Grupo Danza Xunutzi, Big Jim Griffith and Tucson Meet Yourself

Carolina Acosta at Tucson Meet Yourself 2011
Grupo Danza Xunutzi at Tucson Meet Yourself 2011

I thought I’d be done with my European posts by now, but apparently, I came home more tired than expected.  One more remains about our stay in France and at least a pair on the Basques, about whom I really would like to write.  For now, here’s one that I knew I would have to do, but the story is very much different than I had imagined.

The occasion was the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival, which began some 30+ years ago under the inspiration and guidance of a beautiful man named Jim Griffith, otherwise known as Big Jim and big he is.  Originally it was a simple event, the intent of which was to bring people from the various different cultures in the Tucson area together in a social context that revolved around music, dance, craft and of course food.  Jim has now retired from the festival, it has grown significantly since its rather humble beginnings, now covering a large portion of downtown Tucson. Central to this year’s performance was a Saturday evening event in his honor, fittingly titled “Hats Off to Big Jim.”

Jim Griffith, Tucson Meet Yourself 2011
Big Jim Griffith and his wife Loma.

For now, I’m not going to tell you a whole lot about Jim Griffith, there are volumes written about his work that includes television series, books, Tucson Meet Yourself, culminating in him being awarded of becoming a National Heritage Fellow with the Bess Lomax Hawes Award. Here’s a link to an interview he did with the National Endowment for the Arts regarding his award: //

Through these different mediums, singlehandedly, he unquestionably did more to bring an awareness of everything good about the U.S. and Mexican border culture.  His specialty was that of bringing the different cultures of that region together.  Or so I would describe him.

Our role in this year’s festival was that of bringing the high school folkloric dance group from the Rio Sonora Valley, that we help care for and sponsor, to the festival for several performances.  One of those performances central to a Saturday night event honoring Jim Griffith.

This is a hard thing to write in that the readers of these posts are scattered around the globe and their connections to us vary upon the circumstances in which they met us.  This is a very local and border region story, that perhaps will not have much meaning to those living far removed from us, unless simply interested in what we are doing.  Anyhow, it is a story I need to tell, for myself, for these kids and those deeply connected to the area where we live.  If nothing else, the photos are fun, a mix of iPhone and a more serious Nikon to handle low light and fast moving dances.

Whenever we spend time with these kids they somehow manage to touch us on a deep level, one that surpasses simple appreciation for a dance performance.  This time more than ever, they left us with a deep appreciation for who they are and their ability to carry themselves through difficult circumstances with grace and dignity.

Perhaps a good way to recount their Tucson adventure is to do it by the clock to keep it simple.  The story begins in the town of Banamichi, about a 3 hour drive south of Bisbee, Arizona in the state of Sonora, Mexico.

Their trip began with teachers Nico Lizarraga and Selene Paola attempting to collect 16 teenagers of the group for a scheduled 9 pm arrival in Canelo.  Given inevitable delays, they arrived at midnight.  Dinner followed bringing the sleepy and tired youth back to life.  Bedtime – approximately 1:30 am.

They were up early, breakfast, Facebook checking and practice on our volleyball court followed and then the drive to Tucson.  The morning was rushed, they had their hands full collecting their costumes, rushing to the stage, dressing, to be ready for their hour long performance.

Claudia Duron, Breakfast Canelo
Grupo Danza Xunutzi, breakfast in Canelo
Xunutzi girls makeup session on the road to Tucson.
Xunutzi girls makeup session on the road to Tucson.

1:00 pm – The setting for their performance was nothing short of awful.  The stage and where the audience is normally seated was in full sun – 98 degrees plus with reflection off the concrete.  All the seating was moved to the side of the stage allowing for very poor visibility.  It was very hard on these kids, their dances are fast moving and energetic, their costumes heavy and hot and to top it off, the water container at the side of the stage was empty.

Carlos Contreras and Valeria Del Cid, Danza Chihuahua
Traditional dance from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
Danza Los Viejitos
Dance of "Los Viejitos" or the Old Ones.
Xunutzi Danza Vera Cruz
Traditional dance from the state of Vera Cruz.

Following their performance, they had practiced and expected to lead the Michelle Obama dance performance of “Move Your Body.”  Due to a mix up in programming, two months of practice were somewhat meaningless as they were displaced by a collection of students from the Tucson school district.

Move Yourself Dance with Xunutzi
"Move Your Body," Xunutzi kids and Kalin on stage.

Next stop for them was rehearsal for the evening Jim Griffith program.  The morning pace continued, rushing to eat lunch – El Guero Canelo hot dogs and carne asada tacos and then off to the Fox theatre.

Rehearsals ran late, by the time they got on stage and finished theirs, there was no time to leave the theatre.  For some reason it was not possible for them to wait in the comfort of the cushioned chairs of the theatre.  They sat downstairs in the dressing rooms with a sizeable wait before the program began.  Up to this point it had been a long day for them given the heat, rushing from one place to another and the waiting.

Xunutzi Girls, Tucson Meet Yourself.
Readying for "Hats Off to Big Jim."
Xunutzi Boys Tucson Meet Yourself
Xunutzi Boys Backstage.
Carolina Acosta Tucson Meet Yourself
Carolina Acosta passing the time.

Once the evening program began, their day began to change.  The event for Jim Griffith was overall nice, informal, cozy you might say, not too many tributes – they are all well done, several performances.  It was arranged by Dan Guerrero, a seasoned director and choreographer, son of famed Mexican performer Lalo Guerrero  In addition to his larger role, Dan sang a beautiful rendition of “Barrio Viejo” and was then followed by a group of members of the Ronstadt family, including Linda, who closed the evening with renditions of “La Orilla de Un Palmar” and “Volver.”

Dan Guerrero Tucson Meet Yourself 2011
Dan Guerrero singing "Barrio Viejo."
The Ronstadt Family, Tucson Meet Yourself.
The Ronstadt Family on stage for Jim Griffith.

To close the evening, Linda presented Jim with the “Bacanora” award, an oak keg of Sonora’s famous moonshine mescal.

No surprise to me, the performance given the kids of Grupo Danza Xunutzi, was simply superb and earned an applause that exceeded the total applause for the evening combined.  It gave life to the theatre audience and for me/them it reinvigorated what had otherwise been a long and exhausting day.  They gave their all to a man who they did not know despite my attempts to convey to them who Jim Griffith was, I know it did not get across.

Grupo Danza Xunutzi Hats off to Big Jim
Grupo Danza Xunutzi on stage for "Hats Off to Big Jim."
Dan Guerrero and Nico Lizarraga
Dan Guerrero greeting Nico Lizarraga, teacher of Grupo Danza Xunutzi.
Grupo Danza Xunutz, Dan Guerrero, Linda Ronstadt.
Grupo Danza Xunutzi, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Guerrero.

It was 9:00 pm before there was a moment of relaxation.  Sitting on grass at the end of the parking lot, teacher Nico talked to them about the day, the possibility of a summer tour of Europe.   An hour of wandering through the food booths looking for diner brought a lot of laughs.  They are not adventurous eaters by any means.

At 10:00 pm we loaded the vehicles for the hour and a half drive back to Canelo.  To make more room in their van, I took 5 of the kids with me.  I love driving with them, they plug in the iPod, I get an hour and a half of Mexican pop accompanied by the kids I’ve got with me.  For me, it’s a nighttime serenade behind the wheel.

By midnight all were in bed.  By then I was totally in awe, I did not see one disgruntled face the entire day, nor did I hear one complaint, with the exception of requests for water.  I however, did complain.

By 7:00 am they were in the kitchen looking for breakfast.  The morning after performances are always fun, reviewing the photos from the day before as they look for glamour shots, profile photos for Facebook and a chance to laugh at one another’s expressions. Watching the videos is as much fun.  A new component to the morning was our 11 year old Kalin inviting them to join him with his new Kinnect game “Dance Central,” a video game of dancing to the moves of popular songs and artists such as Lady Gaga.  That was nothing short of hilarious.

MexicoAmericanas of Grupo Danza Xunutzi
Claudia Duron and Olivia Aguirre, the MexicoAmericanas of Xunutzi.

By 9:00 am they were on their way for a brief shopping stop in Nogales and back to the Rio Sonora.

The way they handled the chaos and franticness of the day was that which I’m sure would surpass that of many seasoned performers.  I had never seen them under that kind of duress before, on one hand I was surprised, but not really.  It’s a tribute to them and to the teachers, Nico and Selene, who treat them as their family.  Together, they are an exquisite package that is polite, courteous, personable and funny, capable of stealing you heart in an instant.  They embody qualities that are difficult to find in the age that we live.

I have a love for all of them that is only surpassed, sometimes equaled, by my own family.  It’s something that I don’t always understand, but it’s as if they are my heart, through them I express to the world, much of my mother’s Mexican heritage, that is otherwise not so easy to share.  They make it easy.

I had intended to close with my last sentence but I noticed these two posts on Facebook as I was writing from two of the girls in the group.  I thought I’d share them with you.

I’m Viridiana Olivas, I’m a DANCER and I have given up dates for DANCE PRACTICES, given up fashion for sweat all over my body, chosen a DANCE PERFORMANCE over a fiesta, preferred my DANCE COSTUMES in place of fashionable clothes, exchanged my BROTHERS AND SISTERS OF THE DANCE GROUP for my family and I do not care for what I’ve had to give up for the LOVE AND SATISFACTION of being the very BEST I can be when PERFORMING, and I know that those who are my true friends will understand!. VIVA LA DANZA! ♥ ♥

I am Arlette Carolina Acosta, I am THE FOLKLORE!  Perhaps people will laugh at me, but it doesn’t matter as long as I am representing MY CULTURE and MY TRADITIONS and do that which I TRULY LOVE.  I am not embarrassed to say that I am an artist, nor a dancer, because in that, I have the capacity to transport myself to a parallel universe, far removed from all that is negative and be totally immersed in LA DANZA.

Xunutzi Girls Collage.
Viridiana Olivas (left center) Carolina Acosta Contreras (right center).


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  1. Dear Bill,

    Thanks so much for the outstanding Canelo connection to music and dance and the art of photography. My personal experience at one of your workshops long ago stays fresh in my mind because of what you and your family bring to the world: an intimate look at the lives of a truly generous people and culture willing to share their rich life experiences wherever they may travel.

    so many thank you’s,
    everett, wa

    • Hey Gary, great to hear from you, wonder from time to time how things are going for you. Thanks for the generous comments, just trying to share a little of what I’m part of.

  2. Bill,
    Once again I am reminded how blessed that Darrin and I are to be friends with you and your wonderful family, and now to be able to call Sonora and it’s beautiful peoples “Our Home & Family in Mexico and Arizona”. You have personally opened our eyes to so many exciting and different experiences, and continue to amaze me with your capacity for love. Thank you does not seem enough, but thank you my dear friend…

  3. Well, Bill, you’ve done it again! Another amazing post with truly compelling pictures. The dancers handled themselves as seasoned vetrans. The picture of them with Linda Ronstadt and Don Guerrero is one they will treasure for the rest of their lives. And you helped make it all happen in your usual and humble way. Great! Big Jim is a legend. I got to know him through a mutual friend in the music scene in Tucson many years ago. Wonderful that he’s lived to be appreciated and honored so. Thanks again for sharing. Can hardly wait for your next post!
    In peace! John Phillips

    • Thanks John, glad you liked it. I thought the same with the poster, it’s priceless. You clearly got the intent, going to print it for them to take there this weekend.

  4. Thanks so much for The Canelo Project and this piece. You reinforce a dimension in the human spirit that gets lost sometimes in the noise and nonsense of the times we face. I feel very privileged to have met these amazing people and experienced the joy of their energy and gift.

  5. What a beautiful, beautiful article!! And stunning photos. Is there no end to your talents, Bill?
    So thrilled to have met you and the young people of Grupo Danza and look forward to our having other wonderful times together. You all have a new fan in me.

    They could have all sat in the “comfort of the cushioned seats” of the theatre while waiting for rehearsal. Have no idea who or why they were told to wait downstairs. Shoulda come to me, Big Bill!!

    • Gracias por la flor. Wow, nice surprise to see your comment. Compliments are always nice, love them but when they come from someone like you, makes it even a little bit sweeter. Thanks, see you before long and the group loved your birthday video on Youtube, me too.

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