When The Saints Come Marching In

Folklorist Big Jim Griffith Gives Them Due Respect.

NO SAINTS GET canonized without at least a miracle or two, and maybe no saint books get published without one.

At least that's the case with Jim Griffith's Saints of the Southwest (Rio Nuevo Publishers, $14.95), a sumptuous full-color volume cataloging the saints most beloved in our region. Griffith, the genial folklorist who ran the UA's Southwest Folklore Center for almost 20 years, put together short descriptions of 31 saints, from Santa Barbara to San Agustín. He had almost no trouble finding their images on places as varied as a video store wall (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) and a supermarket candle (Santa Clara). San Xavier Mission yielded a sculpture of San Francisco standing up; the shrine at Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, offered up a composite Francisco--Xavier mixed with Assis--lying down.

San Juan Bautista was another story.

"There's a lot of devotion to St. John the Baptist because of his association with rain," said Griffith, diving into a sandwich at a local restaurant. "People in the desert are drawn to him." But the Baptist appears in surprisingly few local images. Last spring Griffith was working on a tight deadline to accommodate his publisher, and San Juan was the last saint he needed to complete the book.

Then he heard that an old friend, Josefina Lizárraga, was planning on bringing her portable statue of the desert saint to the San Juan Bautista Celebration on June 24. In a re-creation of a popular feast from Tucson's early days, the San Juan celebrants implore the baptismal saint to bring on the summer rains. Griffith hurried on over to the dead-dry banks of the Santa Cruz to shoot the saint.

"I shot an entire role of the statue that afternoon," Griffith recalled, "but the camera was in the process of dying."

Afterward, realizing that the camera had been broken, he despaired that he'd lost his last chance to photograph the saint in action. But he was stunned to find a crystal-clear image of San Juan among all the ruined photos that came back from the lab.

"One picture turned out," he said in wonder. "There's no reason it should have."

Miracle? Maybe. If so it's a miracle that depended at least in part on Griffith's encyclopedic knowledge of the folkways of the Pimería Alta. Already the author of a dozen volumes, this fall he's published not one but two books. Lizárraga's beloved saint statue appears in one, and she herself shows up in the other, Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community (University of Arizona Press, $29.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.) Lizárraga is pictured in her florist shop, West Boutique Florists on St. Mary's Road, and Griffith describes her techniques for making rainbow-bright blossoms out of paper. The comprehensive volume, covering crafts from quinceanera cakes to low-rider cars to ornamental ironwork, arose out of a 1996 exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

"This was going to be the catalog for the show," Griffith said dryly. "Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs."

The critically acclaimed exhibition filled the museum's first floor. Organized in conjunction with three other people, it was nevertheless Griffith's personal love letter to a community he's studied and lived among more than four decades. A replica of a Tucson front yard, complete with potted plants and homemade saints, was set up in one room; hand-tooled leather cowboy boots, needlework, household shrines filled the others. While its low-brow crafts raised some highbrow eyebrows, docents reported that schoolchildren exclaimed in wonder to see "my grandma's yard" in a museum. Griffith is loath to sing his own praises, but he noted with satisfaction, "People in the Mexican-American community loved the show. They recognized their families and their world."

Griffith has always moved easily from the barrio to the academy, and he writes accessibly as well. A New York Times reviewer praised an earlier volume: "He writes of the beliefs and customs of people far different from himself with a gentle tone and spirit of restraint and simple decency." For his part, Griffith said he feels "privileged to live in a place that values what we have."

Tucson's recognition of its cultural heritage rests in no small part of the labors of Griffith, known affectionately all around town as Big Jim. Besides shepherding the world-class UA folklore collection for some 19 years, Griffith, with his wife, founded Tucson Meet Yourself. The widely admired music-dance-and-pigout festival for years was fondly called Tucson Eat Yourself. (Griffith let go of it in 1994, and it continues as the Tucson Heritage Experience.)

Born a Depression baby in 1935 in Santa Barbara, Griffith grew up near Pasadena, the son of a gentleman farmer. Griffith came east to Tucson to study in the UA's highly rated archaeology program, but once ensconced at the university, he came to realize that "if I did cultural anthropology I could study the same thing without the pick and shovel work." He went through the anthro program, picking up bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, writing his dissertation on Tohono O'odham chapels. Their layout and functions, he found, resembled those of Aztec temples.

For a couple of years, the new folklorist bounced around Tucson, grabbing the odd teaching assignment at the UA, working on his festival. Eventually, English professor Larry Evers came up with a plan and, more importantly, a grant proposal to create a university post of public folklorist. Griffith got the job, and the old Southwest Lore Center, started in the '40s by Frances Gilmore, evolved into the Southwest Folklore Center at the UA Library, with Griffith as director.

"It was the perfect job," Griffith remembered. "I was not a professor. My job was the way I defined it. I did museum exhibitions. I did a TV series for 15 years (on KUAT's Arizona Illustratred). I did radio shows, I wrote articles."

Along the way Griffith grew into a nationally recognized scholar, and a beloved local treasure. Go to a posada in the old barrio, and you might find Griffith, all six feet five inches of him, plucking a guitar at the post-procession fiesta. Do scholarly research on the religious beliefs and folk customs of Southwestern people and you'll find his name all over the bibliographies. Two years ago he took early retirement, but it doesn't much look it.

"My retirement philosophy is fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes the keys to the T-bird away," he said with a grin.

Since stepping down from the director's job, he's written the two books and affiliated himself with another UA department, the Southwest Center. He's deep into a new project, "documenting all the religious art in the state of Sonora." No small task, he conceded. He's working with a partner, a Sonoran attorney who's available mostly on weekends. "When he can shake loose, we drive down to Hermosillo" and then to points unknown in the field. "It will take 100 years."

Folklore is simply too important to Griffith for him to while away his retirement in a rocking chair.

"Folklore can be controversial," he said, "because it's celebrating the achievements of working-class folks. It's even subversive. But I do it, and I just say, 'Isn't it wonderful?'"

Jim Griffith will sign copies of his two new books, Saints of the Southwest and Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community, at three events this weekend: from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, December 8, at the Arizona Historical Society Book Fair, 949 E. Second St.; from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, December 9, at Barnes & Noble, Foothills Mall, 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd.; and from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, December 10, at Borders Books and Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road.
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