Arianna Luna swipes a strand of hair away from her face and then, in an almost identically intimate motion, straightens a bright red bandana hanging from a rack in her store, The Underestimated City. On the bandana is an image of Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of water and fertility — one of several Indigenous deities printed on the colorful pañuelos.  

Luna moved The Underestimated City to the MSA Annex, a series of shops on Tucson’s west side, in 2021. Previously, she ran her business on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue. She was glad for the move to be able to represent as “the only Chicana business owner” in the annex. 

Luna credits her education, specifically the Mexican American Studies classes she took in high school, for her confidence and success. 

“You learn beautiful knowledge, and then you apply it,” she said, explaining how her education interlocks with her everyday life. “Being underestimated” — something she feels as a business owner and long felt while being raised by a single Latina mom — “is the greatest motivation.”

Candles for sale with the Bella Luna logo at The Underestimated City at the MSA Annex on Tucson’s west side. Credit: Michael McKisson

Tucson’s west side may be changing, with new large-scale developments and the streetcar line bringing demographic change, but it hasn’t lost its Chicano flavor, Luna says.

“We’ve always been here. Maybe we’re not always seen,” she says, “but we’re here.” 

Running the shop, mostly by herself, Luna sells an eclectic assortment of streetwear, women’s clothing, beauty products, candles, and even CBD dog shampoo. Her own logo — a saguaro within a crescent moon she calls Bella Luna — and designs adorn the candles, t-shirts, and some of the other clothing. She also sells products from her business partner, Israel Zavala, as well as her mother and a few friends. 

“This is more than a store,” she says. “We’re focused on the Tucson brand, and as soon as someone walks through these doors, I feel like it’s a presentation.”

She might talk about the history of The Underestimated City or what wares she can offer in the shop, but it’s also more than that: “Just standing here as a business owner, I know I’m also an example of what’s possible for someone like me to do.” 

Luna learned about Chalchiuhtlicue and other Indigenous and critical concepts in high school classes offered by Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies Department Programs.

That program, after more than a decade of controversy and legal fighting, has been renamed Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction. Back when it was Mexican American Studies, it was the target of a crackdown by Arizona’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, while he was serving in his previous term from 2003–2011.

The program was suspended from 2012 until 2017 when a federal court eventually ruled that officials, including Horne, were driven by “racial animus” in their attempts to terminate the program. 

Luna didn’t intend to take any of those classes. As a sophomore, being raised by a single mom, she was only going to a MECHA meeting — the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, a student cultural organization — to bring a few free burritos back to her mom and younger siblings. But then she got hooked.

“I fell in love with the message immediately,” she says. “I didn’t know we were important, but we are. I am.” 

As a kid, she said, she didn’t realize that Chicanos had a rich history in the region. She says she didn’t have the language or basic awareness to know even who she was.

“I was upset when I first heard about Mexican American studies,” she said, explaining that it made her realize all she’d been missing. “We are Indigenous people, and I thought we were extinct.”

Arianna Luna poses in The Underestimated City at the Mercado Annex in Tucson on Sept. 26, 2023. “Being underestimated” — something she feels as a business owner and long felt while being raised by a single Latina mom — “is the greatest motivation.” Credit: Michael McKisson

Luna was born in the border town of Naco, Arizona, spending time on each side of the line as a young kid. She and her mom moved to Tucson when she was starting school, but she still spent her weekends in Naco.

It wasn’t until entering Nash Elementary School that she began to learn English. She then attended Mansfeld Magnet Middle School, and finally Tucson High, moving around the city a lot with her mom and, eventually, five younger siblings. 

She said she rarely saw herself represented — not on television, in the news, or among people in power. But then once she popped into that first MECHA meeting, her perspective began to change. 

“I couldn’t place myself in history until Mexican American studies,” she said. “It opened up my world.” 

When the program came under more concerted attack it only underscored, for her and other students, how important it was. She helped organize in support of the program.

While some of her classmates chained themselves together at a school board meeting — among other daring acts of protest — Luna stayed mostly behind the scenes. But she also remembers that she did find herself, at one moment, shoeless, in front of a police car, with a megaphone in hand. She has a photo on her Facebook account to prove it, and she chuckles as she shows it off.

“Thinking about it gives me the chills,” she says of the stand she and her classmates took against public officials. “We were kids. Before that, nobody cared about school. And then we finally cared. And we cared about something that was more than just ABCs. It was about us. It was: how do we fit in society, and how do we grow as people? And they were trying to take all that away from us.”

She was already planning to become a teacher, but the experience of watching what had meant so much to her come under attack focused her still more on wanting to give back to her own community.

After graduating, she went on to study at the University of Arizona, thinking at first she might major in Mexican American studies, but says, “I wasn’t sure if I should major in something that was illegal to teach.” 

T-shirts hang in Arianna Luna’s shop, The Underestimated City, at the MSA Annex on Tucson’s west side. Credit: Michael McKisson

Still, she focused on education, and after graduating got a job at Tucson Unified School District as a college liaison. Around that same time, she also started developing the brand, The Underestimated City, and trying to build it into a business. 

Budget cuts in 2019 led to the loss of her position as a college liaison.

“I knew I would still find a way to teach, somehow, some way,” she says. She is currently an educator at I Rise, an after-school education program for at-risk youth. She divides her time between teaching and her business.

She wants the shop to be “a safe and comfortable space for people who might not identify with the other businesses” in the area. There was nothing like that around there when she was younger, she says, aiming to “create space for her community.” That’s also the idea behind the upcoming event, Chicano Vibez

The free event, on Oct. 14 and 15, will include a car and fashion show, live music, food trucks, kids activities and performances exploring and celebrating the diversity of Chicano culture.

“We’re here on Aztlán soil,” she said. “We want to not only embrace but to celebrate our culture.”

The Underestimated City is open Wednesday through Sunday.

This story is part of a series of profiles supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...