sueños that all exist in my Sonoran snow globe.
What does it mean to care for another?
What does it mean to care for myself?
How do we hold so much grief?
What can a plant show me about legacy, adaptation, survival?
With one single revolution around the sun, my dark brown thumb has grown a little lighter in shade, more like the color of my mother’s skin now. With luck and more patience, I might inherit her way with plants too, my thumb turning the light green of the senita’s new arms.
This spring we planted even more.
Tomatillos, poblano, cilantro, watermelon, kale, carrots, herbs, three kinds of tomatoes, and part of a rubber tree plant that has been in my family since the 1970s.
In soil fertilized by Athena’s placenta, we transplanted a tiny saguaro—a gift from my cousin’s land—right between Judah Cat and a mesquite tree who will serve as the saguarito’s surrogate nurse plant. We mixed some of my Tio-Dad ashes into the soil to nurture the saguaro’s roots.
Growing up, I took the desert’s green brownness for granted. I longed for the fast-paced life my abuela had left in San Francisco. But when I moved there for graduate school, I missed Tucson’s saguaro-filled scenery and drive-thru liquor stores, and the sweet comforting scent of creosote accompanying the rain. What I once saw as slow and boring, I now understand as beauty and quiet reflection. And as legacy.
This desert has cultivated the previous four generations of my family.
Ms. Creosote brought me back to that history, that belonging. In a time of illness and grief, her leaves and flowers offered fragrant medicine—a vaccine against outsider expectations of what a good life is supposed to be.
But the Sonoran Desert I’ve inherited is not the desert of my mom’s youth, full of summer keggers in the boonies near what is now Tangerine Road and the monsoon salvation that would cool down the revelers. Nor is it the desert of my abuelo when Stone Avenue was a dirt road and the main drag through downtown Tucson. Nor that of my bisabuelos, whose three-room adobe housed three generations and ten people at once. Is not the same desert of my great-great abuelo Adolfo who arrived from Altar, Sonora in 1880 as a blacksmith and carriage-maker. And it is not the same desert that was here before the Spanish colonized and Mexico imposed on this land’s original Indigenous caretakers.
Or is it? Does the desert carry its legacy and resilience forward, to me and now to my daughter? Athena’s desert is drier and hotter than her ancestors’ desert. Even the nopales are withering in this prolonged drought. But somehow the creosote is thriving, reminding us that we shall endure, we will endure.
Alisha Vasquez is fifth generation Tucsonense whose Chicana-krip-queerish bodymind exists intersectionally. Alisha credits street kids, punk rock, community activists, her mama, and those without official titles as her greatest teachers. Currently, she is taking time off of formal teaching to care for her two-year-old daughter, Athena.