Mission San Jose de Caborica in Sonora, Mexico
Mission San Jose de Caborica in Sonora, Mexico

by Lee Foster

In the Sonoran desert of northwest Mexico and around Tucson, Arizona, a historical figure named Eusebio Kino has emerged with legendary dimensions.

Few Americans know his name, but his story is destined to be told.

In 1687 Kino arrived in the New World.

A visit to Kino country takes the traveler to one of Mexico’s lesser known desert areas. The trip carries you back to the 17th century, when the New World was indeed new, and the northwest Mexico desert was the fringe of civilization.

Who was Eusebio Kino? He was an extraordinary mapmaker, geographer, and missionary who was the first to prove that Mexican California was not an island but only the lower or “baja” part of an unexplored land mass.

The cattle baron of his day, Kino introduced the animal into the Sonora desert and bred herds to sizable numbers. To this day a fine restaurant in Mexico City will proudly advertise that its steaks are “Sonora beef.” Fiestas in the region celebrate the feats of vaquero horsemanship that Kino taught his ranchhands. He also supplied his missions with sheep and goats, plus the beast of burden, the burro. He advanced such skills as carpentry and blacksmithing, gardening and baking in this desert area.

Kino was an agriculturalist who brought wheat to a region that now exports the grain. He imported numerous vegetables and citrus, including the Mission Grape now used for Mexican brandies. Seeing that the Indians were already farmers, even using primitive irrigation to grow cotton, corn, and beans, he brought in apricots, figs, pears, peaches, and pomegranates.

As a friend of the Pima and other Indian tribes of northwest Mexico and Arizona, Kino has emerged less scathed than other Europeans at the hands of today’s revisionary historians.


He was a man with an astonishing physique that enabled him, even in his 60s, to ride 30 miles per day on his horse and then sleep soundly with only a saddle for a pillow and a blanket to take the chill off the desert night.

Earlier in life, as a mathematician, he had written a celebrated small book on comets. A gifted writer, he recorded his time of sweeping change in the region (1670-1711) in an autobiographical book, FAVORES CELESTIS.

The occasion for Kino’s presence in Sonora was his membership in the Jesuit missionary order, which sent him in 1687 to the forbidding desert and fertile river valleys of the northwest. Between then and his death in 1711, this capable executive founded 22 mission churches and numerous smaller branches, called visitas.

Born in Italy, educated at German Universities, financed partly by a Portuguese noblewoman, serving the Spanish crown, Kino was an internationalist who saw life as an adventure. His first geographic thirsts were for a place in the China missions, but the vicissitudes of orders from his superiors, which gave Kino ample opportunity to practice the virtue of obedience, placed him in northwest Mexico. There his motives were several, and he was one of those unique men who have an ability to expand their vision as their opportunities increase.

His purposes were more than narrowly apostolic, though he certainly had a compelling wish to bring the Indians what he regarded as good news, his story of Christ, as he traveled among the seven tribes in his thousand-mile parish.

When traveling northwest Mexico or southern Arizona, a visitor can savor one of history’s many ironies: Kino’s vision of Sonora as an economically self-sufficient region with an identity of its own is being realized only today, three centuries later.


Kino’s country is easily accessible. You can drive to it from Tucson, which is also the center for Kino studies.

The main scholar studying Kino is Charles Polzer of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Mission Research Center. Polzer’s book is KINO: HIS MISSIONS, HIS MONUMENTS (from Southwest Mission Research Center, Tucson, AZ). Herbert Bolton’s THE RIM OF CHRISTENDOM (Macmillan) remains the landmark biography of Kino.

Outside of Tucson, the white San Xavier del Bac mission, which Kino founded, is a major travel destination. Though the site was designated by Kino in 1700, the current structure was built by Franciscans 1783-1797. Franciscans have maintained their priestly role here except for the period 1823-1911.

Be sure to enter the ornate, rococo interior to witness the splendor of ornamentation. Within the church you can see the faith of the local c, whose graveyard, adjacent to the church, is a moving exhibit of man’s effort to make some sense of life. Major Indian festivals occur October 3 and December 2. On the Friday after Easter a re-enactment ceremony celebrates the founding of the mission.

Mission San Jose de Caborica in Sonora, Mexico
Mission San Jose de Caborica in Sonora, Mexico

From Tucson you can drive south into Mexico to see several more Kino missions.

If you have a chance to explore Kino country, make the trip in cool weather. Spring through June 15 and autumn after September 15 are cool enough. Winter is a delight. Summers are extremely hot.


Magdalena’s church of Santa Maria Magdalena de Buquivaba is celebrated as the burial site of Kino. There his exposed bones can be viewed under a pink sandstone dome, circled by a handsomely landscaped and tiled square.

For the Sonoran Mexican the Kino monument is a source of pride. I have found more Mexicans than U.S. travelers there on my three visits.

Late September-early October is a time of extensive and exciting fiesta activity for the feast of San Francisco Xavier, patron for both Kino and the church. This largest fiesta in northwest Mexico draws thousands of Indians, such as Arizona Papagos, who come here partly to fulfill a manda, or vow. They walk along Highway 15 from the border. The authorities set up First Aid stations to assist the pilgrims. Festivities peak October 2-4 when participants attend religious services and then regale themselves by eating, drinking, dancing, listening to the numerous bands, and parading in the street.

Kino collapsed in Magdalena during an afternoon chapel dedication on March 15, 1711. By midnight the life of this imposing figure had ended.


San Ignacio de Caborica is one of the treasures of the Sonora frontier. This white stuccoed church is thought by scholars to approximate Kino’s original Jesuit-style structure. Remodeling in 1775 and 1834 did not substantially alter the characteristic bell tower, facade, and mesquite log staircase.

Kino himself described San Ignacio as follows, “It has a very fine location, an admirable and pleasant plain and meadow, among the most beautiful to be found in all these provinces.”

To get there drive north from Magdalena six miles and then inquire locally at the town of Tasicuri about a passable dirt road leading 2.7 miles west to the church and village.

If you find this delightful small church closed, ask locally for the sacristana who will let you into the structure and the small adjoining museum.

In Kino’s time San Ignacio was an orientation place where new missionaries learned the Indian languages. Founded by Kino in 1687, as his second church, the village has been happily by-passed in the 20th century because the main highway lies to the east.

The annual fiesta of June 31 is a lively time to visit San Ignacio, which emphasizes the arts of horsemanship in its celebration.


The Caborca mission, La Purisima Concepcion de Nuestra Senora de Caborca, lies in the extremely productive valley of the Concepcion River. This oasis provides a sharp contrast with the desert, which is also delightful in its way because of organpipe cactus stands that rival those in the cactus national monument across the border in Arizona. East of town there are large plantings of safflower, grown for its oil, and mission grapes.

The church site dates from Kino’s time, but the present church was built later, 1803-1809. The edifice’s mixed Moorish and Baroque elements are sufficiently unique that the Mexicans have registered it as a national monument.

Kino regarded Caborca as the important supply base for expeditions farther west into the Colorado River area. At Caborca the Pima Indians revolted in 1695 and killed Kino’s cohort, Xavier Saeta, a Jesuit and Sicilian nobleman, in the first major altercation between Indians and missionaries in Sonora. Spanish soldiers met the uprising with draconian severity that saddened Kino.

The edifice weathered one 19th century indignity.

In 1857 the church withstood a curious historical aberration when a group of Arizona filibusterers under Henry A. Crabb, feeling that the Caborca area should no longer be Mexican, attacked the town. Local defenders holed up in the church, which prompted the Americans to riddle the facade with their rifle bullets. Crabb was promptly caught and shot.

East of Caborca, at the town of Altar, drive four miles north on the paved road to see the small branch church, or visita, at Oquitoa, which is typical of the stone Jesuit structures of Kino’s time, with their long narrow naves, sited on hills. Oquitoa village is the most rural vision of Mexican life on this trip.


A main question today in Kino county is how he would have viewed the rapid modern development of the region.

“Kino was not opposed to growth and development,” said Charles Polzer. “But Kino would never have allowed gross exploitation. Kino brought in the new food plants and livestock that transformed the economy. But he saw man’s role here as one of stewardship, as man interacting with his environment, recreating and ordering the world, with enough discipline to achieve good. He was a humanist, a better-world person, a man of exceptional human vision. All his changes proceeded within the environmental limitations of the desert, especially the water supply. He was a practical realist. There are so many subtle aspects of living in tune with the desert.”

When asked to elaborate on how Kino lived in tune with the desert, Polzer describes Kino’s architecture.

“Kino’s mission architecture, for example, faced south to avoid the heat of summer,” says Polzer. “Fountains in the mission architecture served to humidify the air for comfort and to lower the temperature. Typically, we sit in an air-conditioned building and look out at a fountain that exists only for show. We eat imported food rather than a locally grown corn, bean, and chili combination that evolved as suitable for people in a hot, desert region. We are allowing water-consuming industry and pecan orchards to proliferate here, forcing our citizens to consume mineral-laden Colorado River water rather than our own pure groundwater, which we must go deeper each year to pump. Are these wise and healthy decisions for the long run? I doubt that Kino would have thought so.”



For further information on Mexico, contact the Mexican Tourism Board at 800/44-Mexico. They can send a packet of information on the country. The Mexican tourism web site at http://mexico-travel.com is also useful, providing a gateway to many regional tourism web sites. Be sure to bring proof of citizenship to Mexico. A passport is best, but a certified birth certificate will do.



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