Tucson Meet Yourself organizer wins the 2021 Shelley Award for promoting the arts and culture in Arizona Art & Living

F.or thousands of years people in the Southwest have created art to express their experiences and ideas. These practices have been developed and passed down through generations and continue to this day. These include weaving, pottery, Native American songs, and storytelling. But traditional artists are often overlooked in the modern art world.

“The traditional arts tend to fly under the radar, but they are the bedrock of entire communities,” said Maribel Alvarez, a local anthropologist, folklorist and program director for the Tucson Meet Yourself Festival.

Alvarez will receive the Shelley Award 2021 for Lifetime Achievement this year, which highlights the voices and creations of traditional artists. She is virtually awarded the prize at the 40th Annual Governor’s Arts Awards, an event hosted by Arizona Citizens for the Arts in conjunction with the Office of Governor Doug Ducey.

Since 2006, the Shelley Award has been given to an Arizonan who promotes art and culture through innovation and advocacy. In her many roles, Alvarez has challenged the art scene to recognize the work of folk and cultural artists and created platforms for these artists to express their stories.

She currently serves as Jim Griffith Chair of Public Folklore at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, Assistant Dean for Community Engagement at UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Program Director of Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual folklife festival that traditionally celebrates Artists.

“Maribel’s commitment and passion ensures that important indigenous arts and cultural traditions are celebrated and embraced as everyday expressions of culture, heritage and diversity in the Southwest,” said Joseph Benesh, AzCA Executive Director, in a press release.

Alvarez was first “infested with culture and the arts” when she moved to San Jose after receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from California State University in Long Beach. She joined a poetry group and participated in events created to portray color artists.

During this time, Alvarez began to notice the inequalities that were ingrained in the art scene. Funds available for the arts have usually only been made available to established institutions such as symphonies and ballet companies, while other art forms have been overlooked.

Alvarez quickly became an advocate for underrepresented artists. In 1989 she helped found Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, a Latin American art space in San Jose that aims to use art as a catalyst for social change.

Alvarez moved to Tucson in 1993 to do a PhD. in anthropology and fell in love with the desert and the diversity of cultures that exist here.

“Once you get to Tucson, the world of art and culture opens up in a big way – as big as the landscape,” said Alvarez.

In Tucson, she was able to combine her intellectual curiosity with a passion for art and activism. She tried to understand how we sum up our human experiences in her graduation program while doing hands-on work with artisans in the community.

“This became a laboratory for me to really get to know Arizona and the people and to really feel connected to the region through the arts,” said Alvarez.

In 2004 she accepted a position at the Southwest Center to become a folklorist at the university and began delving deeper into the world of community art. She made it her business to use fundraising and curation to create space for traditional artists – from Navajo weavers to Tohono O’odham potters to Mexican-American mariachi players.

During the pandemic, Alverez continued its mission of expansion and reinforcement through creative new methods.

In October 2020, she worked with the Southwest Folklife Alliance to lead the creation of a “redesigned” Tucson Meet Yourself event. The event celebrated traditional artists through virtual performances, a drive-in concert, a healing cruise, a folk art marketplace, and a grocery pickup event that included the long-standing nickname Tucson Meet Yourself, “Tucson Eat Yourself.”

While the 2020 event wasn’t as big as the previous Tucson Meet Yourself festivals, which attracted more than 150,000 visitors annually, it nonetheless provided a safe way for the community to celebrate a variety of cultures in a time of isolation.

Alvarez currently resides in Tucson with her wife and two daughters. She dreams of the day when festivals can safely bloom again, but also hopes to incorporate the lessons she has learned from the pandemic into her work in the future. Your goal for Tucson Meet Yourself 2021 is to focus on quality over quantity.

“I’ve never written a poem in the past 25 years because my work, my poetry, has become the creation of ways for people to connect and do their own thing,” said Alvarez. “I like being the architect of the building and then making other people shine.”

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