Neighbors play and pray at this Barrio Libre park
Most late afternoons a small number of women gather in front of the shrine at El Parque Orlando y Diego Mendoza. They chat and pray. Sometimes I hear one or more reciting the Rosary. But I'd never seen anyone use the nearby chess table until this summer, when inventive players picked up small rocks to represent the pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens, and kings.
It's one more use for the park, which has grown lush with willow, acacia, palo verde, roses, and cacti since it was built in 2010. It's come a long way from the dirt parking lot where a shrine in memory of the Mendoza toddlers was first built.
The Mendozas, ages 2 and 1, were killed by a drunk driver at the intersection of 18th Street and South Convent in 1981. The vehicle in which they were riding came to a stop in a vacant lot across the street from Drachman elementary school. It wasn't long before five neighborhood men designed and built the shrine out of volcanic stone and concrete. They didn't seek permission, they simply acted from the heart to honor the memory of the boys.
People immediately began visiting the shrine, leaving flowers, photos, stuffed animals, rosary beads, toys, and other mementos. But the shrine didn't sit well with some people at the Tucson Unified School District, which owned the vacant lot, then used as teacher parking. They wanted the shrine moved on grounds that it somehow represented government's endorsement of religion.
Neighbors opposed any relocation, and the dispute resolved itself after the school shut down and the city took over the property. The former school site became what is now the Lalo Guerrero housing for seniors. There was one more skirmish, though, when the city erected a fence around the vacant lot and locked the gate. As I recall, the lock didn't last more than a few days before it vanished.
Thanks to the Pima County Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, the 13,000-square-foot lot became the pocket park we have today. It was built with $118,000 in county bond funds, $75,000 from the city, and $60,000 from the Greater Santa Rosa Neighborhood Assn. It is a much-visited oasis in my downtown neighborhood.