“The Sunshine Cure” by Natasha Varner
I knew where I was going but not how to get there, so I made several wrong turns on my way to the Castle Apartments. When I finally arrived, I got out of the car and had to shield my eyes from the sun. It was cold in the way that only a winter morning in the desert can be: an emptiness where you expect warmth. My presence on that otherwise empty street felt conspicuous. I was searching for a part of Tucson’s past, but to any observer I was just a loiterer casing the building. The Castle Apartments really do look like a castle, at least in the most reductive sense: battlements, turrets, towers, its name emblazoned in the curly script you might see at a Renaissance Faire. A shadowy form appeared in the window of a second-story unit. I watched them watch me walk across the road for a moment before they abruptly shuttered their blinds.
It was my first time home for Christmas in the two years since the pandemic had upended everything. I’d spent the early months confined to my Seattle home, but with my mind caught up in thinking about the other place I call home. Daily Zoom calls between my mom in Tucson and her eight close-knit siblings made them, in some ways, closer than ever. My aunts and uncles occasionally let me join these calls and I used the chance to record group oral history sessions, with me posing questions about our family’s past and them bickering over whose version of a memory was most correct. I loved listening to their stories, always have, but my historian brain also grew curious about the things that lay just beyond the periphery of their collective memory. How, I wondered, did our Tucson origins map against the city’s settler history? After months of research and writing in isolation, I was eager to find — and to sit with —the places I had spent so long thinking about. The Castle Apartments were first on my list, a landmark representing not only a forgotten moment in time, but also my own ancestral complicity in the too long history of Indigenous dispossession and genocide.
Despite its royal airs, Castle Apartments is a remnant of tuberculosis — an ignoble disease that profoundly shaped the city’s history more than a century ago. This building was called the Whitwell Hospital and Sanitorium when it opened in 1906, and advertised itself as “a delightful home for those desiring rest and quiet.” It promised modern and fireproof living quarters, complete with steam heat and electrical light. Tuberculosis patients, initially, were not allowed. But it was only a matter of time. The building sat on the easternmost edge of a sprawling Tent City — or Tentville — which hordes of indigent tuberculosis patients had come to call home. In 1911, the hospital re-opened as the Tucson-Arizona Sanitarium and became the city’s first private facility dedicated to tuberculosis care and treatment. While convalescents inside the Sanitarium dined on gourmet meals, grown men and women, too sick to work, somnambulated in threadbare bathrobes and stockinged feet in the “canvas slum” just beyond the castle walls. Rustic structures of canvas and wood stretched as far as the eye could see. There was no water or sewage system, and residents relied on charity for everything from food to medical care. At night, the unlit streets fell into darkness and the sound of hacking coughs filled the air. In 1913, the Arizona Daily Star described Tent City as a place “where Armageddon goes on in continuous performance.” As one young resident later recalled: “It was truly a place of lost souls and lingering death. Sometimes life was too much to bear and a victim would end it. He was soon replaced by others who hoped for a cure in the dry air and bright sun of Arizona.”
Tuberculosis was not a new disease, but it was a particular menace and the leading cause of death through much of America’s pubescent nationhood. As the US expanded its imperial reach, nearly imploded in Civil War, abolished slavery, became the world’s “city upon a hill,” welcomed some immigrants and excluded many others, wrote Indigenous displacement into law, christened the era of Jim Crow, and traced skeletal rail lines across vast expanses of stolen land… tuberculosis was, body by body by body, quietly curbing the growth of the nation.
But while the body count grew, tuberculosis also helped fuel westward expansion. Those charged with guessing how to heal that wasting disease blamed the “impure atmospheres” found in East Coast urban spaces for incubating illness. In the absence of a cure, pseudoscience — and capitalistic enterprise — thrived. Doctors and business moguls joined forces in luring convalescents to plunder Tucson’s “treasures of health.”
An 1897 publication, Tucson as a Sanitarium: The Healthseeker’s Meca [sic] and the Invalid’s Paradise assured its readers that the Tucson “atmosphere is singularly clear tonic and dry.” Dr. A. W. Olcott, the vice president of the Arizona Medical Association in 1904, bolstered these claims, writing that Tucson winters “render pleasant an out-of-door life the entire year, and permit those suffering from lung and bronchial diseases daily exercise and life in the open air.” Another ad enticed East-coasters with verse: “Children of the Sun Live Here / Brown, sturdy, rosy-cheeked / growing into robust vigorous youths / Tucson’s children flourish like flowers.” None of the ads mentioned that this health-seeker haven was being built atop Tohono O’odham land, atop Yoeme land. That while Tucson signified a chance at survival to some, its original inhabitants were being forced into ever-dwindling reservations bordering its city limits.
Yet some alchemy of hope and desperation drove waves of migrants to seek the sunshine cure. To pack up their lives in Philadelphia, in Boston, in New York and to make new homes in “the land where winter never comes.” At the dawn of the 20th century, the Arizona Medical Association estimated that 70 percent of the state’s residents were infected with tuberculosis. These health-seeking migrants and their kin helped swell the territorial numbers to a size that warranted statehood, which was granted on Valentine’s Day, 1914.
On the surface, my decision to search for the Castle Apartments that morning was a random one. It was an anchor site, an address I could plug into my phone’s navigation system since nothing remained of the Tent City I was actually looking for. But now the Castle Apartments have become so much more to me — a monument to a part of the city’s past that had otherwise been largely forgotten, and a marker of how my own family’s history came to unfold in that place.
I too am a descendent of lungers. Tuberculosis did not afflict any of my immediate ancestors, but they followed in the well-worn path of those who were. My uncle Bill, the oldest of my mom’s nine siblings, suffered severe asthma and chronic coughing fits as a child. He caught polio while visiting his grandparents in Yonkers one summer and his respiratory system couldn’t handle the stress. He was rushed to a hospital in August 1950, where the doctors said he needed to move to the desert. The doctors said this was his one shot at survival. The doctors said the sunshine would cure him.
Nine-year-old Bill was sent to board with a family in Tucson, a tenuous connection made by way of St. Ambrose Catholic Church. His parents and siblings stayed behind in Park Ridge, Illinois, packing up their lives and preparing for a permanent move Out West. During the long months away from his family, Bill was miserable. In a tear-stained letter to his mother he told her how “very, very lonesome” he was, and implored her to send one of his siblings to keep him company, and also a hat. He ended the note: “I cried while writing this letter. I am probably crying now too.”
When I look at a picture of Bill shortly after he arrived in Tucson, he’s not the bronzed or strapping youth that the city’s climate gurus promised could be raised there. He’s frail and his pants, clearly many sizes too big, are cinched in waves of fabric under his belt. He’s holding a football near a patch of dry grass in front of his foster family’s home. Trying, at least, to emulate the kind of All American Boy he was supposed to be. I also see in that photo the roots of my own settler story in this place.
Even after I arrived at my destination on that cold desert morning, I had to stare at Google Maps for a long time before I could grasp the vastness of the Tent City that once scrawled itself across the landscape around the Castle Apartments. I recited the boundary roads over and over, until it started to sound like a badly written poem:
Bordered on the north by East Lee Street,
On the south by East Speedway,
On the east by North Park Avenue,
On the west by North Stone Avenue.
It was about four square miles in a part of Tucson that was mostly desert scrub back then. Creosote. Cholla. Micah. Dust. More than a mile by foot to downtown. “A long way when one walked with only one lung,” observed a Tent City resident. But this boundary I was having so much trouble imagining wasn’t really a fixed one anyway. Tent City was amoebic in its growth: sprawling, haphazard, uncontained. If you were sick and poor and needed a place to slowly die, you came here and made a home on whatever patch of land you could find. And what’s a boundary anyway? A line drawn in the sand? Even a body that seems so fixed and firm is really just another porous vessel, susceptible to most of the things we wish to keep out: to pain, to parasite. To unspeakably worse.
My therapist likes to remind me that sometimes we don’t know our boundaries until they’ve been crossed. The same could be said, I suppose, for Tent City. Its ambiguous boundaries became most clear when disease spilled out over them. When an influx of health-seeking vets arrived after WWI, then secretary of Tucson’s Chamber of Commerce, Orville McPherson, noted with disdain: “You couldn’t walk down Stone Avenue in those days without passing someone with a terrible cough… it was dangerous because tuberculosis is contagious, but most of all it was pathetic.”
Tent City was bounded by time in a way that it wasn’t bounded by physical barriers. It appeared suddenly at the turn of the 19th century as the city’s tuberculosis population swelled. But soon those tents were replaced by roads and structures with less permeable borders. Sanitoriums meant to contain and cure the disease had sprouted up across the growing city and more were on their way: the Hotel Rest Sanatorium, Pima County Wing, Elks Hospital, St. Mary’s Round Hospital, Mercy Hospital, Oshrin, St. Luke’s, Hillcrest, Anson Sisters, San Xavier, South Pacific Hospital, a veterans’ hospital for all those unwell vets, and The House at Pooh Corners, “a boarding and convalescent home for children who spend the winters in Tucson.” Inside those walls, patients were subjected to ghastly sounding procedures: thoracoplasties, lung resections, lobectomies, pneumonectomies, nodulectomies, phrenic nerve crushes. These experiments mostly involved collapsing or removing key parts of the patient’s body, and those who were subjected to them were the lucky ones.
Tucson doctors and commerce enthusiasts continued to actively entice health-seekers through the 1950s and beyond, but hostilities grew hot when the wrong sort arrived. Poor, Black, Mexican, and Indigenous people who suffered from the disease were often blamed for their own illness, their humanity reduced to some insulting epithet: consumptive, indigent, lunger, shut-in, tubercular, case. According to the classist and racist logics of the time, they were innately unclean and prone to poor health, to have somehow orchestrated the unsanitary conditions in whatever underserved part of the city they had been crowded into. They were treated as nothing more than their disease. No longer a person, just a problem to solve.
Man-Building in the Sunshine Climate, a 1920s promotional booklet published by The Sunshine-Climate Club, devoted more than half its pages to assuring its target audience of worried white mothers that Indians could still be found in Arizona, but only the good ones — the “peaceable,” the “picturesque,” and the “primitive” ones. These fantasy Indians were rendered as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts whose crafts might add some color to a modern ranch style home, but whose “treacherous” ways were a thing of the distant past.
In reality, Indigenous people in Arizona were bearing the brunt of the health-seekers’ migration. The Phoenix Indian School — the state’s only off-reservation boarding school — just a few hours up Interstate 10, had been partially recrafted into a sanitorium to contend with the growing number of tuberculosis cases among Native youth. And in 1925, Indigenous inhabitants of Arizona were 17 times more likely to die of the disease than the general population.
Still, few in power gave any thought to how the influx of sick settlers might impact the people that had been there for generations before them. Worse yet, the doctor charged with treating tuberculosis in Southern Arizona in the middle of the 20th century, blamed Indigenous peoples for their inability to heal: “Our main problem with the Indians was not tuberculosis,” said Dr. Harold Kosanke, “because we had drugs in those days — but it was alcoholism and depression and disgust. They had no incentive to accomplish anything [including] getting well because they don’t work.”
Let’s sit with the irony of these violent words for a moment: while white settlers with tuberculosis were actively recruited to come to Arizona to heal, bringing disease and dispossession with them, members of the state’s 22 federally recognized tribes were blamed for their own illness and any challenge they faced in healing from it. Though it’s impossible to imagine that the eugenicist doctor who started calling tuberculosis “the white plague” in 1861 understood the barbed double entendre he’d created, its meaning lands heavily on me now.
For their part, Indigenous convalescents in mid-century Tucson were doing all they could to heal. Live-in patients at the Oshrin, a private hospital dedicated primarily to the treatment of Native tuberculosis patients, came from across the state in hopes that a respite in sunny Tucson would do them well. A 1965 roster lists patients from 13 Native Nations from across the state: Navajo, San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache, Yavapai Apache, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Hopi, Mojave, Hualapai, Paiute, Papago and Pima (now Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham, respectively), and Yavapai.
Their collective desire to heal is visible on the pages of Smoke Signals. This patient-produced monthly newsletter is thick with reports on patients past and present, with descriptions of cultural practices and kinship networks, with class offerings: typing, guitar, beading; with comics, drawings, jokes, word games, and reprints of Reader’s Digest-type syndicated columns. Patients also used those pages to urge each other to follow the healing protocols prescribed by the doctors, to resist the urge to leave and return home before they were fully well: “Don’t go now, keep fighting, and before you realize it, you will be walking out the front door with the good wishes of your doctor,” wrote a Navajo patient named Clinton Tsosie in 1965. And just like the Tucson promoters who lured East Coast consumptives to town, patients wrote out their desires in verse. Like this 1958 poem, “Navajo Goes Home,” by a patient named Emet Hopson:
Whitemans doctor says I need medicine,
The nurses give me streptomycin,
To help chase the T.B. germs away,
Maybe short, here, will be my stay.
I can help, with sleep, food and rest,
All very good, here, in “Wild West.”
With this fine Arizona weather,
Soon I will feel much better;
Fit and fine as a guitar’s tone,
When Mr. “Pillman” sends me home.
A Kodachrome photo album at the Arizona Historical Society features Oshrin patients of all ages carrying out their bathrobed lives as convalescents: Christmas celebrations, craft fairs, costumes, playing in rock and roll bands. A pocket-sized portrait of a young woman with freshly curled black hair is signed on the back with a message to her sweetie, reminding him “by good luck, I’m yours.” Together with Smoke Signals, these images show things that are too often glossed over when non-Native historians write about Indigenous history: signs of mutual aid, of laughter, of play, of melancholy, of deep concern for themselves and their communities, of love. I don’t mean to romanticize any of this. Like boarding schools, the Oshrin signified family separation, a disruption of traditional practices, a removal from homelands and sacred sites. But despite all this, Indigenous joy and Indigenous survival were happening too.
By the time my family joined Bill in Tucson in 1950, the city’s tuberculosis heyday was beginning to wane but the myth of the climate cure lived on. Bill’s parents, my grandparents, brought five more children with them and had four more after that. My grandparents “man-built” their ten children in that Arizona sunshine: Billy, Betsy, Dean, Nancy, Peter, Kathy, Ellen, Patti, Michael, Barbara. Tent City was by then the Feldman’s Neighborhood where neat rows of single-family houses belied little of the chaos and suffering that was there before. My family made their home about three miles north of what was once Tent City, and they passed over those grounds in their daily commute from home to jobs and classes at the University of Arizona. Decades later, I would walk, drive, bike, and run over that same ground long before I came to know anything of the history that unfolded there. I must have passed the Castle Apartments hundreds of times before it became the locus of memory that it is for me now.
My family wasn’t wealthy, but they were educated and they had gained some small-town political clout by way of New York’s notorious Tammany Hall. Irish Catholics who, in just a few generations of being in America, had leaned into their invented whiteness, stepped onto the social ladder, and climbed. They were the kinds of white or white-enough immigrants Tucson wanted to attract. They were also generous, affectionate, funny, and social justice-oriented people. My grandparents were lifelong leftists who participated in Tucson’s culture of radical hospitality, often welcoming passing activists and their children’s friends into their crowded home for a warm meal and a place to sleep. Their guests included the famous Catholic anarchist Ammon Hennessey and their saintly friend, Dorothy Day. When my grandmother Eileen died in 1990, a staff writer for the Tucson Citizen wrote that she was “a pioneer in efforts to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless in Tucson.”
My heart swells with love and pride when I read this. We were the good whites, or at least that’s what I’ve always wanted to believe. But the binaries of good and bad don’t work so neatly when you’re a settler on occupied lands. When your health, your survival, your very being exists alongside so much suffering. Before, when I thought about disease and colonization, my mind would turn to smallpox blankets, to the sexual violence that spread venereal disease, to the livestock carrying virulent strains of illness that Indigenous peoples had no acquired resistance to. To things that were very distant from me and my closest ancestors.
I’ve spent the better part of the past decade researching and writing about settler colonialism, but it’s only now that I’ve had the courage to use those same words to grapple with my own family’s legacy. To look squarely at our settler entanglements and the harm they have done. It’s always been too much, too tender, too many feelings to potentially hurt. Too challenging to ask: What kinds of settler violence tether us to this place we call home? And harder yet to ask: What do we do about it? I still have more questions than answers, but what I do know is this: until we all quit trying to contort ourselves out of acknowledging our complicity in the ongoing creation of the settler state, there is no real healing to be had for any of us.
In grade school, the Five C’s of Arizona state history — Copper, Cattle, Cotton, Citrus, and Climate —were drilled into our impressionable brains. We blithely recited those sturdy pillars of words and came to know them as the foundation of our state history. But it turns out there were other, more important, C’s — like colonialism, capitalism, cancer, class hierarchy, and carceral states — that were never mentioned. And there were so many other letters we never quite got to, like “B” for Border Walls, “I” for Insatiable Growth, “N” for No Water, “V” for Valley Fever… I could go on. Arizona was not the paradise that the titans of wellness wanted us all to believe it to be. In fact, in 1981, the year I was born, Dr. John Erben debunked the sunshine cure altogether, calling it an “absolute myth.” “Arizona is not a climate,” he said, “but a philosophy.”
Now, late-stage Alzheimer’s has turned Bill’s mind soft and fluid. He sometimes remembers our names, but they’re like sparks untethered from any other reality. His brain is losing its ability to fire messages to his muscles. His throat can’t quite seem to swallow right, and his legs don’t always know how to move his body forward.
When I interviewed Bill on Zoom early on in the pandemic, he was a barely there shadow of the uncle I once knew. His laugh was thin and tinny, and there was a blankness where intelligent mischief once danced in his eyes. His wife, Kathy, and his eldest sister, Betsy, were on the call to help provide some scaffolding upon which he could pin his jumbled memories. I read him passages of things he wrote to his mother. He hardly remembered the polio, his time alone in Tucson, that tear-stained letter. He said he’d never heard of the Castle Apartments. He’s close to death now, and the sadness of it chokes me into silence.
As much as I’ve wanted to capture Bill’s story, I’ve resisted telling my own. Over multiple rounds of revisions, friends and mentors have urged me to write myself into this essay. I’ve refused (Who needs another white woman’s navel gazing anyway?), then complied, then erased myself again in subsequent drafts. As an academic I’ve been trained to hide behind the shield of my supposed objectivity and I’ve grown fond of the safety that such anonymity affords. Or maybe it’s the impulse I have as a white settler to erase my existence because of all the inherent harm that it conveys. I don’t have a death wish and I’m not a proponent of suicide, so I take relative comfort in my own literary erasure instead. I don’t want to be on the page, because part of me doesn’t want to be here at all. But I am here, and pretending otherwise isn’t going to undo the inherent harm of my settler presence.
There’s no ready-made map to help me get to what I’m looking for next: a way to tabulate the debts we owe, to acknowledge — and atone for — our complicity. But that’s not entirely true either. The pathways are there if you know to look. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a Bay Area urban Indigenous women-led organization, dedicates itself to the practice of rematriation, to the returning of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples. They urge lost settlers like me to “consider your place in the lineage of this theft and how you might contribute to its healing, how you might reimagine your relationship to the land you are on.” They offer resources, readings, conversation guides, questions for reflection, land return success stories, an invitation to contact them for more information. But what more could we want, we’ve already taken so much. And I don’t even have to look across our own invented state lines to find answers. In Arizona, too, there are Indigenous-led movements for Land Rematriation, Seed Rematriation, Water Rematriation. These movements emerge from deep wells of lived experience, from Indigenous intellectual brilliance, from practices that predate us settlers by eons. Even just their names serve as valuable sign posts, and they all point to the same core demand: give it back.
So what’s stopping us? I’ve been timid about pushing these ideas into family conversations because I’m well aware of how self-righteous and sanctimonious I can be, how influenced I am by the zeitgeist of the very online left. It’s trendy, I know, to signal #landback sentiments, to offer up Native land acknowledgements at the start of every gathering, to liberally sprinkle toothless “decolonizations” into all we do. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think I have all the answers. I don’t. And when I talk to my family about all the bad things our whiteness has done to Native peoples and to this place we call home, it’s not news to them. They feel terrible about it. “It makes me sick,” says my mom, and I know exactly what she means. It’s a rotting feeling that I carry at the pit of my stomach too, sunk deeper by the sense of helplessness that usually comes with it. We do guilt well, but I’ve come to realize there is a sort of comfort in dwelling in that space too. I want us all to be dislodged from there, to be unsettled. To fight against the collective amnesia that settler memory likes to sow, and to take seriously the responsibility of repair. I worry that my family and other settlers like us will see this as a call out. It is, but it’s an invitation too.
As I drove away from the Castle Apartments, I passed by squat brick homes and dried out lawns filled with Christmas decorations looking sun-bleached and deflated as they readied for their season of disuse. The quiet normalcy of the neighborhood felt jarring in its casual disregard for all the history that had once happened there, and the urgency of what needs to be done next. But I could finally see it: the Tent City stretched across the horizon, convalescents lounging in that ceaseless sun, the living desert that was there before all that. I softened my gaze just enough to let the past bleed into the present, ever so briefly, but I’d like to think I saw a little of the future there too — a future where Indigenous peoples’ wellness matters as much to us as our own.