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.

Art Illuminates Faith

An artist’s rare gift is to see beauty and make it visible — instilling the essence of his or her subject into a work of art. How apparent this is in the emblematic relationship of sacred art to faith, as it reveals wisdom and teachings, symbolism and inspiration.

Alan at work at the Cathedral

Artist John Alan Warford at work in the Cathedral’s vestibule

Such is the art of John Alan Warford, who has partnered with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson in the overall renovation of St. Augustine Cathedral since 2008. His work most recently includes the vestibule murals in the renovated interior of St. Augustine Cathedral, where both faithful and culture seekers visit to learn and be amazed by Tucson Roman Catholic stories and beauty.

Entitled “In Communion with the Angels and Saints,” the mural was dedicated on January 13, 2013. The 5,000 square feet of 28 life-size figures — depicting in “illusional architecture” the Tucson legacy as well as traditional Roman saints including St. Mother Teresa, St. Josephine Bakhita and St. Francis of Assisi — was one year in the making.

Immediately recognizable, John Alan’s technique of proper proportion, perspective, and 3-D muraling that span the walls and vestibule of the Cathedral are sensitively rich in detail, pointing witness to various aspects of faith and Tucson history. The murals transport onlookers to a realm inspired by the Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer for All Saints Day and Msgr. Edward Ryle, a priest in the diocese for nearly 50 years who was a lobbyist for the Arizona Conference of Catholic Bishops and whose passion for the poor and mentally ill reminded state leaders of their obligations to “the littlest and weakest among us.”

John Alan’s other artwork around the Cathedral intends to teach history and faith through story and symbolism: Some of the curved ceiling tiles (completed in the 2011 renovation) reference the Jesuit missionary and explorer Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, while others reflect the history of the Tucson Diocese.

Narthex dedication, 2013

Narthex dedication, 2013

As a choral musician, John Alan was aware that the sounds, sights, scents of a Church’s interior are all part of worship and faith teaching.

“I often wonder how physical surroundings affect one’s experience,” he notes. “I find that in a beautiful and serene place I am inspired — to create, to be at peace, to celebrate and to listen to the still small voice inside. Beautiful spaces can be an expression of what’s best within us.”

In discussing the goals of his church projects, John Alan comments: “The goal is to use beauty as inspiration, as a call to learn from the stories and symbolism in the art and ornament, and to assist us in remembering what our communion teaches us about God and one another.”

In the diocesan publication (New Vision online, 2011), Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas reflected on what parishioners and outside visitors see when entering the Cathedral — a story of both Tucson and faith. The Bishop noted how the murals “set the scene for what you will experience when you enter the main space of the Cathedral. It can communicate why you are coming here. And, it can communicate what you take out into the world with you as you leave.”


Culinary Connections, Comfort and Culture

Priscilla Mendenhall, Tucson transplant, foodie and social entrepreneur.

Priscilla Mendenhall, Tucson transplant, foodie and social entrepreneur.

Food is a universal facilitator in festivals — Certainly, the multi-ethnic feasting in Tucson “Eat” Yourself” is proof of how much pleasure comes when differences are transcended through food. Priscilla Mendenhall, founder of Dishes & Stories (a refugee and immigrant women’s culinary enterprise incubated by Tucson Meet Yourself), coordinates TMY’s Culture Kitchen and once again promises us a bounty of locally-sourced good eats and demonstrations of cultural cooking practices. TMY attendees can expect an array of food demonstrations by talented home cooks, food entrepreneurs and winners of the first TMY Global Foodways award. Priscilla notes that the Culture Kitchen plans to integrate with Polish, Carnival and O’odham programming in interesting ways, and that, for the first time, TMY will incorporate a focus on food justice and sovereignty.

BorderLore asked Priscilla to comment on the synergy between food and authenticity. As we prepare for TMY’s 2014 Culture Kitchen and the tasting of everything from Jamaican oxtail stew and Congolese sweet potato leaves, to Kosovar fruit tart and Sonoran mesquite pancakes, we’re happy to share her notes:

Cooking with Authenticity
by Priscilla Mendenhall

Five cooks, a videographer and light technician, are packed into a small home kitchen in central Tucson. We are preparing food and being filmed for a crowdfunding video for Dishes & Stories, a refugee led women’s culinary social enterprise. Faeza, from Iraq, is coring squash, onions and eggplant with a traditional spiral-shaped implement. “Come,” says Faeza, “I brought this from Iraq because you cannot get them here. In Iraq, our dolmas are not just with grape leaves but also with other vegetables. You take out the middle and cook it with rice and tomatoes. They are very beautiful and delicious. Make sure you show people.”

Next to her, Manerva rolls Egyptian dolma, grape leaves only, seasoned with cumin, not mint, and no tomato. Marie, Congolese but in the United States for more than a decade, tries to persuade Yewbdar, recently arrived from Ethiopia, to chop onions in the food processor. Yewbdar laughs but keeps cutting with a chef’s knife. She is fast — we call her the human cutting machine — but the machine is always faster. Moreover, by time she finishes, the onion fumes have made us all cry.

For the women of Dishes & Stories, cooking with authenticity is not just “doing” – it is who they are. Preparing recipes taught to them by their mothers, grandmothers and aunts is a reminder of a painful past. It is also a powerful connection to the present and as we build the Dishes & Stories business, the key to our future. They share stories of learning from the elders. They talk about trying to find money to send home so those left behind can eat. They carefully platter for catering clients who intentionally seek us out to celebrate with authentic, home cooked foods, clients like Literacy Connects honoring their volunteers, Safford School announcing their International Baccalaureate Program, the Southwest Folklife Alliance launching their new organization. They plan trips to Hajibaba, the Middle-eastern and African wholesaler in Tempe whose products are far less expensive than those in Tucson. They spend weeks studying for the Pima County Food Handler test, trying to grasp “salmonella”, the “danger zone” and “time and temperature control” when their countries lacked refrigeration and many foods were served room temperature, “without making anyone sick.”

Four Founding Cooks

Four founding cooks of Priscilla Mendenhall’s Dishes &
Stories enterprise:Faeza, Marie, Yewbdar, Manerva

Faeza, Manerva, Marie and Yewbdar succeed. They manage the past, which intrudes daily on their TV screens, by keeping busy to the point of exhaustion. They co-develop a culturally inclusive basic culinary curriculum, explain their dishes to guests at a catering, conduct food demonstrations at TMY, plan the cooking classes recently funded by a grant, orchestrate a pop-up dinner at Prep and Pastry and try to grasp the details of a four-page excel spreadsheet that articulates our vision for Dishes & Stories future. Their food handler certificates are framed, hanging at home in place of the school and professional diplomas they had no room to bring.

Authenticity, for these women, is not the canned dolma at TJs or the “white” injera made from wheat and corn because teff is too pricey. But, it may be the “ful” made from pinto beans rather than favas as pintos are much cheaper, easier to find and “taste just the same” or “sukumawiki” made from Costco spinach rather than amaranth because “I can’t afford to water the amaranth in my garden”. Authenticity for Dishes & Stories’ cooks lies in a shifting and sustaining balance: retaining control over a recipe while negotiating presentation; preparing dishes by hand but utilizing machines to speed up the process; showcasing each person’s traditional foods while learning to explain those of their colleagues. In this creative tension, we argue, we laugh, we trash kitchens, we schlepp food, we get worn out and, we start again. Mostly, we gather in our own community, and in the communities we reach with the authentic foods that we create.


  • The new journal of Graduate Association for Food Studies includes articles on food justice and activism, gender, patriarchy, food propaganda and an analysis of best practices for farmers market incentive programs: http://www.graduatefoodassociation.org/