NEA Grants are a Game-Changer for Tucson Meet Yourself

May 24, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Come mid-October every year since nearly the beginning of time and El Presidio Plaza has transformed into the cultural Mecca known as Tucson Meet Yourself and much more often called Tucson “Eat” Yourself.

Roberto Bedoya, Richard Elias, Raul Grijalva and Maribel Alvarez at the NEA grant announcement.

Thirty-nine years in now and the organizers still use the word “fledgling” to describe the Tucson Meet Yourself folklore organization.

There is truth to that. Each year, there is no guarantee TMY will be back.

Staging TMY is a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants expedition each year, in no small part because much of the money needed – this year up to $235,000 – doesn’t come in until pretty late in the game. Or not at all, as when the city pulled its funding a couple years ago.

Still, Tucson Meet Yourself has flowered in the 2010s in the worst of economic times, in no small part due new financial support from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe ($30,000 in 2010, $50,000 in 2011), Pima County, individual donors and local companies.

TMY, as an event, has matured tremendously in size since 2010, when it was limited to roughly 20 acres on El Presidio Plaza, the Pima County Courthouse courtyard and tentatively spilling onto Jácome Plaza outside the Main Library. In the past two years, TMY has entirely claimed Jácome Plaza, crossed the Pennington and Congress pedestrian bridges into La Placita Village, and occupied plazas outside the Tucson Music Hall and Tucson Convention Center.

Somebody in Washington, D.C., must have been watching.

The National Endowment for the Arts on May 22 announced that Tucson Meet Yourself would get two Art Works grants totaling $65,000. A $30,000 grant will support the staging of the October event. The second $35,000 grant will go to TMY’s newest endeavor to create year-round cultural programs in Tucson and across the state.

Some context for what $30,000 in NEA funding means to Tucson Meet Yourself: Four years ago its entire budget was $60,000. The NEA money takes the current budget to $250,000, said Maribel Alvarez, TMY’s program director.

More important, it’s cash in advance for this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself, $30,000 now rather than at the end of September.

“This is a game-changer for Tucson Meet Yourself. It allows us to hire staff early,” said Alvarez, a folklorist at the University of Arizona Southwest Center. “We are employing about 23 people. We need to be able to count on a commitment of $30,000.”

The NEA grants could just take Tucson Meet Yourself beyond its “fledgling” status.

“It moves us from being informal to be structured without losing the improvised spirit,” Alvarez said. “It just forces us to operate with more efficiency, more professionally.”

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva appeared at the press conference at the Tucson Pima Arts Council and suggested this federal recognition of Tucson Meet Yourself puts this grassroots cultural event on the national radar.

“Once you become part of the NEA family in terms of giving, you become part of the family,” Grijalva said. “This brings federal giving into a very important and distinct role. We’re going to invite a lot of national people this year.”

Tucson Meet Yourself has grown to 65 food booths representing about 50 cultures, plus 30 folk art demonstrations and non-stop performances on nine different stages.

“This is really the premiere festival in Arizona at this point,” Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias said. “Secretly, this is ethnic studies at its finest.”

James “Big Jim’ Griffith, once a UA folklore professor, founded Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974. He was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow in 2011.

“This is just great!” Griffith said in a release. “Anytime we get to shine the light on the artfulness, resiliency, and dignity of the ‘folk,’ – the working people who find beauty in ordinary things – we expand our minds and hearts.”

The second NEA grant designates the Tucson Meet Yourself organization as the statewide folk arts agency to conduct an inventory of all ethnic, tribal, occupational, and folk arts projects currently operating in the state.

“It really is wonderful that Tucson Meet Yourself has grown big enough so they can do it for the whole damn state,” said Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council.

That $35,000 in NEA funds bolsters TMY’s recent commitment to stage year-round culture events, which started in April with the local appearance of ¡Ask a Mexican! columnist Gustavo Arrellano.

Primarily, this will involve establishing a Folklife Field School and Southwest Folklore Digital Archive for training and cultural events and education. The first Folklore Field School in mid-May drew a capacity crowd of 28 students with 28 more wanting in.

“Pretty soon, this festival in October will become a ‘we do that, too,’” Alvarez said.

Tucson Meet Yourself plans to replicate these cultural programs across the state, perhaps even launching Tucson Meet Yourself-style food-and-folk festivals in other Arizona communities.

“Beginning very slowly, we will go across the state,” Alvarez said. “It would be pretty fantastic if we sit here five years from now and we have multiple folklife festivals happening.”