In Memoriam: James S. Griffith 

July 30, 1935-December 18, 2021

James S. Griffith, or “Big Jim,”  moved to Tucson at age 20 to study at the University of Arizona, eventually earning a PhD in cultural anthropology and art history. He directed the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona until 1998. In 1974 Jim and his wife Loma Griffith founded Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual folklife festival featuring folk arts, music, dance, and food representing Indigenous, immigrant, and long-time resident cultures of the region. His books on southern Arizona include and northern Mexico include A Border Runs Through It: Journeys in Regional History and Folklore, Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimería Alta; Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson’s Mexican American Community; and his most recent, in 2019, Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora. In 1996, he curated an exhibit of traditional arts of Tucson’s Mexican American community, “La Cadena Que No Se Corta: The Unbroken Chain” at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. For many years he hosted the television segment, Southern Arizona Traditions, on KUAT-TV’s Arizona Illustrated. In 2011 Big Jim was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in honor of his service to folklore and the state of Arizona.

So much of our work at BorderLore and the Southwest Folklife Alliance has been inspired and guided by Jim’s kindness, respect, curiosity, and devotion to observation. He loved the region we celebrate and friendliness, curiosity, and ever-growing knowledge won him fans and admirers from those Indigenous to this land, as well as from long-time dwellers and newcomers. Big Jim was also a musician (a banjo player in the claw-hammer style), a storyteller, jokester, husband, father, grandfather, colleague, mentor, and friend. He died peacefully at home December 18, 2021 and is survived by his wife, Loma, and children, Kelly and David, and grandchildren, Emile and Arwen. We will miss him terribly.

Read Jim’s contributions to BorderLore over the years here.

Lessons from Big Jim

In the spirit of Jim’s storytelling and teaching, we’ve been reflecting on the many lessons we learned from him. We asked a handful of friends and colleagues to chime in as well. 

Respect

If there’s one word we repeat over and over while working to celebrate, make visible, and ensure the longevity of folklife in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, it’s this one. Respect. It was Jim’s favorite word, the foundation of his entire career. It’s what guided his way in the world, his manners, his music, his research, his camaraderie, and was just one of the reasons he was beloved by so many. Whether documenting cultural traditions and artwork, planning and producing the annual Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival, collaborating with organizational and tribal partners, or helping to envision a community cultural center where workers can be uplifted with the dignity and financial respect they deserve, we let this word guide us. Our thoughts, our speech, our actions. Respect is a noun. Something you give or are given that allows for a sense of wholeness and belonging. It’s a tall word. Like Big Jim. Bottomless, really. Like Big Jim’s appetite for tacos and tripa and tortillas. But it is also a verb. Something you do and show. To yourself and to others. To everyone, no matter what they eat or wear or love or sing or believe. For a folklorist and anthropologist, to respect is to care for, to love, to honor, and to ensure an equity of spirit. To respect others is to be alive with grace in community. In our work here in BorderLore and at the Southwest Folklife Alliance, when we say the noun or enact the verb respect, we are, almost every time, invoking Jim. It’s the most powerful lesson he taught us. 

-The Editors

Big Jim, a man with light skin wearing a tan hat, a mostly gray beard and mustache, a striped long sleeve button up shirt with a black vest over it and khaki pants. He smiles and poses against a white background.
Photo by Steven Meckler

Aesthetics

I came to the field of folklife as a muralist non-profit cultural worker. Jim taught me the ways in which aesthetics, particularly of folk art in the Southwest, are a form of liberation. In lectures and writing about lowrider car culture, for example, he used the Mexican baroque architecture of the Mission San Xavier Del Bac to interpret and understand the aesthetics of lowrider cars. “…an emphasis on symmetry, a fascination with movement and dramatic contrasts, a taste for opulence reflected in the use of color and precious materials, and an emphasis on complex compositions involving innumerable tiny details,” he wrote of San Xavier in his 1988 book, Southern Arizona Folk Arts. Aesthetics not unlike the polished chrome, metallic paint or stripping, and acute attention to detail found in the dramatic interpretations on a theme in low-rider cars. Jim’s interpretations invited me to celebrate my upbringing. My father was an auto mechanic, and I grew up going to car shows. I admired the elaborate lowriders because of their beauty and resistance to the racism faced by Chicanos in California, where I lived. Jim reinforced the many “canons of beauty” as “perfectly valid within the context of their own traditions.” He taught me that the aesthetic decisions we make – through our style, attention to detail, or the ways we make meaning in our lives – have the potential to bridge differences and build respect. 

Leia Maahs, Executive Director, Southwest Folklife Alliance

Appreciating the Local

I ran into Big Jim more than forty years ago as he entered the cramped office of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where I worked as a program coordinator. He walked in wearing Western attire, waving his huge hat, and smiling. A breath of Arizona! As a traditional Polish papercutter for eighty years now, I often use motifs from my native land in my craft. When I moved to Arizona to help alleviate my severe asthma, I was amazed to see cacti blooming in the spring. Jim invited me to participate in the Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival. Our connection as mentor-artisan happened instantly, and was soon augmented by a good friendship with his wife Loma. Jim urged me not only to continue with Polish nostalgia themes in my papercutting, but also to respond to the desert and its cultural traditions. His encouragement helped me to find my own love for the desert Southwest and its many colors. 

Magdalena Nowacka-Jannotta, Artist & Recipient of an SFA 2021 Master-Apprentice Artist Award

A yellowed newspaper article featuring Jim and Loma Griffith
Jim & Loma Griffith. Arizona Daily Star. 1983.

Border

On several occasions, Jim and I traveled to Douglas, Arizona to interview well-known corrido composer, Leonardo Yañez “El Nano”, for a paper we were co-authoring. We always timed our interviews to conclude before lunch so we could cross into Agua Prieta, Sonora and enjoy street carne asada tacos and quesadillas; dessert was always at La Michoacana for a chunky fruit popsicle. Sometimes, we came back on the Sonoran side and crossed at Nogales. Jim crossed many cultural borders, always respectfully, and he was always much accepted by the people whose borders he crossed. I appreciated that about Jim.

Celestino Fernández, University of Arizona Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Researcher & Composer of corridos

Curiosity

Big Jim was my friend and mentor. I remember my first folklore class with him, sitting with hundreds of students, somehow feeling like he was talking and laughing just with me – I think we all felt that. His love of culture was infectious, and his insights helped shape how I wanted to study art, culture, and people. I remember him discussing the “Chicano Baroque” in custom lowrider cars, an analysis that helped me see and feel validated in the knowledge that aesthetics could just as quickly be drawn from cars and other lived culture as from 19th century church altars. He helped me put words to a feeling I carry about all the “stuff” we might not readily notice but that surrounds us every day. He helped me see folklife as a dignified reflection of the talented community members I knew and loved – not subjects to be studied but loved ones to sit and share meals with, learn from, be with. My first travel days in Tucson were “extra credit” trips, in which I left my dorm room to experience Pascua Yaqui pageantry, deep public devotion, laughter, reverence, and life. These assignments shaped my love of Tucson, and I have never had the yearning to leave. He will remain present for me here every day. 

Liane Hernandez, Former student & Director, YWCA Women’s Wellness, Empowerment, and Leadership Center

Delight

More than 20 years ago, just out of graduate school with a master’s degree in geography, I was hired to conduct interviews and photograph for a Library of Congress Local Legacies project celebrating the annual Fiesta at Tumacácori National Historical Park. I went to the December event to talk with traditional artists like Gloria Moroyoqui, a maker of tortillas and paper flowers, and Anastacio León, who made Mexican reverse glass paintings, among others. Jim was there, of course, eating birria, talking to artists, listening to the live music. I had already interviewed him about “the Franciscos” – the Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who established the mission at Tumacácori, and St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the Fiesta. When he saw me, he insisted I join him on the dance floor, a patch of dirt in the center of the festival grounds. So late in the afternoon, we did a lively polka to the waila band – it might well have been Gertie Lopez N the TO Boyz, for all I knew – and I laughed the way you do when you’re getting whirled around in a fast waltz. It was a beautiful way to end that season of learning and documenting the region’s cultural landscape, a landscape Jim knew so well, yet never thoroughly enough. There was no such thing as expertise for him. Doing folklife was mostly hanging out and paying attention, after all, and delighting in what he saw and heard (and tasted, no doubt). This kind of humility was essential for him, and eternal, and something I wanted to make sure was mine, too. He didn’t prescribe for me my future nor insist that I stick with what I was doing there that weekend. But I’ve long wondered if those spins through the dust might have been his very clever and humble way of whispering, “Go be a folklorist, Kimi.” 

Kimi Eisele, Writer, artist, folklorist & BorderLore editor

Big Jim wearing a red shirt, talking to a group of folklorico dancers.
Grupo Danza Masehua with Jim Griffith at the 40th Anniversary celebration of Tucson Meet Yourself in 2013. Photo by Steven Meckler

Engagement

When people are authentically engaged, they feel heard, respected, valued, trusted, appreciated, safe, and comfortable. (from A Framework for Effectively Partnering with Young People, by The Annie E. Casey Foundation)

I knew Big Jim as a colleague and friend for almost four decades – most of my adult and professional lives. When I think of Jim, I think “engagement.”  This is a word with complex meanings, but at the core it is about attention, enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment. Jim was one of the most engaged people I have ever known – giving his full attention to whatever was in front of him – people, food, music, colonial architecture, his church at San Javier, Loma, and his family.  Jim led by example. He taught all of us to look and listen with our whole hearts.

Patricia A. Atkinson, Folklorist, cultural consultant, and three-time “guest folklorist” at Tucson Meet Yourself

Humor

I met Jim Griffith less than 10 years ago upon my arrival from Philly to work at Tumacácori National Historical Park. We were talking about menudo as we chopped the carne asada to edible tiny bits before the guests arrived for his and Loma’s end-of-summer party. I told him that in Korea, where I am from, we eat tripas but with thin rice noodle (called Seol-lung-tang, somewhat similar to Vietnamese Pho) in the soup instead of nixtamal. He then began singing a song, completely improvised, about “me-noodle,” much to my delight and hearty laughter. To this day, menudo and “menoodle” are synonymous for me whenever I sit down to eat them.  The whole encounter still makes me chuckle and reminding me how cultures, even an ocean apart, are much more similar than we imagine them to be, given our bias, fear, and even dread. We all share the need for food, sometimes even the most undesirable parts. The act of eating menudo will always remind me of Big Jim, the man who shared the love for living, with a dose of cultures on top, like the sprinkle of ground-up chiltepin.  

Alex B. Lim, Architectural Conservator, Tumacácori National Historical Park

Love

Maribel and Big Jim seated at a table in a restaurant.
Maribel Alvarez and Jim Griffith in 2004.

I arrived at the University of Arizona in 2003 to take on the job Jim had held for close to three decades. With the position newly renamed to recognize his legacy, it took me a long time to figure out what, if anything, I could add to the vast universe of borderlands folk and traditional arts that Jim had uplifted. But that was just my own wrestling with self-doubt. Jim never applied any filters of hierarchy or deference to our relationship. Even though I was leagues behind him in scholarship and life experiences, he embraced me – the whole package of who I am – with total acceptance and compassion. Jim and Loma became my mentors in the truest sense of the word: They listened, cared for, and guided me without ever imposing their own agenda or demanding any loyalty to anything other than an authentic love for the people who see beauty in small things. I took my fears, joys, and questions to their kitchen table more times than I can remember. I cried with them when things were rough at work. I fashioned impossible dreams with them. I reported big triumphs and some regrettable mistakes. Jim was never judgmental. For him the range of human emotions was all part of a day in the life of a folklorist. He had an abiding curiosity about humans and all the tricks we manage to perform to get by. One day I went to Jim to tell him about this big “logic model” I had developed and planned to submit to a national foundation to create a new organization in partnership with X and Y and will have increased capacity to do Z and what not. Jim listened attentively without interrupting me. At the end, when I had exhausted the high pitch of my enthusiastic and elaborate speech, he closed his eyes in his characteristic gesture of pleasure, smiled, and said, “I don’t understand anything you just said, but boy, I LOVE IT.” That was all I needed. His trust meant more than a million wise exhortations. But when he spoke of love he didn’t limit it only to the grand schemes of planning a festival or an artist’s apprenticeship. I felt loved by Jim. That is the fuel I need to keep doing the work that honors his memory. 

Maribel Alvarez, Founder, Southwest Folklife Alliance
Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore (Southwest Center/School of Anthropology)

Music

Big Jim valued and promoted the music of diverse cultures to bring people together. I remember the first time I saw Big Jim on the stage. I was taking a music history course at the University of Arizona and part of our assignment was to attend five concerts of different types. They were having a folk music concert at the UA music building, and so I went, to meet my requirements. I was very impressed with Big Jim and the way he connected with the audience between songs. His conversations and his teaching of history and culture impressed me. Then I’d go to him in his office at the Southwest Folklore Center to talk with him about what I was studying. That’s how I met him. We then became very involved with Tucson Meet Yourself, bringing O’odham artists to demonstrate at the festival. Big Jim would make these rounds to visit us and thank us for being there. He would also come with his wife, Loma, out to the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum for activities and events. We considered him a friend.

Bernard Siquieros, Friend

Big Jim, smirking at the camera, wearing a black baseball hat.
Jim Griffith in 2009. Photo by Steven Meckler

6 thoughts on “In Memoriam: James S. Griffith ”

  1. I first met Big Jim in 1979. I was just back from a 2-year stint in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was feeling kind of displaced and uncomfortable upon my return, a common experience with all of us “returned” Volunteers. I was visiting Gary Nabhan in Tucson, and he and Karen took me out to Jim and Lomas, where they were hosting a barbecue for visiting Raramuri artists. Jim greeted me in Spanish, commiserated with me about reverse culture shock, and introduced me to some of the artists who also spoke Spanish. Sitting around a big bonfire, eating delicious food from both sides of the border, and hanging out with those short, soft-spoken artists who looked just like the people I’d just left behind was So healing. It’s hard to describe, but it made me understand that I could navigate life once again with the knowledge I’d brought back with me. I guess one could call it being bi-cultural. I owe a lot to Big Jim. His kindness to someone he’d never met before still lives in my heart. Maggie McQuaid

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  2. I remember watching Big Jim play his banjo with a crowd of enthusiasts at the old Southwest Center for Music on 6th Ave. What a great man!

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  3. I always enjoyed Big Jim’s humor and because of his respectful approach , like many others we quickly became friends. He brought me into the family of performers. I truly grateful for his kindness. Rest In Peace my brother.

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