By Lourdes Medrano
Starting today, thousands of members of the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes will join other Catholic pilgrims on a journey south to honor San Francisco Xavier on his feast day.
Sonoran tourism officials are setting up special accommodations to expedite travel requirements for tribal members headed for the Oct. 4 religious celebration in Magdalena, Sonora.
Throngs of Arizona and Sonora residents attend the annual festivities 120 miles south of Tucson, where a statue of the saint lies inside the town's ancient church and burial site of founder Father Eusebio Francisco Kino.
The feast day of San Francisco Xavier, or St. Francis Xavier, an early Jesuit missionary, is a significant observance for the Tohono O'odham and Yaqui, Pima and Seri Indians. For generations, since their ancestors were converted to Christianity, tribal members have made the annual trek to Magdalena.
"This was part of the Catholic religion that the O'odham embraced and incorporated into our own traditions," Tohono O'odham Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders said. "It's very meaningful to certain members of our population."
Hundreds of people walk from their villages to the Mexican town to pay homage to St. Francis Xavier, Juan-Saunders said. Many others drive or ride along with friends and family. The journey, she said, "is very sacred in terms of healing."
The chairwoman said the tribe works closely with Mexican officials to ease the trip for the O'odham.
Said Miguel Robles of Only Sonora, a statewide vehicle-permit program that eliminates fees and reduces processing times for those traveling within the border state: "We recognize this is a very important observance for the tribes, so we try to help ease their trip."
He and the chairwoman said tribal members fluent in Spanish, English and the O'odham language will be on hand at the Kilometer 21 checkpoint, about 13 miles south of the Arizona-Sonora border.
Robles stressed the importance of carrying documents that prove citizenship or tribal enrollment and vehicle ownership, such as title or registration, to avoid hassles.
He anticipates that customs and immigration officials will process anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 vehicle permits in the days leading up to the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, which coincides with that of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. About half of the expected pilgrims are believed to be Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui members from the Sells and Tucson areas.
Josť Luis Torres, who also works for Only Sonora, said, "this weekend will be one of the busiest of the year."
● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or at