Tucson Meet Yourself turns 50

Annual ‘eat yourself’ festival looks back on its past at 50th event

Brianna McCord, El Inde Arizona

A musician from the Mariachi Cristo Rey during the first Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974
Credit: Gary Tanen

Tucson Meet Yourself will host its 50th festival this weekend highlighting 55 cultures, its first heritage beer garden and an exhibit that looks back on Tucson’s cultural evolution since the first festival in 1974. 

The Southwest Folklife Alliance’s annual event is designed to celebrate Tucson’s diverse ethnic and cultural communities, much of it expressed through food. Hence the festival’s nickname “Tucson Eat Yourself.” 

This year, 60 food vendors will represent cultures from Venezuela, Poland, Greece, Thailand, Peru, Aghanistan, Vietnam, France and Mexico. The festival attracts 150,000 people over the three days, Friday, Oct. 13-Sunday, Oct. 15, at downtown’s Jácome Plaza, 101 N. Stone Ave.

Tucson Meet Yourself was started by James “Big Jim” Griffith, a former head of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center, and his wife Loma after borrowing the idea from similar events around the country. 

“It’s the festival of festivals,” said Maribel Alvarez, event co-director. “It’s an event that puts on stage, in a sort of dramatic fashion, the diversity of our community and the ethics of inclusion that it aspires to have. And it does all of that wrapped in fun, food, music, dance, art; things that connect with the soul and not just the mind.”

To celebrate 50 years, Tucson Meet Yourself will feature “The Way We Were in 1974,” an exhibit looking back to life at the festival and in Tucson in 1974, including the Rubik’s Cube and Hamburger Helper. The exhibit also will reflect on the urban changes in Tucson and how the festival addressed them.

“You can have an idea about cultural diversity in your head that is a very properly formed idea, but when you experience that, it begins to change the DNA of how social relations are perceived,” Alvarez said. “I think that for 50 years that’s what Tucson Meet Yourself has done, a little bit of that work of chemistry, of our chemistry.”

A worker from Osuna Boots works on leader boots from the event in 2010  
Credit: Steven Meckler

The event also features the traditional music of many cultures, including Gertie N the T.O. Boyz performing Tohono O’odham Waila music and Tucson folklorist Ted Warmbrand performing Jewish and American folk music. 

Warmbrand has attended the event almost every year since 1974 and said it has always been “eye-opening.”

“I think it was always magical to see so many cultures that you don’t see,” he said. “It’s this smorgasbord of music. And you can’t eat everything; you would explode.”

Warmbrand said the festival, especially the music scene, continues to provide a learning experience for those who attend.

“I love looking at the crafts and I see people I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I get to hear people making the music that they love. I learn a lot through the music. It’s a good way for me to learn.”

Grupo Tradiciones plays at the UA stage of Tucson Meet Yourself in 2022  
Credit: Steven Meckler

The festival has partnered Borderlands Brewing Company for its first-ever heritage beer garden. Borderlands’ will present the history of brewing and brewing processes and unveil a commemorative 50th anniversary festival beer created by Borderlands’ head brewer Ayla Kapahi.

Kapahi, who is half Mexican and half Indian, was first introduced to Tucson Meet Yourself 10 years ago after moving to Tucson from Northern California, but she said she feels like Tucson is home. Kapahi said she is excited to be part of the first beer garden at the festival.

“Definitely on my Latina side, that’s definitely something I identify with more there,” she said. “We work a lot with women brewers in Mexico, so we’ve always had a lot of Mexican influence in the way that we brew our beers and the styles that we brew. I think that connection for us has felt so natural being part of the festival.”

The anniversary brew is a tangerine wheat beer made from White Sonoran wheat from BKW Farms in Marana. Borderlands also will have some of its other staple heritage beers available. 

“We think that those light flavors with a little hint of that tangerine will pair really well with all of the cuisines that are available,” Kapahi said. “Whether it’s spicy food or not, we think it should be palatable for everyone.”

If you go:
What: Tucson Meet Yourself
Where: Jácome Plaza, on Stone Avenue between Pennington and Alameda streets downtown
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13-14, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15
Admission: Free and dogs are welcomed, but not recommended
Don’t bring: Alcohol, it’s prohibited, but you can bring a water bottle. Refill stations are located throughout the festival.
Note: Tucson Meet Yourself is an accessible event and disability-related accommodations are available. Questions or requests can be made at access@tucsonmeetyourself.org
Parking:  An interactive parking map can be found here. Public transportation is also available and bicycles are also welcome. 

El Inde Arizona is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

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