This semester, undergraduates in a University of Arizona anthropology class have been documenting the arts and culture in South Tucson as part of a community development plan.
The Primavera Foundation hired the architecture and planning firm of Poster Frost Mirto, led by UA Emeritus Professor Corky Poster, to conduct a comprehensive strategic community development plan for the city of South Tucson. Joining forces with Primavera Foundation are the government of South Tucson and the House of Neighborly Service, which is owned and operated by the YWCA.
The goal of the plan is to identify the assets and strengths that make the city of South Tucson a vibrant and culturally rich community. The organizers want to use the plan to increase investors and grant funding and make South Tucson a more attractive destination for visitors and others seeking goods and services. The UA class project focused on art and culture; other efforts will look at housing, transportation, green spaces and infrastructure.
Kerri Lopez, the community life director for House of Neighborly Service – a 70-year-old community center in South Tucson – approached Maribel Alvarez, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology and the Southwest Center, about having students in Alvarez’s Anthropology 200 class conduct a “Cultural Asset Map” of South Tucson.
“It is very obvious, in visiting South Tucson, that the city is rich with food entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, but we wanted to get in contact with these people so we could take the right steps forward into developing an arts and culture hub,” said Lopez. “We need to have community input and feedback. South Tucson is a grass roots community. The people here are committed to their city and to their work within the city.”
“We think the arts and culture of South Tucson is one of its greatest strengths and one of the things that we will build upon as we complete an economic development plan,” said Mick Jensen, a planner with the city of South Tucson. “It is nice to have the students working this angle. I’m looking forward to seeing what the class comes up with.”
As part of the project, teams of students inventoried — through short stories and interviews — the arts and culture in the community. Andi Berlin, a food writer with the Arizona Daily Star, met with students covering food culture to give them tips on how to write about food.
Alvarez said this hands-on research is a wonderful example of the UA’s 100% engagement initiative.
“In the process of completing these inventories, students are learning skills of interviewing, documentation, planning and cross-cultural understanding,” said Alvarez, who is also the executive director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance and a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.
“The students also learned that this kind of work is hard – not every person in South Tucson knew about the planning project in advance or even trusted the process – students learned how difficult it could be to generate consensus on what are "assets" and what are "deficits," said Alvarez.
Student Ellery Lockwood was tasked with assessing the “Built Environment” of South Tucson, which includes houses, roads, signs, street art, restaurants and the overall architecture.
“I think the most valuable thing I learned from this project is that differences in architecture do not constitute ‘inferiority,’” said Lockwood. “For example, there is a large presence of homemade signs. The uneven lettering, flimsy paper, clearly not manufactured – considered imperfections for some – embodies the beauty that encompasses so many of South Tucson's establishments. It adds character.”
“I learned that exposure to people is the best way to break down any biases or stereotypes you may have, especially the subconscious ones,” said student Teresa Velasco, who was assigned to the “Artists” group. “Once we began the interview with the tattoo artist Mariano, his life story and his relationship with his art shocked any residual presuppositions out of my system.”
Alonzo Morado, the community engagement coordinator for Primavera, said he believed the project was a great experience for the students. “For many communities, they are afforded art in galleries, museums, and art studios. In South Tucson art is all around; it is about the people, for the people, and by the people.”
The students were excited to be part of a project that would benefit the community.
“This project will help to spread knowledge of South Tucson to people outside and bring in new customers and new business,” said Roman Romero, who was a student in the “Occupational Culture” group. “I want to be a part of the team that helps make that kind of a difference.”
The students’ ethnographic vignettes on their field experience will be shared in a public blog.