Taste Our City's Culture at Tucson Meet Yourself
The Southwest's greatest food court (plus music, dance and more) takes over downtown Tucson one weekend a year.
When Tucson Meet Yourself started in 1974, words like “diversity” and “multicultural” were barely entering the vocabulary of American social discourse. Yet, in southern Arizona a group of forward-thinking people (led by a young University of Arizona anthropologist named Jim Griffith) were quietly celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expressions found in Southern Arizona. Today, after four decades, this celebration of community inclusivity is a thriving three-day event.
Tucson Meet Yourself takes place outdoors in downtown Tucson’s historic Presidio District. The festival encompasses Tucson’s surprising array of food, art and cultural appreciation. Admission-free and alcohol-free, it is considered by locals to be one of Tucson’s best-loved and most-anticipated “traditions.”
By definition, Tucson Meet Yourself is a folklife festival that presents and interprets the living traditional arts of Southern Arizona's and Northern Mexico's diverse ethnic and folk communities. It’s a colorful coming-together of things familiar—handmade Sonoran-flour tortillas, shiny lowrider cars, folklorico dancers—and not-so-familiar—creamy Turkish ice cream, Thai food cooked by saffron-robed monks, and authentic Philly cheese steaks—in this Southwestern border-town melting pot.
7 Tips for Making the Most of Tucson Meet Yourself
Check the website (TucsonMeetYourself.org). The 3-day program can be downloaded in advance. A section on the site called “How to Festival” is full of helpful pointers and updates.
Use public transportation; the Sun Link Tucson Streetcar exit's at Congress Street and Stone Avenue, both are short distances from the festival.
Don’t stay only in one area. Besides trying the food, roam and explore as many areas of the festival as you can. There are 3 stages of music and dance, one stage of food stories and demonstrations, a large interpretative exhibit, several Folk Arts Pavilions, a Car Show, and dozens of nonprofits and local businesses sharing information in the Community Matters area.
Friday and Saturday nights are crowded: The atmosphere is festive and social dancing on the street is common. Friday is the least-busy day.
Make a donation at one of the many entry ways. Donations boxes or pass-the-bucket appeals at the stages. The festival is free, but production expenses are high.
Pace yourself. Try many different types of food. Ask the cooks for information about the dish you are buying. The majority of the food booths are run by home-cooks and non-profit clubs; they welcome your interest. Many stage the cook preparation as an educational opportunity (for example, the Spanish Club cooks a large “paella” on site). All dishes are capped at $8 max, many are small and inexpensive.
Bring cash. There are ATMs, but why not come prepared?
The festival identifies Tucson as a place of dynamic and surprising cultural diversity; while many great festivals take place in Tucson, Tucson Meet Yourself aims to tell the story of Tucson: who we are. During its first 10 years, the festival’s name featured a comma, thus emphasizing the grammatical pause as an affirmation and an invitation: Tucson, Meet Yourself.
Minus the comma, today’s event takes place every year on the second weekend in October, attracting more than 120,000 people to downtown Tucson. Modeled after the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which attracts over 1 million visitors to the nation’s capital each summer, a folklife festival like Tucson Meet Yourself is far more than simply entertainment.
The event is bolstered by year-round research and relationship-building with dozens of ethnic and folk artists and communities. Each year, the festival presents over 280 live performers, 100 folk artists and close to 120 different ethnic groups/clubs/churches expressing their heritage through foodways, craft sales or special displays. The Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe have been prominent participants since it began. On the last day of the event, Sunday at 4 p.m., a traditional Yaqui Pascola and Deer Dance blessing is offered—one of the rare times when the dance is presented outside a tribal ceremonial context.
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