The Politics of Sociability

Tucson Meet Yourself offers us a celebratory experiment in beauty and diversity

Not long after Ajahn Sarayut Arnanta, a Buddhist monk, arrived in Tucson from Thailand, he found himself in a food booth making the popular Thai rice-noodle dish, pad Thai, for hundreds of people.

His monastery had signed up to participate at Tucson Meet Yourself, the annual festival showcasing food, music, dance and folk arts from the many cultures that make up our city.

"The first year was a little awkward," Sarayut says. "As a monk I don't really get involved with cooking. It's not my role." He had to learn the recipes from volunteers at the monastery, and because he wore the ceremonial, ochre-colored robes, "People would look at me from bottom to top, wondering 'Who are you? What are you?'"

But Sarayut viewed his role as an act of devotion to his community and an opportunity to share his culture and tradition with Tucson. In time he grew more comfortable in public. He learned from nearby vendors about food and culture from Costa Rica, Greece and Spain. And for a few years, he put up a sign, "Tucson Meet Your Monk," inviting festival-goers to ask him whatever they wanted. "Does everyone in Thailand dress like that?" (Only monks, he would tell them.)

This weekend will be Sarayut's 16th year at Tucson Meet Yourself, an event that offers an opportunity, he says, "to see what it means to be a human being, to share space in community together."

The organizers of the festival would agree. Now in its 43rd year, Tucson Meet Yourself takes place downtown this weekend, Oct. 7, 8, and 9.

Maribel Alvarez, a UA folklorist who directs TMY and its parent-producing organization, the Southwest Folklife Alliance, says the Festival is an experiment in the "politics of sociability."

Which seems a meaningful experiment, given the times we live in. Recent incidents of police brutality, terrorism and a presidential candidate who wants to build an impenetrable wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and halt all Muslims from entering the country, reveal the deep racial tensions and xenophobia that exist in America.

And yet the reality is that our country is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. Recent studies by Pew Research Center show America will not have a single racial or ethnic majority by 2055, as more and more immigrants, primarily Asians and Hispanics, make this country their home. By 2050, the population of U.S. Muslims will almost match that of Christians.

The research also shows that by and large we think this is a good thing: the majority of Americans say the country's ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live and that immigrants strengthen the nation.

But the truth remains that while "diversity" is touted everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the Oscars, racial, ethic, and religious tensions are at an all-time high.

"The fact is we Americans know how to espouse views about diversity much more than we know how to practice it," Alvarez says.

She sees TMY as a laboratory for testing these aspirations and contradictions, or, as the Festival's founder Jim Griffith says, "a dramatization of what a pluralistic society is like."

"We've been doing 'the politics of sociability' for the past four decades without being explicitly political," Alvarez says. "We've done it through the means of a festive environment."

Which includes food, of course. TMY has earned the nickname, "Tucson Eat Yourself," because of the nearly 60 food vendors that sell their culinary cultural expressions there.

"Food has always been the bait that brings people in," says Griffith, a folklorist who started TMY in 1974. "When you're doing public education with no incentive of grades you've got to have a big fat sugar coating on the pill. It's got to be fun."

Griffith says the Festival was born of a simple idea: to make visible the hidden beauty being created everyday by various ethnic and folk groups in Tucson. "The big idea was to create a neutral turf," he says, where those expressions—like the singing in African-American churches or the ceremonial music and dance of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe—could be shared.

But it's more than just a celebration, Alvarez says. Part of the experiment is in building cultural and economic equity, which TMY does by investing in the artists who share their work. Food vendors pay a fee to operate a booth, but they keep all their earnings, which in recent years, has equaled $350,000, Alvarez says. Many cultural groups use these funds use to stay afloat or reinvest them in education or service.

Ajahn Sarayut and the Thai monks, for example, bring in between $8,000 and $12,000 every year from TMY food sales. With their earnings, they built the Tucson Buddhist Meditation Center "Wat Buddhametta" in 2010.

Their original monastery, still in existence south of the Tucson International Airport, primarily served Thai, Lao, and other Asians. The new monastery in central Tucson was built "to help us bridge the community of Tucson and serve more people," Sarayut says.

Participating in TMY has helped Lajkonik, a Polish folk dancing troupe, deepen their studies of tradition and professionalize their performances.

Polish-born Joanna Schmit initially formed the troupe as a way to make sure her two children—who are half Polish, half American—understood their Polish heritage. "When we visit Poland, I wanted them to feel comfortable, feel a sense of belonging," she says.

Early on, Lajkonik shared dances at small church events at and in the Polish community, but when they began performing at TMY, they invested more time and energy in their performances, Schmit says. Five years ago the troupe took over operation of the Polish food booth at TMY, which has enabled them to raise significant funds to buy costumes, bring guest artists to Tucson, and even travel to Poland to perform in festivals.

TMY organizers recognized the troupe's dedication and in 2014 awarded them a fellowship, which they used to bring a guest artist from Los Angeles. That same year TMY assisted Lajkonik in hosting a traveling troupe from Poland on tour in the US. The troupe members stayed with host families in Tucson and performed with Lajkonik at the Festival.

"We took our journey to a very serious level. We are always striving for more excellence in showing Polish culture," Schmit says.

That has paid off. Audiences consistently comment that Lajkonik's performance at TMY is one of the best, Alvarez says.

But again, it's not just about entertainment. The Festival has brought unexpected cultural lessons to the troupe, Schmit says. "We found out that polka is not just danced by Polish people but American Indians and people from Mexico. Our culture has traveled, it's not just secluded."

This is the kind of learning exchange the festival helps to create. "Everyone has a multicultural event, now," Alvarez says, but often those events fail to contextualize a practice within its tradition or heritage. "We don't want to become the police of authenticity, but we are more than just a party."

In recent years, organizers have conducted on-site surveys of festival goers as they wait in line for aguas frescas, pierogies, and pad Thai. To their surprise they found that 35 percent of visitors are there for the first time, which has incentivized a continued investment in education.

TMY costs about $350,000 to produce, but is not a profit-making venture. In fact, it barely breaks even every year, Alvarez says.

It is supported largely by gifts and grants from Casino del Sol, the Surdna Foundation, the University of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Pima County is a presenting sponsor of TMY and invests $30,000 to support a section of the Festival called "Pima County Meet Yourself," which showcases county offices that offer services to the public.

The City of Tucson purchases a festival booth and some years awards TMY a competitive annual grant that, if secured, yields $10,000, says Camila Martins-Bekat, economic development specialist with the city manager's office.

The festival has a $3.5 million impact on the local economy, Martins-Bekat says. In terms of out of town visitors, however, it doesn't compete with the Tucson Gem and Mineral show or El Tour de Tucson. "It's not going to be a huge influx of tax dollars for the city," she says, "but it impacts it in other ways, such as community building."

No doubt other folklife festivals around the country have similar economic and social impacts in the cities where they are located. But one thing that makes TMY unique is its audience.

In 2014, Clifford Murphy, the director of Folk and Traditional Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's top entity for the promotion of traditional arts, visited the festival. "What was most striking—and inspiring—about TMY was the fact that the audience looks like a reflection of the festival participants (the musicians, the craft artists, the food vendors, etc.)," Murphy said. "What this shows me is that the festival has built a significant amount of trust and credibility with the communities it celebrates."

Griffith and Alvarez attribute that trust and credibility to the concept of respect, "the most important word in all our vocabulary as folklorists and festival producers," Alvarez says.

When you let respect guide you, Griffith says, it seems to seep out into the crowd. In their on-site surveys, organizers also asked audiences what they considered the most important part of the Festival. To their delight, 65 percent of respondents said education and culture.

"This was huge," Alvarez says. "This was not just a feast of gluttony. The data was really proof for me that we had to keep doing what we were doing."

Kimi Eisele is a Tucson-based multidisciplinary artist. Disclaimer: She is a writer and editor for the Southwest Folklife Alliance, the organization that produces TMY.