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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Nice to meet me: Cultures mingle at TMY Festival

     

    Beautiful October weather was the perfect accompaniment to last weekend’s Tucson Meet Yourself Festival, a Tucson tradition of 37 years. The decades-old festival was founded in 1974 by Dr. James “”Big Jim”” Griffith, the head of the UA’s Southwest Folklore Center from 1979-98. Tucson Meet Yourself has its roots in education; it was the product of a professor’s tenacity, and remains connected with the university.

    This was TMY’s most successful year, with over 100,000 attendants over three days of festival activities. Downtown Tucson was congested with patrons, spanning over five full city blocks crowded with food vendors, performers, and local craftsmen proudly presenting their heritage. The map of this year’s festival included the Tucson Convention Center, El Presidio Park, Jacomé Library Plaza and La Placita Village. This year’s executive director, Mia Hansen, was able to talk to Wildlife between flitting from booth to booth and exchanging quick messages over her radio.

    “”(We) tripled our footprint this year,”” Hansen said.

    An enthusiastic woman, Hansen had an ambitious vision for the festival this year, which came neatly to fruition.

    Highlights of the festival included the Key Ingredients Pavilion in El Presidio Park, where TMY was proud to be the first to display the Smithsonian Institute’s traveling exhibit, “”Key Ingredients: America by Food,”” presented by the Arizona Humanities Council. The exhibit tells the story of America’s identity through the traditions of eating and cooking. This year was also the first for the “”Traditions of Home,”” an interactive public exhibit in the Tucson Convention Center area celebrating traditions of folklore and storytelling in individual’s personal lives, as well as art installations that showcased bright and colorful spaces such as living rooms and kitchens — spaces where traditions are born, bred, passed on and cherished.

    Among the hundreds of festive booths, art pieces and musical performances, the smells of over 50 traditional ethnic cuisines mingled with the breeze and enticed the patrons of the festival. For decades, Tucson locals have fondly referred to the festival as “”Tucson Eat Yourself,”” a playful nod to the impressive diversity of food available.

    The Spanish food booth sold bowls of seafood paella, a traditional dish of rice and mussels; the Greek stand was crowded with people waiting for flaky baklava and savory gyros; the Indian stand steamed samosas continually throughout the day. Among the more surprising samples were Colombian and Vietnamese foods.

    Dr. Maribel Alvarez, head of the UA’s Southwest Folklore Center and the TMY Board Chair and Folklorist, appreciates the moniker but thinks it a bit narrow.

    “”The festival is not just about eating — although in almost every culture, eating is a part of celebration,”” Alvarez said.

    Alvarez teaches English 248 at the university, an Introduction to Folklore course that was an ideal segue into introducing students to TMY.

    “”In the classroom, we talk about the theoretical; the students were required to come to the festival and volunteer. They are looking at it from an academic point of view. Attending becomes like a practical in a lab,”” Alvarez said.

    Alvarez is interested in the educational opportunities that TMY provides — and there are many. It is a fusion of cultures and languages coexisting in one condensed space; the lines between cultures become literally and figuratively fluid at the festival, with Polish food being sold next to a Thai masseuse, next to a booth from Tucson Tamale Company. It is an explosive celebration of diversity and the timelessness of tradition. This generational aspect was reflected in the guests as well; patrons of the festival ranged in age from infants to grandparents, whole generations of families attending together. The volunteer effort of the festival was colored by this same diversity; 12-year-old volunteers helped carry tables and set up tents. Over 400 volunteers operated this year’s festival, many returning, sporting bright pink t-shirts supporting the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure.

    Tucson Meet Yourself is always graced by remarkable performances, and 2010 was no different. Mariachi El Quinto Sol strummed their guitarras at the TCC Plaza Stage; various Folklorico dancers swirled their skirts to impressed crowds. One favorite was the Bollywood wedding procession, which snaked through the festival streets on Saturday evening. The UA’s own Bollywood dance club, Om Shanti, led the colorful celebratory march.

    Returning events included the Corrido contest, put on by Dr. Celestino Fernandez, a professor of sociology at the UA. Corridos are a traditional form of poetic ballads hailing from Mexico, designed to tell a narrative of important events.

    “”Corridos are not about the skill of performance or how well instruments are played. They are about the story — the words,”” Fernandez said.

    Competitors have been a mix of Tucson locals, as well as commuters from Phoenix and Mexico, eager to share their song.

    “”We once had a little boy about 7 years old, all dressed up, who performed his own corrido,”” Fernandez said. “”I think he won a prize.””

    Every space in the blocks of the festival was packed with something for everyone. “”We wanted to fill as much as possible,”” Hansen said.

    This year was the first to include Pima County Meet Yourself, with representatives from Pima County available to discuss local issues concerning health, budget and education. The paths throughout the streets were lined with yellow footprints, an effort of the Southern Arizona Roadrunners, Tucson Medical Center and Activate Tucson, which led patrons throughout the festival and to Tai Chi and health screenings.

    True to its name, TMY was buzzing with conversation and interaction between all ages and ethnicities. The scope of downtown provided an environment for cultures to collide. Alexandra Queen, a UA senior in Alvarez’s Folklore course, is a regular attendant and volunteer of the festival and urges people to take advantage of it.

    “”I think it’s very important. Tucson is an isolated place, and when you’re just walking down the street you don’t realize how diverse it actually is,”” Queen says.

    Alvarez is a staunch advocate of increasing people’s awareness of diversity, and has made a valiant effort in maintaining the festival’s pedagogical integrity.

    “”Many think the festival is only for fun, and while it is fun, it is also about careful interactions (between people) and details. There is a lot of well-educated research put into the festival,”” Alvarez said. “”The culture of the festival is a culture of celebration; it is about spending every day of life to enter into a festive mood.””

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