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Diverse Tucson

Manny Aregullin has waited a long time to perform at the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival.

"My mom always used to take us when I was younger," said Aregullin, music director for the Sovereign Arts Society. "I've been going for 28 years."

Aregullin, who is originally from Mexico, and his seven-member Afro-Cuban ensemble, Ritmo BaCheChe, will make their Tucson Meet Yourself debut this weekend, performing an aboriginal type of Cuban music which incorporates traditional African rhythms and songs from Cuba.

"It's what came before salsa," Aregullin said. "It's a type of folklore with drums and singing."

The unique music of Ritmo BaCheChe is typical for Tucson Meet Yourself, one of the area's most popular festivals. The event has been providing a better understanding of the traditions and cultures found in Southern Arizona for 35 years.

"It's a three-day, free celebration for Tucson's ethnic and folk community, and we celebrate through performances," said Mia Hansen, president of the Cultural Exchange Council of Tucson, which hosts the festival every year. The Cultural Exchange Council is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the history and legacies of Tucson's diverse people.

"What we do so well at this festival is let people express who they are and where they come from," Hansen said. "It's a real mixture of everything we have here in this area."

Throughout the year, the CEC promotes mutual awareness, respect and individual expression through the customs of local ethnic groups. The CEC is also involved with other annual festivals, including the Waila Festival and La Fiesta de San Agustin.

Tucson Meet Yourself offers authentic food, entertainment and workshops characterizing the folk traditions of cultures from all over the world. "It's one of the few times when you can be eating a Polish sausage and drinking a chai tea while watching the Chinese lion dance, all at the same time," Hansen said. "These are really the arts of the people."

Big Jim Griffith, founder of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, came up with the idea for Tucson Meet Yourself.

"The idea was to create an atmosphere where people would be coming out and meeting people through sharing and learning about each other," Hansen said. "In this day and age, with cell phones and computers, people forget that the best way to get to know someone is to meet them, share food with them and learn about their culture by seeing how they re-create it."

The old and new flavors of faraway countries, including Chile, Italy, Turkey and Afghanistan, will be on display at the various food booths. "We have 30 different ethnic clubs who sell their delicious traditional foods, and it's really the bait that that gets people down to the park," Hansen said.

A newer feature of this year's festival is called Tucson Meet the Street--starring a low-rider car show, courtesy of Duke's Car Club, which will take place on Church Avenue between Alameda and Pennington streets.

"These are real people from Southern Arizona who are representing and sharing their background and ethnic heritage--that's what makes it so charming and accessible," Hansen said.

Cultural performances including as martial arts, lion dancing and bagpipes are just a few of the many entertainment options at the celebration. Festival-goers can also enjoy traditional folk art, including Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, Navajo bead and feather work, Tohono O'odham basketry and more.

"We have more than 40 master folk artists who demonstrate their traditional folk art," Hansen said.

Workshops will allow interested participants to explore the folklore of other cultures.

"We focus on passing on traditions by letting people put their hands on and make certain types of folk art, like piñatas or origami," Hansen said.

One of this year's special features is a "global village" where demonstrations will take place on the drumming styles of different cultures, and where children will be able to play and learn about games played by children from across the world.

"We feel that by doing this, we've made Tucson a better place to live, increased the quality of life and improved understanding," Hansen said. "It's a lot harder to hate someone if you have shared some food or danced with somebody."

Tucson Meet Yourself takes place from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 10 and 11; and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 12, at El Presidio Park, 115 N. Church Ave., between the old county courthouse and City Hall. Admission is free; call 792-4806, or visit the festival Web site for more information.

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