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Smith : Look southward for angels

At Christmastime, his heart – and his money – end up in Nogales

Shopping in Nogales, especially during the holidays, is an experience like no other.

Shopping in Nogales, especially during the holidays, is an experience like no other.

If you’re looking to make the Christmas dollar go further – whether your gift list includes a life-size skeleton carved out of palm wood, or a lifetime supply of human growth hormone – get a head start by sending that shopping dollar 60 miles south to Nogales.

Either side is a good beginning, but farther is further.

Or vice versa.

From the time we were old enough to shop without adult supervision, underwriting or transportation, our gang made tracks to the border to imbibe of el espiritu Navidad, which, Mexico being the laissez faire environment it is, engaged all five of the textbook senses plus one or more experimental numbers.

Linda Morse got her driver’s license while the rest of us were still 14, and we packed ourselves into her Corvair and embarked on a journey that still hasn’t touched the opposite shore.

The tastes and smells of the Mexican marketplace, the feel of December air another 1,500 feet into the sky and that raucous palette of Christmas colors nobody else even tries to duplicate, all are cast in amber for me, a scorpion paperweight a kid gives his dad for Christmas.

Apropos of which, when my kids came along, they came along with their mother and me as we continued the tradition of buying by the kilo at Christmastime in Nogales.

Not what you think: I mean presents too big for a 5-year-old to carry but not to finance. A trick we learned to handle such exigencies: Buy Mom a 220-liter laundry basket, then hide Dad’s present inside it and get them to carry it to the car. Fools them both.


The years have sent the kids out of the nest, the nest out of existence and the old man two-thirds of the way from Tucson to Nogales as a drunken crow might fly, but much nearer to Mexico spiritually, especially this season of the year.

Nogales is where I go to buy a loaf of bread and a jug of milk, so when it comes to a Christmas tree, a truckload of frozen turkeys or a chain saw for little Debbie, of course I retrace my tracks toward the border – even if I don’t always make it across. Face it: If one’s in the market for a chain saw, even the Mexicans head for Home Depot.

And even the Nogales that lies north of the border – the 10 percent of the town that is officially Estados Unidos – is really Mexican. Like Tucson and everything south of the Gila, we look southward for our culture.

And southward, the Christmas lights ring the rooflines 12 months a year, and at Christmas, even at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, Nogales guarantees brighter lights, louder music and for me, stronger sentimentality. Which – ask my kids – is sentimentality that would gag a maggot.

So, as happens every Christmas here in the borderlands, I scratched the last line off my Christmas list, headed out into the twilight and the spitting sleet, loaded the tree into the truck bed, everything else in the cab, and pointed it north – homeward.

This part always tears me up: the part where the two-lane winds through the canyons south of Patagonia and off to the right on the hillside, candlelight flickers through the scrub oak and through the bars of a wrought iron door, where a mother kept a promise she had made when her two sons went off to war, a promise to light a candle for each of them and to keep them lit until they came safely home.

She did, they did, and with the help of everyone who climbed the steps to read the story, candles have lighted the way home for pilgrims like me ever since.

But even at 55 mph, they don’t flicker long, and then the lights of Patagonia surround you, and then they’re behind. Nine hundred people last pretty fast at a posted 30, and the last leg of the trip is like my dad used to say, solemncoly.

That’s where I see one special house, far away in the dark, defiantly casting off the blackness with a beacon of good cheer.

Merry Christmas to the breadwinner, chugging up the hill on the way home from a wearisome day.

And to anybody lucky enough to catch a glimpse on his own way home to Christmas.

Jeff reminds you there are only 10 shopping days until Christmas and just 41 until the Grinch requires you to have a passport or other government ID to cross the border to shop the following 328 days until the Christmas after this one. Homeland security. Humbug.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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