Safe Risks & Radical Aspirations

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How to Re-think a Folklife Festival during a Pandemic

by Dr. Maribel Alvarez

By definition, festivals entail risk. Best known as “occasions for feasting, revelry, conviviality,” as the dictionary defines them, festivals allow societies to celebrate, release pent-up tensions, and suspend the normal formalities that hold identities and social status in place. In most world traditions, festive occasions are times of reversals, offering, for example, a space where common folks can officially make fun of higher authorities or an opportunity when dress codes can be altered to allow for gender creativity. But even as festivals offer educational opportunities (to try new things and expand ideas about what is socially desirable or possible), imagine all that could go wrong: People convening in tight spaces, mixing with strangers in a sea of humanity, upending the norms that usually mark the distinctions between public and private joys.

I first became involved in Tucson Meet Yourself (“TMY” for short) fifteen years ago, as a volunteer. I now direct the festival. Over the years, I have experienced my share of boundary-bending festive moments. There is that time a very kind, but unknown man, asked me to dance salsa with his son. I happily complied even though the request came out of the blue. Another time I was eating an “arepa” (the Venezuelan national delicacy), when a woman sat down next to me and asked so many questions about what I was holding in my hands that I almost offered her a taste.

a pregnant belly dancer.
A belly dancer from TMY 2014.

On the artistic side, I love watching how performers and audiences use the festival setting to bend the rules of engagement, allowing themselves to be spontaneous in ways that we rarely see in more formal ticketed events. One of my favorite times was when a belly dancing group included a pregnant dancer—moving with grace and pure joy across the circular stage, her naked, rounded belly on display for all to see. It was a sight of beauty and freedom.

Another memorable moment was the first time we presented Fadi Iskandar, the master violinist from Syria now residing in Tucson. While he played, a group of Syrian community members burst out in a collective dance in front of the stage, unplanned. I learned quickly that audiences at TMY feel a sense of ownership over the event that surpasses any planning the event organizers attempt to impose.

In all of these examples, a common feature of festival behavior is the democratic occupation of space—leaning more closely into another’s personal space than most North American norms dictate or appropriating the street or sidewalk as one’s personal dance arena.

Since 1974, TMY has been intentional about its location and footprint. The festival takes place in the civic center of Tucson and Pima County. The location is symbolic of one of TMY’s most cherished values, an implicit act of inclusion that says to everyone, “You belong here.”

The occupation and sharing of space as a metaphor for democracy has been an acknowledged and prominent feature of festivals at least since the French Revolution. During the revolutionary period, common people organizing against the absolute monarch and clamoring for “liberty” often expressed their ideals through festivals that made it a point to break the rules of “social distance.” In her brilliant account of this period, Festivals and the French Revolution, historian Mona Ozouf recounts the many ways revolutionary festivals sought to link democratic ideals with “reconquered space” by staging celebrations that tore down gates, crossed castle moats, walked in forbidden zones of the city, or avoided common parade routes associated with religious processions. The underlying message of these early and informal event planners, Ozouf says, aimed to demonstrate “the influence of spatial configurations on public happiness.”

Audience members at Tucson Meet Yourself
TMY 2019 drew over 150,000 people to downtown Tucson to eat, watch performances, and experience folk arts demonstrations. Photo by Steven Meckler

Needless to say, this year TMY’s wondrous engagement with civic space and social proximity—fundamental anchors of the distinctiveness of this beloved local event—have been challenged by COVID-19. For a few months, festival staff wondered whether it would make any sense to stage a “socially distanced” festival. Would an alternative, safe and remote TMY make any sense? Talk about the ultimate paradox; it was inscribed in the festival’s own unique moniker! How could you “meet” without “meeting” in person? Somehow the promised satisfaction of online and virtual events paled in comparison to that “revolutionary density” so many people have learned to love about TMY.

But when the going gets tough, the saying goes, the tough get going. The festival’s 2020 edition would have to be different. Our team dug deeper into our core values, which told us that innovation and reimagination were more important than dogma. Working closely with Pima County Health officials and City of Tucson events staff, we found an optimal solution: a “re-framed” TMY that kept the essential elements of our regular festival (food, dance, music, public education, and a friendly take-over of public spaces) re-invented for COVID safety.

A projection of people dancing onto a tall building with two people dancing under it.
TMY 2020 included video recordings of favorite performers projected onto city walls, meant to be enjoyed while driving, walking, or rolling by. Photo by Kimi Eisele

The offerings we made have yielded new beautiful insights about the meaning of community, persistence, and generosity. The anecdotes and lessons of this unprecedented TMY will live on for generations, I have no doubt.

Throughout the month-long, re-framed TMY, I also learned a new twist on the meaning of the word “risk.” Bringing people together from the ethnic enclaves (often silos) that make up Tucson’s diverse demographics is a “risk” we are willing to take year after year (47, to be exact) for the sake of cultural democracy. But because of the same love and care of community, we could not “risk” the health and well-being of our traditional communities and artists.

 In other words, we “risk” too much when we refuse to take care of one another and ignore the knowledge that comes from science, ancestral wisdom, and a sense of solidarity with the most vulnerable. What’s a “meet yourself” festival good for if not but for the radical aspiration of a healthy community?

Dr. Maribel Alvarez is the director of Tucson Meet Yourself. A folklorist, anthropologist, and educator, she is also the Associate Dean of Community Engagement at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Editor’s note: Tucson Meet Yourself continues through the end of October. Find online performances, discussions, and demonstrations; an online folk arts marketplace; plus food-to-go (Oct. 24 & 25) and a drive-in concert. All details are here.

Works cited:
M. Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, 1988, Harvard University Press, p. 126.

Cover photo: An interaction at TMY 2019. Photo by Steven Meckler

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