When Jim Griffith started hunting for local performers for the first Tucson Meet Yourself 40 years ago, he wasn’t looking for polish or glitz.

A letter he sent recruiting Tucson’s clubs asked not for professional performers, “but for people who have carried on some of the old traditions and would like to share them with others.”

That first festival in El Presidio Park brought the folklife traditions of cultural communities into public view. “All the World lives in Tucson,” declared an early advertisement.

“The times were on our side,” said Griffith, who started the festival with his wife, Loma. “This sort of thing was in the air, and we just happened to start in the right community at the right time.”

The vision for Tucson Meet Yourself flourished in the cultural reflections of a nation gearing up to celebrate the Bicentennial. After visiting the Border Folk Festival in El Paso, Texas, Griffith, now 78, zeroed in on the diversity in Tucson and a chance to showcase it.

He spoke to Mary Sowls, who was with Tucson’s new Cultural Exchange Council. That group produced the festival until Tucson Meet Yourself became a nonprofit organization in 2010.

Griffith traversed neighborhoods. Loma made phone calls. They hunted for authenticity.

In one of the earlier festivals, a Spanish family approached Griffith about snagging some stage time for their preteen daughter to share the dances she had learned in flamenco lessons. That year, she twirled around the stage for 10 minutes.

When she came back the next year, Griffith realized she had a following.

“I looked down from the stage, starting to introduce the little girl, and I realized that standing behind the stage with the girl appeared to be the Tucson Spanish community,” Griffith said. “They were there. They showed up for their kid ... I realized I wasn’t just dealing with a family, but with a whole community of Spaniards.”

Since then, what once felt like an oversized picnic has ballooned into a weekend-long event that pulses through downtown. In 2010, attendance spiked past 100,000.

“I have heard people say this is the festival of festivals,” said Maribel Alvarez, the festival’s program director. “It’s one of the last (in the season), and everyone has their own festival, but everyone wants to be part of Tucson Meet Yourself.”

Spotlighting traditions

These days, lifelong folk dancer Neneng Babanto Fassler prefers to watch instead of waltz when her students perform. Still, she keeps her own Filipino costumes on hand, just in case someone can’t make it.

This week, the 12 dancers from the Filipino-American Sampaguita Club of Tucson will twirl and tread through dances that tell of fishing, farming, Spanish rhythms and Muslim influence. Babanto Fassler choreographed the folk dances to capture three regions of the Philippines.

The audience “expects grace and the beauty of our customs and the movement that tells the story...” said Babanto Fassler, 71. “They expect our charm because we smile and like to connect with their souls as we perform.”

Founded in 1972, the club has participated in Tucson Meet Yourself from the beginning. Babanto Fassler, a former president of the club, moved to Tucson from the Philippines in 1980, bringing her love of folk dancing with her.

On Camiguin Island, Babanto Fassler’s mother taught her to folk dance at the age of five.

“No one told me this is very important to our culture, but my mother just exposed me to dancing,” Babanto Fassler said.

Around Christmas time, Babanto Fassler would go from neighbor to neighbor, dancing with other children, as if caroling. Sometimes, they received money. Sometimes, she went alone.

One neighbor, a Chinese merchant, became her cheerleader, crying, “Encore!” as he threw coins to the young girl.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Babanto Fassler said. “Because of that, I grew up with self confidence. Because that Chinese merchant said, “ ‘You’re good!’ it was validated.”

Babanto Fassler taught folk dancing, among other subjects, in a high school until martial law and war crept into her classroom. She could still dance but could not discuss the military occupation or the country’s restlessness. Her students were going to war and dying.

For two years, she considered leaving. Finally, she did, moving to the U.S. at the invitation of a friend.

The Sampaguita Club of Tucson caught her after several months of floundering. She learned to cook the food from home and found a place to teach folk dancing. Babanto Fassler discovered that Filipino culture had a place in Tucson. Now, she shares it with others.

“We want to give something to the community to make it grow and flourish,” Babanto Fassler said. “Get to know us in order to get to know us better.”

Lakshmi Subramanian used to invite her daughters’ school friends over for henna slumber parties.

Sprawled on a sleeping bag, the girls would paint each other, giggling when wet paint meant they couldn’t scratch itches on their backs and noses.

The Indian Society of Southern Arizona, a long-time participant of Tucson Meet Yourself, wants to leave a mark on Tucson that lasts longer than fading henna. Members want Tucson to stay involved in Indian culture all year long.

Subramanian, now a board member of the club, moved to the U.S. from Coimbatore, India with her husband  when she was 22. She remembers the diversity in India, a country where states practice different traditions and speak distinct languages. Now 46, Subramanian relishes that same variety at the festival.

“You can just walk around and feel like you’re in India at one place and England in another, and then you go to Japan,” Subramanian said. “It’s around the world in three days. That’s what I tell my kids.”

Her three kids grew up volunteering at the growing festival, and at home, Indian traditions stay vibrant. They speak the native dialect, Tamil, and talk about the stories of gods and goddesses. A prayer room works as a substitute for daily trips to the temple on the way to school. Once a month, the family travels to a Hindu temple in Maricopa County.

With the rest of Tucson’s Indian community, the family celebrates Diwali and other traditional holidays.

“I really missed Indian celebrations,” Subramanian said. “If it’s in India, and it’s Diwali, the whole street will be celebrating. Here, it’s like one group in one house.”

Subramanian also learned to work around the absence of some spices intrinsic to Indian cooking. When she couldn’t tote two suitcases of spices back from India on her biennial trips, she combed Mexican, Chinese or Pakistani shops for substitutes.

Tucson Meet Yourself highlights these cultural similarities, drawing connections for Subramanian among Indian dishes and Mexican or Italian cousins.

“You go to Tucson Meet Yourself, and you smell something,” Subramanian said. “You think, that smells like something I know.”

Until Angela Roll stumbled onto the Colombian booth at the festival about 25 years ago, she had no idea the community existed in Tucson.

Roll, now the club president, lived in Tucson for about four years before discovering the group that shared some of the traditions of her hometown of Medellín. She doesn’t love cooking, but when the festival comes around each year, she hunkers down to help her community.

“It is very helpful to bring Colombians together, because a lot of the foods they don’t make at home because life is too busy,” Roll said. “Some people I literally don’t talk to but once a year.”

Roll moved to the U.S. to study special education at the University of New Mexico, where her brother lived. When she met her husband, she moved to Tucson and abandoned plans to return to Colombia to start a school.

“The drug problems got so bad that my brother said, ‘No’...” Roll said. “When you start a family here, it’s hard to pick up and go.”

Instead, Roll clings the club’s mission: to keep Colombian culture alive.

For Club Colombia de Tucson, participation in the festival means keeping younger generations involved.

A lot of Colombians think, “Oh my gosh, my kid doesn’t know,” Roll said. “We came here as young adults and had children here. They don’t get to eat the foods or know Colombian people. We wanted people to know that we are nice people and to know our cultures and our foods.”

Before she can weave a basket in the tradition of her mother and grandmother, Mary Pablo makes ritual treks into the desert throughout the year, collecting the greenery she needs to weave.

“Then, you have to sit down and split it and put it out to dry, because it cannot be in moisture or have rain on it,” said Pablo, 58. “I used to think my mother was just mean when she would make us work that same night when we were tired from gathering materials.”

Now, Pablo teaches her children and grandchildren the same. Basket weaving, a tradition of the Tohono O’odham Nation, starts before the basket takes shape. It begins with gathering bear grass and parts of the yucca and growing devil’s claw.

Pablo started weaving as a 12 year old, but got serious about selling her work in the last 12 years. This year will be her third at Tucson Meet Yourself.

Pablo’s five children learned how to weave, and her husband picked up the art just by watching his wife. With 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, the tradition will continue.

Pablo lives in Santa Rosa Village, and has taught the occasional workshop in nearby schools.

“I always thought that as an O’odham, because we’re known as basket weavers, that everyone knew how to pick materials and do baskets,” Pablo said. “I was surprised when I got to teach basket weaving at a high school, and they didn’t know about materials or how to preserve them. They’ve seen their parents do baskets, but weren’t really aware of it. It’s a dying art.”

In Pablo’s own family, her grandchildren itch to learn, anticipating the day when grandma deems them old enough to manage an awl and knife: a weaver’s tools.

Culture intertwines with ceremony at the completion of a weaver’s first basket.

“You offer it to somebody who also likes to weave...” Pablo said. “If you sell it, you buy something for the person to eat with the money, and as she eats it, she will do a blessing on your head, your arms and your heart and give you encouragement on how to become a weaver.”

Pablo gave her first basket to her aunt. Now, she sells baskets at festivals and trading posts to contribute to the family’s income.

“People come to you and when you talk to them about the baskets, you let them know what it takes to make a basket,” Pablo said. “We tell them this is what makes us who we are.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@azstarnet.com or 573-4357

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.