Melinda Matson Spina The Faces of Tucson Arizona

Melinda Matson Spina

I’m in my late forties.
I grew up in a family that moved all over the U.S. and overseas.
I’m a sucker for cats.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about your family.
My family is eclectic. My parents met in in Vietnam in the early 1960s. My mother is Vietnamese, and her mother was a chef and restaurateur in urban Saigon. My father was a U.S. Army officer at that time, and his parents were classical musicians and hobby ranchers in rural Mississippi. My folks were married for over 50 years. I am one of four daughters.

After the Vietnam war, my father helped every living member of my mother’s family to immigrate to the U.S. and become a citizen. My grandmother began living with us when I was ten years old. At that point, my immediate family became we six ladies plus my dad, who I think of as a bonafide genius and saint. It’s an understatement to say he was the glue that held us all together.

About four years ago, I met and married my husband, Mariano, who is from Argentina. We are happily auntie and tío to the kids of our siblings and friends.

Q: Please tell us about your current, past, or future career. What do you love most about what you do?
I divide time between lots of projects that together make up my “career”.

I began adulthood pursuing a future in art and exhibitions but wound up working in craft-oriented design and improvement for homes and gardens. I still work on creative writing and visual art for myself.

I provide ongoing design and guidance for all improvements to a house in the historic Sam Hughes neighborhood, owned by a mother and daughter team of Sonoran heritage. It’s a real pleasure gradually helping them to reinvent their home as an art project.

I work in my husband’s design and print practice, Spina Novoa Studio; which specializes in book making and risograph printing. We’re also in the process of founding a sustainable guesthouse in the Chiricahuas that will encourage the junction of arts and science. That project is called Casa Petra Vera.

I think what I love the most about what I do is that I’ve somehow made a living doing what I can’t help but do – evaluate, respond to, and curate both aesthetics and environment. Some of my favorite “homework” is to harvest and disperse native seeds into neglected urban spaces. Even tiny pockets of wildland in urban settings give kids opportunities to experience the kinds of awakenings I had in the Huachuca Mountains foothills in the 1980s. The process of trying to instigate practical revelations in any setting – with ingredients like plants, or illustration, or decor, or architecture – can feel like slow magic.

Q: What are a couple of your favorite restaurants in our community?
Tough to name just a couple! Tucson has such good food culture; and lots of diverse, family-run restaurants. I love Noodleholics Guilin Chinese, Zemam’s Ethiopian, Caravan Middle Eastern Grill and Bakery, El Taco Rustico, and many more.

Q: How long have you lived or worked in our community?
From my early elementary school years through eighth grade, our family was stationed at Ft. Huachuca and we lived in Sierra Vista. It was the longest I’d ever lived in one place until I settled down in the Pacific Northwest at the age of 23. Southern Arizona left an indelible impression on me. After twenty years, I realized I had learned to embrace solitude and get lost in environment as a kid frequently alone in the Sonoran Desert; and I chose to return here for more lessons in my middle age.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met here in our community?
Tucson is crawling with interesting people. There’s something about the extreme climate – the people born into it and the people inured to it. And, the science, history, and borderlands are all palpable; that’s part of it. And there’s something about the very high density of fun nerds here. So, it’s impossible to zero in on a single-most interesting person I’ve met.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
Last year, my husband Mariano and I got stuck locked-down in Buenos Aires for three months at the onset of the pandemic. Not unlike my own path taking me away from the landscape of my youth for decades, my husband hadn’t gone to South America in many years. It was an unexpectedly difficult reunion with his homeland, to say the least. If we could travel anywhere right now, we would go to explore the streets and countrysides of South America he remembers from his youth.

Q: What is one of your favorite movies? TV shows?
I have been really enjoying film coming out of Colombia the last few years, but I’m going to mention a Russian war film from 1985 called “Come and See” which I saw for the first time a few months ago, because it blew me away as the most horrific and powerful war film I’ve ever seen. It is brutal.

Q: What advice would you give to people?
Talk to each other openly about confusing and complicated things, with patience… a lot.

Q: What is something on your bucket list?
To learn Spanish so that my husband can stop reconjugating every Spanish verb that falls out of my mouth.

Q: What is your go to band when you can’t decide what to listen to?
I let my husband DJ in that case, which means a lot of Disappears/FACS and Alfredo Zitarrosa.

Q: What current or former local business makes you the most nostalgic about our community?
I can’t name just one. Desert Survivors. Spadefoot. Mission Garden. Native Seeds Search. Many Mouths One Stomach. Bicas. Gloo Factory. Cans. Old Paint Records. OK Feed. Aqua Vita. Babylon. La Noria. I could go on.

Q: If you could choose anyone that is alive today and not a relative; with whom would you love to have lunch? Why? And where locally would y’all meet for this lunch?
‘Sorry Mom, it says no family! So, that would be lunch with my pal Christy from Oregon, at Falora. And then at Fiame for seconds. Because, she knows proper pizza and I will likely have to drag her here to investigate the desert. But, only if my pal Lindsey from Oregon can first meet for breakfast – at 5 Points.

Q: What is your favorite thing or something unique about our community?
I’m fascinated that we are living on the oldest known site of human agriculture in the United States.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
In 5 to 10 years, I hope we’ll have succeeded in building our work studios and guesthouse in the Chiricahuas and that I’ll be spending most of my time working there, but taking frequent trips to Tucson, to make books in the print studio and socialize with friends.

Q: (Even for friends or family), what is something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I can dance with myself like crazy.

Q: What is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
I’m extremely lucky to have been to so many beautiful places across the U.S. and around the world, but in my mind’s eye, there’s a soft spot for the sea and tide pools of over 30 years ago in Baja.

Q: Favorite month? favorite holiday? and best single day on the calendar?
My favorite months are April and September. Favorite holiday would have to be Dia de Los Muertos. That’s a trick question in Tucson, right? Jan 1 is my favorite calendar date, for its universal mishmash of regret, relief, hope, and anticipation.

Q: What would you rate a 10 out of 10?
Daydreaming effortlessly while trying to craft something exceptional; and later, irrepressible conversation amongst friends

Q: Who inspires you to be better?
That’s my Dad. My two brothers-in-law and I each gave a eulogy at his funeral. I finished mine saying, “We’ll keep learning from you and making you proud until we are counted alongside you in the dust of open ranges, the swells of deep sea, and the beatitude of starry heaven that always inspired your heart.” He loved life, learning, teaching, and most of all doggedly trying to do what’s right.

Q: What is one or two of your favorite smells?
Everyone surely mentions desert rain, and I can’t help it! It’s the shock of H2O and potent botanicals reviving our mineral-crusted senses. However, I also experience a physical joy for the aromas of home-cooked pho intermingled with a whiff of sandalwood, which is all about my Grandma.

Q: Finally, what 3 words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word HOME?
Perch, den, nest. The places where we most live life and leave our mark.