A Force for Good

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Loma Griffith on 50 Years of Tucson Meet Yourself, a Folklife Festival

Interview by Kayleigh Stack

Loma Griffith co-founded the annual folklife festival, Tucson Meet Yourself, with her late husband, the renowned folklorist, James “Big Jim” Griffith (1935-2021). Loma has always been a roll-up-her-sleeves person, wanting to be where the action was. In fact, many of the photographs of her at the festival over the years show her on trash duty. Here she offers a reflection on the festival’s early years and its evolution and on her own experience as a woman and mother working behind the scenes to make it happen.

Note: Loma’s use of the word “Papago,” was the vernacular for Tohono O’odham in the 1970s.

How did you end up in Tucson?

I was born in Santa Barbara, and my husband Jim was also born in Santa Barbara. He came here to go to the University of Arizona, fell in love with the cultural mix and aesthetics and climate and everything else of the Sonoran Desert, and kept finding excuses to come back to it. Jim and I got married in 1963. I joined him here and it became my home too.

Loma in 2018. Photo by Steven Meckler

When you first arrived in Tucson, what was your personal experience with the relationship to the place the geography, the people?

It seemed a little bit short on trees compared with Southern California. I was working in the geochron department, and I got completely fascinated with the whole business of archaeology. Being as how Jim was, when I met him, an archaeologist, I thought we were going to do Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of thing. He, on the other hand, discovered that archaeology involved a lot of digging and shoveling in the hot sun, and that if you studied people’s cultures, you were in a much better environment, and it was a whole heck of a lot more fun. Tasty, too. But I never really left being interested in archaeology and geochronology and tree ring dating. I worked for the tree ring lab, and I worked as a substitute teacher. Pretty soon we had a couple of kids, and we were enmeshed in Tucson Meet Yourself. And that was the end of my paid working career. From then on, I was “a stay-at-home mom.”

Tucson Meet Yourself became a long-term project. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the origin of that.

Jim would go to the National Folk Festival in Washington, D. C. and would take people from here there, but when he was setting up something in Tucson, it became Tucson Meet Yourself, a festival of tradition. From the very beginning he was very thoughtful about presenting an educational and cross-cultural experience with respect. That was his model.

We had both gone the year before to a Border Folk Festival in El Paso, and got to watch a Cajun band, a Papago band, and one more group perform different regional musics of the Tex Mex border area. The first night, each group got together in its own dormitory room and played. By the end of three or four days, the bass player from the Cajuns was over with the Papagos, and the Papago accordion player was over with somebody else. That kind of enthusiastic sharing and respecting and admiring and learning fired Jim’s imagination. He said, you know, we’ve got all this stuff in Tucson. We can do this.

He was involved with musicians and Old-Time music enthusiasts. He put together Tucson Meet Yourself really just kind of out of his head. It was something Tucson hadn’t seen. People here weren’t familiar with the idea. He found a group that was willing to fund it. But by the time Jim came back in August to put this festival together, using his friends as the staff, they were pretty freaked out. They said, “We don’t see that this is going to work, maybe we should call it off.” It took all his very persuasive personality, all his enthusiasm, all of his charm, to actually make that first festival come off.

The first Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974 was for two days, Saturday and Sunday. There were nineteen musical acts. The crowd was so small that the Scots bagpipe group offered to march through downtown Tucson like the Pied Pipers and pull in audience for us.

There were a handful of food booths, but they didn’t make the program either because we weren’t sure they would come, or we just didn’t think of the food as being that important. Subsequently, Jim would describe the food as being the bait that drew people into an educational event, that made the whole thing work. The number of food booths expanded radically.

After five years, we had 24 booths and 34 performing groups. By then he had added workshops and crafts people. In 1983, ten years in, we had 43 food booths, still 38 performers, and 16 craft demonstrators, plus workshops, children’s games, and a piñata party.

It grew quickly from very humble beginnings. The first two years it was a tiny downtown event, but it grew fast. Jim tried to pull in a staff that had roots in different communities. The first ten years, it really was a family affair. Our kids began at the ages of four and seven working on it. My mom came. At a given point, she asked me where our daughter, seven years old, was. I said, “Well, I don’t know. She’s okay. This is downtown Tucson.”

Loma at the festival with her son David in 1974. Photo by Gary Tenen

Every single person in the park knew us. We knew them. They knew our family. The second or third year, [our son] David was skateboarding—it must have been his second or third grade year—and he lacerated his face, his knees, every bit of him came up dripping blood. Our neighbor, Hazel Fontana, washed him up, gave him an ice cream cone, took him home, gave him a bowl of soup, put him to bed, and the first I heard about it was quite a long time after the event when somebody told me what had happened. Hazel had taken my small son home with her.

The city donated its services up until budget cuts came in where we had to pay the city. At the beginning, it was free parking; they donated the bleachers, the stages, the sound system, the lights. With time, that faded away. But people still had our backs.

There were 24 portable food booths—the genius invention of somebody in City Parks and Rec—and we took all of them. One year I forgot to request the booths. The wonderful lady at the parks office said, “That’s all right. I saved them for you.”

Same thing, I would go to the people in their offices in the city and county buildings with my cap in my hand and ask for favors, and they would grumble and they would grouch and they would deliver. It really was something that the whole of downtown supported.

The issue was that the people who could fund it, the people who “lived in the foothills,” didn’t know it existed. The joke was, “How do you get the message across the river to the people of the foothills?” I think now the message has gotten there.

A lot of the success of the festival depended on the fact that we had been living in this town for a lot of years already, had behaved with respect, enthusiasm, and admiration toward different groups in town. If Jim came to them and said, “Would you come and join the festival?” they would consult with their group and they would say, “Yes, we trust you. We’ll come.”

Is there any specific memory that really touched your heart?

One was Humberto Egurrola, a city policeman. We hired off-duty policemen, two or three, to stroll through the park, just keep an eye on things. One afternoon, I walked into the highly prized parking area where you were supposed to come in, spend 15 minutes, unload and then move your car. We had a gentleman from Eastern Europe, perhaps, and he was parked, and he wanted to stay. Whoever the poor volunteer was trying to explain to him that this was a temporary parking spot wasn’t getting anywhere. So Humberto Egurrola charmed this gentleman to the point where he readily agreed to move his car and thereby diffused what could have been very ugly. Officer Egurrola’s daughter served in the police department, and she worked on Tucson Meet Yourself also. So, this passed on.

This was, I think, Jim’s dream—that we would all get along, that we would all become enchanted with each other’s cultures and couldn’t wait to share.

The festival would not be what it is today, what it was then, without Fred Klein, a lawyer and volunteer. Fred had ties to many immigrant communities because he worked in refugee resettlement. He was wonderful about putting us in touch with interesting groups who had just moved to town who could participate. Like Officer Egurrola, Fred could take somebody who came in with a chip on their shoulder and explain to them what we were trying to do and why we were asking for their cooperation. And 99 times out of 100, they agreed. We didn’t have alcohol at the festival because it made it harder to get this kind of cooperation, this kind of mutual understanding and respect.

There’s been so many actors and so many players and so many personalities. What has kept you so dedicated over time to keep going?

I took this on. Nobody consulted me. Nobody asked me, “Do you want to do this?” But you know, Jim was doing it, therefore, I was doing it. He had a vision, and he could explain it to people, and it sounded like a great idea. My temptation was to do things like attend protest marches and get people to sign petitions, and that kind of thing. Fifteen years into the festival, Jim very quietly said, “Well, you know, I think of doing the festival as positive activism rather than protest activism.” And my jaw dropped. I said, “Really?”

Gradually, I got talked into realizing that this was a powerful tool for making Tucson a better place. I think that’s what’s kept it going, and that’s what has kept a diverse bunch of people hanging in, doing this thing, because overall, it’s a force for good.

How have you seen the festival change over time?

Well, it got much bigger. At a given point, you really couldn’t turn your seven-year-old loose and figure everything would be all right because everybody would know her. But it has continued to be an educational event.

Loma at Tucson Meet Yourself in the 1970s. Photo by Gary Tenen

Jim led it by the force of his personality. We didn’t have a formal staff. We didn’t have a board of directors. We went to a nonprofit and asked them to have faith in us and to fundraise and turn over the money to us. This worked, but it was really kind of run out of your hip pocket. It depended on Jim getting a consensus. We would have a dozen people in the room talking about it from different points of view—food, booze, crafts, logistics, special events, the whole thing. Somebody would come up with an idea, “Let’s sell beer at the festival,” or “How about inviting such and such a group?” and then there would be a discussion. This idea of we do it by consensus, we discuss it, we talk about what you gain, what you lose if you make these decisions, and in the end we all get together and agree. This is a very maybe Native American way of doing things. It’s not a very democratic way of doing things, where you get enough votes, and you win. Once Jim backed away from the festival, there had to be a more formal structure. It just couldn’t continue being that amorphous.

The festival has grown, blossomed, branched in unimaginable ways. Not just supporting the craftspeople, the folk artists, the performers once a year, but setting up a structure, programs that feature these people, celebrate these cultures, these traditions over the whole year. It went from being a one-time, two-dimensional event to being a four-dimensional event in time and space. The festival now really looks after its performers.

COVID was the worst nightmare for a festival organizer. They had to shut it down, but they didn’t just put their hands in their pockets and walk away. This was going to be a big hit not just to the folk artists, but to the sound and light people, to the clubs that did food vending. Somehow, they managed to make lemonade out of lemons. They did a lot of videoing, making a virtual festival that unrolled for an entire month with new artistic groups and new presentations being put up online. In the process, they recorded demonstrations and performances that in the past were just ephemeral. For COVID, we—they—recorded they got grants, they put the money back out into the community. That was a radical change, which was a change for the best.

I keep saying “we,” because clearly, it’s still in my heart.

How has the festival changed you personally with all these interactions and all this access to culture?

I was very young when we started it and fairly arrogant. I was college-educated, had grown up in wealthy neighborhood, had gone to a privileged school, I knew it all. The point of the festival was respect. It was enthusiasm and enjoyment and delight in cultures that I’d never heard of. So yes, it was broadening, to listen to the Black church ladies from Casa Grande. This was mind-boggling to listen to the Old-Time fiddlers, the Italian accordion player, the step dancers, and to learn so much from the Native American communities, where to approach, to request, to engage their trust was not done by putting something up on the website and asking them to apply. You have to go in person. Jim had to sit down, smoke cigarettes with the people in charge, spend 15 or 20 minutes just getting to know each other and then make your request and then answer questions and then be patient and wait for an answer. This whole business of showing respect, not being arrogant, being open, was one way it changed me.

Also, watching Officer Egurrola, watching Fred Klein deal with people with differing opinions, whose minds they wanted to change, made me realize that I really am not good at this. At the beginning, if there was a problem with somebody parked in the wrong place, I would have bustled over there and been quite officious and tried to turn them out. It took me years to recognize the fact that this is not my forte. This is a time when I say, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back,” and I run for Fred, or someone else who is better qualified than I am to do this.

Can you share a story about connection to others, connection to the community, connection to Tucson?

We met Mrs. Matilde Santa Cruz, who made flour tortillas. Jim was fascinated with all the skills involved in that. And other skills. The skill involved in being a good school bus driver—apparently there are driver slaloms where there are obstacle courses and you’ve got to execute a course in your bus without knocking over any of the cones. The skill involved in embroidery. The skill involved in Ukrainian Easter eggs.

I guess that’s one of the most important things I learned from the festival—its stories.

Jim asked Matilde Santa Cruz to make tortillas and it was for a video. Matilde Santa Cruz said this is something that we learned as children. It’s our heritage and it’s a chain that will never be broken, mother to daughter to granddaughter. Tortilla making being the source of stability in the family.

Arizona Daily Star, Feb. 27, 1983

Jim spent a lot of time interviewing the Ukrainian Easter egg ladies. Every festival they would present an Easter egg. One time they presented Jim with a large goose egg, a huge Ukrainian Easter egg. We learned that the Easter eggs were the vehicle for passing on cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and community identity during times of persecution when they were not allowed to practice their religion, when they were not allowed to teach the language, not allowed to teach the meanings of this process of making the eggs and the significance of the colors, the significance of the designs—that they are life, they are wheat, they are Christ. One Easter egg is so many layers of richness and tradition and significance. I think nobody outside the culture could ever begin to grasp what it is.

Jim would talk about Mormon quilters sitting around a quilt. Yes, they’re making a product, but there’s so much there. There’s reminiscence of the time when this was all you had, you had to make every little bit of material into something warm, beautiful, useful, and meaningful. You’d get half a dozen women working on tacking down and quilting a quilt and the conversation around the quilt would be history, it would be family history, it would be gossip, it would be morality, it would be the stories, the web that ties the community together.

Loma, that’s a beautiful, beautiful ending point. I like just the idea of tying communities together, the web.

How did you get into this? Why are you here?

I just completed my master’s at Columbia University in oral history. I did an internship through the university with the Southwest Folklife Alliance, and I’ve been listening to people’s stories.

Wonderful. So, it’s as good as Jim. When he was trying to explain what folklore was, he said, “In the department store of academia, I work in the toy department.”

I know. People are like, what is oral history? I’m like, it’s just believing in the transformative power of stories. That’s it. That’s all.

Well, certainly, I think Tucson Meet Yourself was established and continues to be a way of passing on the oral traditions and the culinary traditions and the religious and everything else traditions of so many communities. I think the equally or possibly more important is the fact that it is presenting them in a respectful way and presenting them with enthusiasm where hopefully the respect, the admiration, the enthusiasm is going to be contagious, and it helps each individual community respect its traditions. Wow, those funny things my grandmother did somebody thinks are interesting. That’s neat. I mean that “a-ha” moment within the community is worth it, but also the fact that, you know, those strange people over there are doing the same thing we’re doing. They have the same stories, they have the same foods. The baklava made by the African booth that has quite different ingredients, but it’s still essentially the same as the baklava from the Turkish booth or the Syrian booth. Everybody eats, everybody has fiestas, everybody has celebrations, and we’re more alike than different.

Cover photo: Loma with Jim Griffith in 2003

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