Q&A With Maribel Alvarez, Ph.D.
If TMY is a melting pot bubbling over with culture, then Maribel Alvarez is its executive chef, who stirs in the authentic local ingredients of people, folk arts, foods and programming. BorderLore ran alongside TMY’s enthusiastic director and folklorist to capture some comments about this upcoming weekend.
BL: You’re a folklorist, a believer in how traditional arts enable authentic community engagement, inter-generational connections and access to resources. How can a Tucsonan look at TMY differently, through a folklorist’s eyes?
MA: As folklorists, Big Jim and I look at the festival primarily as an educational experience, not as entertainment. Clearly, there is a balance between our folkloristic intentions and what Jim calls “show biz.” People must have a good time first and foremost. They are usually lured by food, music and dance. The challenge for a folklorist is how to create depth of experience in a festive atmosphere –- so much of the allure of cultural expressions of others is guided (or I should say, mis-guided) by ideas of the exotic and stereotype. Hence a folklorist spends a lot of time “staging,” if you will, the platform in which one hopes people will step across the boundaries of their own comfort zone of identity to feel, experience, taste a different way of being and expressing beauty and meaning. The staging cannot be so heavy-handed that it feels preachy. But it cannot be left to chance either; otherwise, you’d have just any multicultural event and not really a folklife festival.
BL: Tucson is city of festivals. Why is this mass of community cultural expression so different from other Tucson events?
MA: TMY is the festival of festivals in Tucson. Everyone has their own events, but everyone still wants to be part of TMY. Why is that? Well, over the years, many people came to understand that participating in the festival was a kind of statement of philosophy (I am tempted to say a “political” statement but that may be misconstrued because I don’t mean “political” in reference to partisanship). By statement of philosophy I mean something like a stance on what the festival represents as an ideal: and that is simply the idea of cultural democracy (where “being different” is not the mark of lower value, but the mark of richness and resources and self-determination).
BL: Is it just too big to access all the benefits?
MA: Each year we get a message from someone who is nostalgic about the way “it used to be” and they usually mean that it was small and 100% non-commercial. The economics of the time now require us to engage sponsors. That has brought growth as well. We also allow the Common Causeway area where many non-profits share information that is good for our community. Does that have anything to do with folklore and folklife? Not directly. Not in the same way that the Yaquis are setting up a ramada, or the way bluegrass singers represent “folk” in most people’s minds. But folklife is dynamic and it is most of all about meaningful conviviality — people coming together as “folks” who share meanings that they pass on to others. In some ways what we see now is that — in addition to all the ethnic and cultural groups represented within the festival — the festival is also (expressing formally, writ-large) a representation of Tucson and Tucsonans. I like the phrase “immigrants, refugees, Native Americans, long-timers and newcomers….Tucsonans all” to express this communal characteristic of the festival beyond ethnicity.
BL: Without picking favorites, what’s the first secretly-special booth or foodstuff you are going to look for/enjoy this festival?
MA: OK, I am going to give you the exclusive on that one; only because BorderLore is close to my heart [laughs]. When the festival is all set up, my first visit will be to the exhibits “Symbols of AIDS Activism” and “Quilts Making a Difference.” The reason is that we put a lot of resources and effort into making our partnership with AIDSWALK Tucson more than just another walk. We tried to bring our type of assets to the partnership with Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation – that is, curatorial expertise. Our staff Curator Peggy Hazard collected many objects of personal significance from folks involved in AIDS activism locally and all the quilts on display touch on a story of loss, survival and resiliency. If these exhibits work, to me that is the kind of partnership TMY should always pursue: the ones where there’s value-added in terms of meaningful education and human exchange.
BL: See you at the festival, Maribel!