Story and Photography by C. Jill Hofer
The city of South Tucson is a one-of-a-kind enclave, nestled entirely within the Tucson city limits. Those yet to discover this tiny municipality are in for a big surprise. Affectionately known as the Pueblo within a city, South Tucson boasts a triple crown of community, cuisine, and culture.
The sense of community begins at the borders, where colorful mosaics mark the city limits. Incorporated in 1936, South Tucson occupies just over one square mile, with these welcoming borders at 26th and 40th Streets to the north and south, 12th Avenue to the east, and 2nd Avenue and the train tracks to the west. The eye-catching mosaics welcoming drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are thanks to the Las Artes Youth Art Program. Students ages 17 to 22 work together to create the inspiring public artworks. In exchange, the budding artists build self-confidence and receive on-the-job training as well as a stipend for their community service.
The community is an official municipality with its own police force, fire department, schools (within the TUSD district), city council, city manager, and mayor. The area is home to supportive, community-building organizations such as the John Valenzuela Youth Center, Sam Lena South Tucson Library, the House of Neighborly Services, numerous churches, and other health and human service agencies.
As Tucson expands upward and outward, the city of South Tucson is retaining its sense of community and unique identity while feeling nearer to downtown with each passing year. Past census data indicates the area is home to an estimated 5,700 residents and just under 2,000 households, a tiny fraction of the size of Tucson. The city is small but growing and drawing more investment, visitors, and attention than ever before. It’s gaining favor with businesses and attracting bohemians, artists, and musicians to live, work, and visit. Forward-thinking creatives are beginning to repurpose homes and buildings, and the arrival of residents seeking more-affordable housing options is reenergizing, and somewhat redefining, the community.
What’s bringing this attention to South Tucson? For many, the initial draw is a quest for authentic Mexican food. When it comes to cuisine, the city of South Tucson puts the “city” in authenticity. A nationally recognized food scene has for decades lured diners from Tucson, elsewhere in the state of Arizona, and beyond in search of “real deal” Mexican food. Foodies flock to well-known favorites such as
Cuisine isn’t limited to true-to-roots Mexican heritage food. Visitors here enjoy other landmarks such as Sue’s Fish & Chips and the Café Santa Rosa which specializes in Sonoran and Native American cuisines. Diners also delight in an array of innovative twists including a growing number of vegetarian and vegan options.
Healthy choices are rapidly multiplying as restaurants respond to a sustained wave of interest in fresh, locally sourced, healthy dining. As they have for decades, the city’s chefs and restaurant owners pioneer their own brand of Mexican, Sonoran, and Native American cuisine with a nod to current trends and interests. El Torero has drawn countless diners to the area with the lure of the original Lerua’s tamale—a regional favorite—and is leading the way with an array of creative vegan options. The University of Arizona has its own presence with The Garden Kitchen, offering seed-to-table gardening and cooking education, nutrition information, and physical activity opportunities.
Delicious food is clearly a highlight. But before or after devouring that classic tamale, flavorful Sonoran hot dog, or fluffy frybread, look beyond the menu to discover the other flavors of South Tucson. Here, culture is not synonymous with spotless, flawless, or perfect. Photogenic streets are still a little rough around the edges. Artful mosaics are appreciated through chain link fences, and colorful murals can be seen on walls with slightly crumbling corners. The rugged beauty fits well with the renegade history of the city.
This history, a fierce sense of independence, and an easy, confident, slow-paced vibe define the culture of South Tucson. A relaxed pace of life exists alongside bustling streets and busy avenues lined with thriving businesses. A quick drive offers a glimpse of many of the more than 300 businesses operating in this relatively small area: markets and banks, printers and designers, auto repair shops, and of course, restaurants. Commerce goes beyond the expected convenience stores and chain pharmacies to include a myriad of specialty stores like Handyman’s Haven, numerous tortillerias, meat markets, and grocery purveyors, large and small.
Overnight stays are available in the Arizona Motel and Paradise Inn Motel. Taverns such as the Saint Charles Tavern and Club 4th Avenue are known for their lively events, music, and loyal regulars. Music, heritage, and camaraderie can be found in abundance at El Casino Ballroom, with a history inextricably tied to the Latin American Social Club. Families reserve the venue year-round for private events and special occasions, and music lovers flock to concerts hosted here by KXCI Community Radio. Those who appreciate art can choose from a myriad of original creations at Galeria Mitotera, a collaborative gallery space showcasing local talent and artists of color.
There’s a lot to discover in South Tucson. This pueblo within a city is attracting visitors and new neighbors with a sense of community, extraordinary cuisine, and an abundance of cultural offerings. Take a drive, stroll the streets, stop and shop, call for take-out, or make reservations at one of the many restaurants offering dine-in options. See, hear, and taste for yourself why the word is out about this not-so-hidden gem.
To learn more, visit southtucsonaz.gov, check out related pages on Instagram, or dive a little deeper by reading Pulido del Barrio Libre: The Life of Reynaldo M. Santa Cruz, by Renaldo Santa Cruz.