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A gringo in Sonora

David Yetman has written a book detailing his years of adventures into the mountains and villages of this rugged Mexican state.


Citizen Staff Writer

David Yetman knew how much a crude machete, worth about $5, meant to his Mexican friend Santiago Valenzuela.

While visiting Sonora regularly since 1961, for no other reason than to meet its people and know its land, Yetman learned how important this simple tool is.

‘The machete is symbolic,’ says Yetman. ‘It is such a vital part of this man’s life. It is the tool of his trade, without which he can’t work. Without it, he can’t live.’

Valenzuela is one of the many real people readers meet in Yetman’s book of casual anthropology, “Sonora: An Intimate Geography.”

Thirty-five years in the making, the book tackles a different area of the Mexican state in each chapter in a style similar to, but more in depth than, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

“I wanted to make Sonora a place of living people, not just geography,” Yetman said recently from his office at the University of Arizona. ‘I tried to describe what Sonora is like away from what most tourists know.’

Yetman had only recently graduated from high school when he started his travels through Mexico on a motor scooter. He has since upgraded, first to a car and then to a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but he still has to go by foot to get to some of the remote mountain villages he likes to visit. He started chronicling his experiences six years ago.

‘I had been going to visit the Seris (a tribe that lives near Bahia Kino along the Gulf of California) for 20 years when I realized they were dying,’ Yetman said. ‘I then sat down to write my personal history. I only started taking notes since 1990. I have vivid memories of earlier trips.’

Differences between American and Mexican cultures jump out at the reader in characters’ actions recorded by Yetman. Many of the people he encounters find odd jobs to support their families, which usually include adults, children and grandparents.

‘No two nations are more different that coexist side by side,’ Yetman said. ‘Everybody can point me out as a gringo. I’m still an outsider and I don’t think that will ever change.’

Yetman was born in New Jersey, but spent his childhood in Duncan, Ariz., and attended high school in Prescott. Nothing from his past or his heritage links him to Sonora.

‘I was a sickly child; I never went to school,’ Yetman explained. ‘Instead, I read everything on Central and South America.’

Yetman financed his early voyages into Mexico by importing Seri carvings and baskets.

He graduated in 1964 with a degree in philosophy, got his master’s a year later and his doctorate in 1972 – all from the University of Arizona. That year, he became a caretaker for a remote church camp in the Chiricahua Mountains.

In 1976, he was recruited to run for the Pima County Board of Supervisors. After establishing residency, he ran and won. He was re-elected until he stepped down in 1988.

He worked for a year on a novel, which still is unfinished, before repairing clocks.

Finally his passion and work began to overlap in 1992 when he was hired part time at the UA’s Southwest Center and became executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society.

In 1994, he was hired as a fulltime assistant research social scientist and gave up his Audubon position. The center finances his trips to Sonora, where he researches how plant materials are used by native peoples.

‘Through all the various job changes, the one focus I have had is Sonora,’ Yetman said. ‘It’s more of an obsession than a hobby.’

Excerpt: “On our return to Tucson, I discovered that Santiago had left his machete under the rear seat of the van we had ridden in. I was sick, knowing the importance of that implement to him. For the rural Mexican man, the machete is an extension of his being. He uses it for a knife, for protection, for lopping limbs, felling trees, cutting posts, digging, cutting, butchering, sawing, carving and eating. Santiago would be almost crippled without his machete.

“A month later I returned to Yocogigua. He saw me coming and came out to meet me. From a distance I saw his old face crinkle into a smile when he spied the machete. I handed it to him, laughing. ‘Ay, David,’ he said with a voice full of love and gratitude, ‘you can’t imagine how much I missed this machete. I thought I’d never see it again. ‘”

- David Yetman, author,

- “Sonora: An Intimate Geography”

Photo: David Yetman

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