Each of us stores a bountiful harvest of our own personal traditions, history and folklife. If asked about your folklife, how would you respond?
Robert Ojeda, Ph.D.
Farming, food and family are formative in the folklife of Robert Ojeda, who was born in Peru. Robert, who joined the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in April 2010, is Vice President of the Food Bank’s Community Food Resource Center. With his doctoral degree in adult and extension education, as well advanced studies in leadership, community development, international agriculture and rural development, Robert also has served as Civics and Citizenship Program Manager for Pima Community College Adult Education, and as Program Manager of English Language Acquisition for Adults, for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. Robert was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, working with its Hillside Farming Program.
What can you tell us about the “folklife” of your childhood? Are there any illustrations of everyday folklife you can share?
I was born in Arequipa, a “la ciudad blanca” or white city known for a distinctive mix of indigenous and colonial architecture, made from the white sillar volcanic stone which came from the volcanos in our part of the western Andes. Like Tucson, Arequipa is a welcoming city of commonalities, where my siblings and I were able to enjoy the big city yet also experience life beyond what was urban, through my Dad’s side of the family, who were rural farmers.
My grandparents farmed in the countryside’s terraced fields, with their harvests of corn, peppers, potatoes, and I spent many summers with them. My grandfather was a storyteller who loved to recount tales of salt ponds and ancestor history through rhymes. During harvest time, as we removed the corn husks, we would sit encircled in candlelight (there was no electricity) and listen to grandfather’s stories. There always was the rhymed storytelling, folktales and traditional music for us to enjoy and learn from, during those summers on my grandparents’ farm.
My grandmother was a traditional healer, a curandera, who knew how to work with the native plants and to make special prayers for the community. I remember how she created various creams and tinctures, which she used when people came to her for help. So our native foods, music, plants and stories were really formative for me and my siblings, in terms of our folklife.
We know that among European peoples there are common customs involving the corn harvest — all with intention of preserving the spirit year round, in order that the corn be fruitful in the next season. Similar customs were observed in my culture, and described in my grandfather’s stories. Crops above all else were his inheritance and livelihood, and thus the stories about them, particularly the corn, was held in great respect. Food and the tales told depended on the season, and are part of the folklife that still interconnects all aspects of my life and that of my family.
What do you think “folklife” means to our Southern Arizona communities?
Our folklife is enriched by a diverse makeup of folks, who bring their inclusive ways of experiencing the commonplace, the everyday practices. Coming to the United States from Peru, when I was 17, I found the bilingual nature of our region’s communities welcoming, with our diverse material culture allowing me the best flavors of many worlds. Here we can experience folklife through blends of mariachi, indigenous and other traditional music. Nogales culture is just 45 minutes away, and nearby are South Tucson neighborhoods and businesses, as well as downtown experiences. Even the heat extremes of summer help sharpen the complex character of our folklife, making us resilient and unique.
Music continues to be a way I express my folklife. I’m part of Entre Peruanos. My instrument is the small Andean stringed charango, and I am joined by band members who bring together their own cultural experiences to creatively combine northern Sonoran and Latin American sounds with traditional Andean and Afro-Peruvian music. It’s another way of conveying our region’s diverse character.
Food security is an aspect of folklife too, isn’t it? How is the Community Food Bank mission part of community folklife?
The ritual of coming together around a table is a focal point of life, a critical component in setting us on a course to community. In the Community Food Resource Center of the Food Bank, we are an arm of the community that addresses the long-term solutions to hunger, supporting community organizations, schools, families, and individuals in Southern Arizona to become more food secure. We also strive to address the root causes of hunger and poverty by providing access to nutritious healthy foods, by working on the conservation of local resources, and by looking at the economic development opportunities that can be realized by building local asset knowledge, and by encouraging, investing in and training in our traditional practices. So by getting involved and investing in growing food — we find that we’re also building a process of remembering our folklife. In the not-too-distant past, families farmed in this same location we now are farming, using their traditional practices. Our job to reconnect folks to this history and to their past, helping families remember their folklife and their place in the community.
So, yes, food justice is an aspect of folklife. This process of growing your own food, learning from each other, sitting together and enjoying a meal is at the core of people connecting — understanding each other. Our seven-acre Las Milpitas de Cottonwood community farm is exactly that. Sharing space beyond healthy food, it is a place where people become neighbors, hang out and tell stories, grow their own foods, work on their gardens, and become connected in folklife. It looks to the future of folklife, as well, serving as a working demonstration of sustainability in desert food production, composting and permaculture for the greater Tucson community.
What we call folklife — It’s not something that can be completely structured. But it’s the one thing that sets us on a course for each day, gives us pleasure, a foundation and roots, and a positive vision for our lives shared.
Reaping the Benefits of Roots
Through a partnership with the University of Arizona English Department and the College of Social and Behavioral Science, Nicholas Hartmann is Tucson’s Folklorist in Residence, teaching UA classes on folklore and folklife and researching folklife traditions in the region. Nic works with the new Southwest Folklife Alliance programs, and is developing opportunities for student engagement in folklife research through the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Nicholas holds a Master Degree in Folk Studies, and is finishing his dissertation for a Doctoral Degree in Folklore from Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. His dissertation is a study of fathers of school-age children who work in offshore industries (fishing, oil and gas, military) and their performance of fatherhood through narrative, family tradition and play. His interests include foodways, personal narrative, dance and occupational folklore.
What can you tell us about the “folklife” of your childhood?
I grew up with a large extended family in Southern Indiana, which is very rich in its German heritage, and where my grandfather was the county historian. He taught me a lot about the county in which I was raised. Growing up along the Ohio River, there were always stories of floods, visitors to town, and even legends such as river pirates- some of whom were supposedly my ancestors. Between him and the rest of my family, there was a lot of folklife, ranging from family recipes to gardening methods, but there were always a lot of anecdotes and stories to be passed around. Though I didn’t realize it at time- probably because I didn’t know you could study folklore in college- it was the best upbringing for being a folklorist.
What else influenced your folklife?
I grew up on the border of Indiana and Kentucky, and the mix of their cultures could be seen in local life; it was nothing to see both German food and Kentucky barbecue at a family picnic. Having also lived in Estonia and Atlantic Canada, the cultures of those places have made their way into my life; the coffee culture of Nordic Europe influences my breakfasts, and Estonian potato salad is now a staple of summer parties on my mom’s side of the family. Our household is a blend of cultures; while my family has German and English roots, my wife (who is originally from Atlantic Canada) has Scottish and Acadian roots, and both of our children have French-Canadian names as a result. A lot of aspects of Acadian culture are part of our lives; the Acadian traditions of quilting, baking, cooking and thrift-store hopping are carried on here in Tucson, and we even use a bit of Franglais (English and French combined) around the house as a result. I try to embody what I study, because it helps me better explain it to others when they ask what folklife is.
When did the study of folklife become meaningful to you?
I think it was always meaningful, but it took me leaving for college, and taking a folklore course, to realize its power. I started college in 2003 at Indiana University, hoping to major in pre-medical biology and minor in humanities. My dorm was right next to the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at IU, and the department caught my attention to the point where I dropped a health class to take a world music course. I slowly learned from my professor, Dr. Mellonee Burnim, that people not only majored in folklore, but made a vocation out of it. I chose to do likewise, double majoring in folklore and anthropology. Eventually, I decided to pursue a master’s in public folklore from Western Kentucky University, as well as a doctorate in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland.
You are a folklorist — what does that mean, professionally?
Professionally, it means that I am a researcher, writer, and educator who is dedicated to the study and promotion of folk culture. Specifically, I trained as a public folklorist, and a public folklorist is dedicated to promoting folklife through public venues such as folklife alliances, historical societies, arts councils, museums, archives, and community organizations, among others. Some folklorists work at universities, while others are independent researchers. You also find that people wear multiple hats; some folklorists are also artists or writers, while some are community organizers or hospital liaisons. To provide my own example: in the last few years, I have taught university and secondary school students, worked as a student union organizer, digitized archival materials, and worked in community development and student engagement. In all of those areas, I’ve been a folklorist first.
What are you discovering about Tucson folklife? What is particularly meaningful?
I’m definitely looking forward to being part of Tucson Meet Yourself, but in my journeys around town, I have grown to adore the town’s architecture and food, as well as the fact that there are so many community groups here, thriving and doing amazing things. I have two major projects happening so far. First, as part of the End-of-Life Ethnographic Field School, I am going to be doing research on death and dying in Tucson’s Eastern Orthodox Christian community. Second, I have an interest in the Nordic and Baltic European communities here in Arizona, and have begun connecting with the Estonian community in Scottsdale in hopes of beginning fieldwork with their community. It’s one of SWFA’s first forays outside of Pima County, and one I am looking forward to working on.
When we were living in Kentucky, where religious identity is a major part of life, one of the first questions that people asked was where you went to church. In Tucson, hometowns seem to be a big part of identity; we have noticed that people will often ask where you came from. Because I mostly commute to campus by bike or by bus, I have a lot of time to look at the different neighborhoods of the city, and have grown interested in a lot of the architecture around the area. The folks at SWFA are also ensuring that I get a good foodways education, whether through local restaurants or markets; the simple act of grocery shopping has taught me a lot about the culture of the area.
Everyday aspects of life are full of richness, and show people the value of who they are, how they identify, and where they live. Folklife ensures that we do not take the small things in life for granted.
• Las Milpitas de Cottonwood community farm is located at 2405 S Cottonwood Ln, on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River, just south of Silverlake Road. Learn more here: http://communityfoodbank.com/las-milpitas
• Check out the Smithsonian website for more information about the field of folklife — http://www.folklife.si.edu/. The American Folklife Center page at the Library of Congress has additional information: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/.