Tracing America’s borderlands history along the Anza Trail



By: Sarah Tory

I am lost before I’ve even started. It’s December and I’m in Nogales, Arizona, determined to re-trace the footsteps of the first Spanish colonizing expedition across what is now the border between the United States and Mexico. Nearly 250 years ago, in 1775, a young Spanish commander led a group of mostly poor villagers — men, women and children — together with more than 1,000 horses and cattle from the Mexican state of Sinaloa northwards across a vast desert to the far reaches of the Empire in what was then called Alta California. Like Yosemite or Yellowstone, or the Oregon Trail, the expedition’s route is part of the national park system. It should be easy to find. But the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail has no official starting point — at least not one that’s marked.

Instead, there is a giant steel fence equipped with motion sensors, and the ever-vigilant eyes of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Anza actually began his journey 600 miles south of here, in the town of Culiacán, Mexico. But the route managed by the National Park Service begins on this side of the border, and heads north, then west, a loosely connected corridor of  dirt paths, protected areas and ruins that “connect history, culture, and outdoor recreation from Nogales, Arizona, to the San Francisco Bay Area.”

But here in downtown Nogales, with its stream of honking cars and people waiting to cross the wall that divides the city, I can find no remnants of the original route, nor any modern markers that commemorate it. The border, it seems, erases history.

At least that’s how Teresa Leal, a petite 66-year-old anthropologist with a pixie haircut and a mischievous smile, sees it. She belongs to the Anza Society, established to help commemorate the expedition’s history in both Mexico and the U.S. and works as the director of the Pimeria Alta Museum, a stone’s throw from the Nogales portion of the border wall.

Leal’s ancestors were Opata, once the most numerous people in what is now the border region of northeastern Sonora and southern Arizona. Anza, she explains, did not actually blaze the trail that today bears his name, but rather followed in the footsteps of the area’s indigenous people, whose ancient paths created the first migration routes through the modern-day borderlands.

As a person whose history spans the border itself, Leal is bothered by the lack of commemoration. There are Anza Trail markers in Sonora and farther north in Santa Cruz County, but along the border, nothing.  Long ago, she says, we stopped defining this place as interesting — as land worth preserving. Why? She gestures at the wall that rises just behind the museum: Because it is the border. “There is something unreal about it.”


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