Festival Authenticity

Any mention of the word “authenticity” makes the hair on the back of any folklorist’s neck stand up. It is a term fraught with difficulties and misunderstandings. Part of the apprehension derives from the fact that academic experts have for too long claimed the right to declare what or who is “authentic” or not. The history of anthropology tells us that “authentic” has often been defined only in terms of the romantic ideas that folklorists and anthropologists carry inside their heads even before they meet any member of the group they are ready to study. The fact is “authentic” often translates into unchangeable, “primitive,” quaint, static, and naive. In order for communities living in real times and places to meet the standards of authenticity that others wish to impose upon them, lots of everyday cultural practices have to be edited out of folklorist’s accounts.

Maribel Alvarez
Dr. Maribel Alvarez teaches an outdoors micro-lecture on “what is folklife” in front of
the Pima County Library as part of the Beardown Downtown event sponsored by the UA
last Wednesday, August 27, 2014. Folklorist in Residence with SFA and UA,
Nic Hartmann, co-taught the mini lessons with Dr. Alvarez.

Native communities and folk, ethnic tradition bearers have spoken vigorously about the urgent necessity to redefine, democratize, or simply abandon the artificially invented norms of authenticity altogether. Most traditional artists and leaders prefer to advance the idea that “authentic” is what the living community of members of that shared culture say or recognize as “real” and significant for that community at that particular moment in time and space. Self-determination to represent who they are, in their own terms, stands at the center of the values most Native and other tradition bearers demand be associated to the idea of authenticity.

At Tucson Meet Yourself, from the very start 41 years ago, the scholars, folklorists, curators, staff liaisons and anthropologists associated with the festival refrain, as a matter of operating principle, from dictating to the participating artists what or how they ought to represent themselves. If a tribal group wishes to represent in their pavilion ancient baskets and ceremonial musical instruments alongside contemporary decorated skateboards or t-shirt designs, they get to decide that; no one on the staff of TMY plays the role of arbiter of authenticity to say whether this is the “right” way to represent or not. This is a principle that was well established by Jim Griffith, our founder, since the start. In fact, we have at TMY several examples of cultural presentations that may seem, at a distance, incongruous (dare we say, out of bounds of the “authentic” heritage of those groups or artists).

For example, we have an amazingly talented duo of O’odham musicians, The Garcia Brothers, who play amazing blues. In their application to perform they say they are “representing” the Tohono O’odham people. No one asks why they claim the blues, a musical form with roots far from Tucson and often associated with African American culture, as their own. Similarly, when a Low Rider car in our TMY car show displays an image of Donald Duck or Miss Piggy in their décor, no one from TMY demands that it be substituted by an “authentic” Chicano or Mexican American symbol. The aesthetics decisions of these artists emerge out of the contexts of their lives as members of small, restricted groups as well as out of their rightful participation and intake of the larger U.S. (American) culture.

A couple of years ago, the Chinese Cultural Association began serving a Chinese version (all original) of a hot dog. Like the popular Sonoran hot dog, which is a hybrid American-Mexican food, the Dragon Dog served at the Chinese food booth at TMY is an innovation that departs from what is usually considered “pure” Chinese. But who can argue that the Dragon Dog isn’t a Chinese authentic expression? A Chinese cook, working in a Chinese cultural center, in fellowship with other Chinese members of the association dreamed this dish up in the authentic, perpetually border-crossing, multicultural society that is the U.S. today. For my money, culture doesn’t get any more “authentic” than that. And yet, there will always be skeptics who would rather see noodles and fried rice and pork bums as the only authentic foods expected at the Chinese booth.

This example is a good reminder of what is truly the essential measure that we prefer to use at TMY: is this innovation rooted in the aesthetics and cultural viewpoint of that ethnic/folk group? And does it serve a function within their own standards of beauty, social bonding, and skill? One curious thing about the term “authenticity” is, as more than one folklorist, has observed, that it is almost never used self-referentially. In other words, you rarely will see any authentic Native or ethnic/folk artist walk around declaring how “authentic” they are. That judgment or consideration will be known to the community, just like that, simple: people in that community will know whether you are “real” or “fake” or something in-between. As a Yaqui friend in Sonora once told me, poignantly tongue-in-cheek, when I asked him if someone I had met was “really” Yaqui or not: “well, bring me the Yaqui-meter (instrument that measures “Yaquiness”) and we shall apply it and see.” I understood what he meant right away. Such an instrument does not exist because the question it asks is not straight forward in any logical, objective way.

I would argue that one aspect of the “authenticity” conversation ought to be preserved, however. It is that which has to do with the original meaning of the word, as it made its appearance in English sometime in the 16th century. According to writer and critic Lionel Trilling, the first meaning of what was deemed “authentic” grew out of the virtue of “sincerity.” To be sincere was to be able to live to one’s obligations to the community of which one was a part. In this narrow sense, I feel that the more than 55 different ethnic/cultural communities that are represented in the festival are “authentically sincere” in their commitment to be present, share their culture as best as they can over three days, and honor the broader, imagined “community” that together we become (with ups and downs like any family has) under the temporary, ephemeral banner of Tucson Meet Yourself.

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