When the Place Is Already Made: Lessons from a Folklife Project

This is the fourth story about work coming from the PLACE (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Read Executive Director Roberto Bedoya’s introduction here, a profile of Stories That Soar! here, and a profile of Finding Voice here.

Field Note, June 13, 2012: This morning the students chuckle, get distracted, make faces at one another, taunt, complain, and drag their feet. Yet, somehow…to my surprise, work is getting done. I pass out index cards and ask that they answer a few questions.The idea is to generate lists of words and phrases that can be integrated into cartographic drawings later. The first question asks: “Who is a ‘stranger’ in your neighborhood?” One student writes: “tourists.” Another scribbles: “the police.” A feisty girl wearing a turned-back baseball cap hands me her card with a gesture of defiance and playfulness: she has written my name as the answer. However, she has spelled my name wrong and the letters actually sound out something like “Madball” instead of “Maribel.” The class erupts in laughter. I play along.

I jotted down these reflections while teaching a three-week workshop on behalf of Tucson Meet Yourself (TMY), a folklife organization I direct that hosts an annual three-day festival showcasing folk traditions in Tucson. The workshop gathered middle and high school students in the summer of 2012 at Old Pascua, a Native American Yaqui pueblo ensconced within the Tucson city limits. It was hosted by the San Ignacio Yaqui Youth Council, an organization that shares a long, fruitful relationship with TMY. I led the workshop along with Tucson photographer Steven Meckler.

The project at Old Pascua emerged in response to TPAC’s call for PLACE Initiative proposals to explore and develop a “sense of place” among neighborhood groups. I knew that the tools of folklore, cultural asset research in particular, could provide ways for youth and human service organizations to work together to learn about and build community. Cultural asset research uses interviews, conversation circles, surveys, or visits with community members to help uncover “assets” in the form of manual skills, artistic talents, storytelling, and other activities that help communities come together and improve the quality of life.

The youth leader at San Ignacio welcomed the idea of a project at Old Pascua, but warned us that recruiting participants might be difficult during summer vacation because of the heat and because recent unfortunate neighborhood events (a school closing, a death) had dampened people’s spirits. But we moved forward with the program with the joint goals of (1) helping youth acquire new skills for their enjoyment and possibly empowerment and (2) testing the potential of a partnership between San Ignacio and TMY for future programs.

As our program began, the leader’s concerns proved accurate. Not many youth showed up for the classes and their mix of ages challenged us to radically modify the curriculum we had planned. Attendance was sporadic and getting students to focus was nearly impossible. While Steven created photography assignments, I had students draw maps of Old Pascua on bright pink sheets of paper.

Over the course of the workshop, we did our best to handle the dwindling participation or the sudden new arrivals or the frequent distractions. Somehow we managed to produce enough material in the form of student photography, maps, and index cards to fulfill our obligation to our project grant. When all was said and done, Steven and I felt we had touched upon something special, something raw, something meaningful, even if we didn’t know how to make sense of it. The kids participated but were reluctant; they listened but were restless; they welcomed us but also sent signals that we were not that important; they expressed enthusiasm for the project but they withdrew when least expected. Though frustrating in the field, I believe these paradoxes have much to teach us about working in community.

The first humbling reality we had to face at Old Pascua, even with the approval and guidance of San Ignacio Yaqui Council, was that we were one of many outside visitors and helpers who, for better or for worse, had entered the community to lead arts projects. Before our arrival, a resident arts development project had served youth in the community for more than two decades, and a shorter-term writing and photography program had been offered by the youth arts organization VOICES, Inc. In addition, at least two recent city planning processes had engaged residents in asset-identification exercises, none of which, from what I was told, had fulfilled the community’s expectations.

From the start, I knew the terrain was already saturated with gestures of goodwill. Why was Old Pascua so attractive for this kind of enterprise? I feared the answer pointed to a tacit, subconscious deficit model about who has “art” to give and who lacks it. What remnant colonial impulse compelled us, the non-Native artists and anthropologists, to perpetually see Old Pascua as an “other” who needed “assistance”

But I also acknowledged the bonds of affection and trust the San Ignacio Yaqui Council and the TMY festival had built together over many years. As such, we were not truly “strangers” to the community. In addition, we had sat down several times with the youth program leader at the San Ignacio Council office and spelled out precisely how problematic our project, or any arts program from the outside, could be if not done with the proper planning and joint buy-in. This kind of relationship building and ethic of respect is something the founders and organizers of Tucson Meet Yourself have upheld in our work with Yaquis for more than forty years.

And yet, this awareness and connection alone couldn’t prevent the outsider status that came inherently with being the arts agency that receives the art grant from an arts funder under the mandate to utilize the arts as a vehicle towards some greater goal of civic engagement, which apparently had not spontaneously taken shape in the neighborhood by other means.

In our planning meetings with San Ignacio leaders, we heard about the need for sound, sustainable, effective youth arts engagement at Old Pascua. Our project, however, was much more modest than that. We simply hoped to get the youth and ourselves excited about future possibilities. Sadly, the San Ignacio leader told us at the first meeting, when the long-term resident arts project ended, it left very little institutionalized programming behind. After twenty years, the program still depended solely on the individual who had founded it. No funding, staff, or curriculum ever achieved a level of stability to survive her.

I didn’t have to search very deep inside myself to grasp the deeper lesson here. Our TMY project, like so many before it— and undoubtedly like others that will follow—had only a short shelf life. The expectations for social change we carry with us when we work in communities under the rubric of “art and social impact” grants have to be carefully calibrated against the practices that have preceded us and didn’t last. Most importantly, the objectives we write in our grant applications have to be open and flexible enough to be able to withstand the scrutiny of those whom we aim to serve. And, as the 12-year-old girl who called me “Madball” so clearly demonstrated, Native communities, even kids, will vet whoever comes into their lives to “impact” them.

Volumes are filled with examples of when educators, specialists, folklorists, anthropologists, and other “civic engagers” entered into less than coeval and collaborative relationships with Native (and other “underserved”) communities.Yet we often fail to acknowledge that in the process of wishing to “protect” communities from these kinds of practices, many projects and experts perpetuate what they allegedly wish to prevent. That is, we forget that Native communities and others in barrios, prisons, and after-school programs can speak for themselves and often do. If the project at Old Pascua taught me anything, it was that?in their own foot-dragging, indirect, and shy-smile ways, even?the youngest kids in a Native community will take measure of the “helpers” from outside and negotiate in their own terms what and how much they wish to do, share, create, and celebrate.

Amidst the ongoing lessons I continue to cull from the project, one particular day stands out. It was a hot June afternoon several days into the workshop. Attendance that day was low, but a teenager I’ll call Yolanda and two 11-year-old girls showed up and agreed to walk with me through the neighborhood. Passing landmarks, they began to share memories and stories. Imprinted on the brick and mortar of the homes, in the debris left on empty lots, in the graffiti scribbled on burned and condemned houses, and on the decorations carefully laid out in front yards, their tales zigzagged between the dramatic and the trivial. They pointed out places neighbors had been married, been shot at, had died, had moved away from, or left for college. As they told it, life in Old Pascua was not very private—everybody knew everything about everyone, either through direct contact or hearsay.

Yolanda told me she kept a journal filled with the stories she heard growing up on Calle Progresso, and I envisioned a future published book — The People of Calle Progresso, it could be called, a Yaqui version of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.

When I sit in my office now and look at the maps the youth drew in that summer class, I recognize anew what generosity their fidgety participation entailed, after all. One map shows the location of “grandma’s bedroom” in the family home. Another notes the location of a house that caught fire. Another illustrates a nine-year-old’s memory of the playground in the school recently slated for closure. At the time, flustered by the noise and banter, I didn’t recognize these bits and pieces as gifts of knowledge. Now I see clearly the irony I missed during the time of instruction: I got a grant to teach about placemaking, but those Yaqui kids knew a lot more about land, home, community, memory, and cultural vitality than I gave them credit for. In fact, a sense of place was the one solid thing you could count among their possessions.

Amidst their understanding of place, they also shared with me something entirely different from the agenda I came with: a yearning for “their place” to connect them with something larger than what they know so well. Yolanda, the writer, told me she wanted to go to the university someday. She was curious about the Tucson Meet Yourself folklife festival and how one gets involved in “things like that.” My sense was that she wanted a taste of the world beyond the one she called “home.”

I suppose that is the lasting lesson of this PLACE project: when art projects end at Old Pascua, what survives is what was already there. Our responsibility is not to teach kids what they already know, where they know it, but to build the bridges—in the worlds of civic engagement that we control—that make that local knowledge relevant for them and for us all.

Dr. Maribel Alvarez, Ph.D. is an anthropologist, folklorist, curator, and community arts expert who has documented the practice of more than a dozen of the country’s leading emerging and alternative artistic organizations.