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Special Graduation Edition
(featuring essays by students of folklore at University of Arizona and selected reflections from TMY's Folklore Field School)
Students in Dr. Maribel Alvarez's course "Introduction to Folklore" at the University of Arizona learn how to observe their surroundings with greater attention and to practice the art of cultural documentation.


Below are two essays exploring the "insider/outsider" dynamic that each of us negotiates in our own cultural groups. In each instance, we are reminded of how much "tradition" depends on our own performance of it as an act of remembrance and sometimes defiance.  


Perhaps what we learn from these young folklorists is that there is not such a thing as a "tradition" that sits tidily in a shelf somewhere, but only "traditionalized behavior" that we human beings imbue with meanings of our own making.

Traditions of a Khmer (Cambodian) Wedding in Chandler, Arizona

by Christina Mann


The meaning of tradition emerges slowly through living a life of experiences. I feel honored to have personally discovered the traditions of my family after having experienced being a part of a Khmer (Cambodian) wedding. I have always felt a sense of pride in the knowledge that I was a part of such a beautiful culture, filled with such tragedy and triumph. My parents are survivors of the Khmer Rouge and their story of survival brings tears to my eyes but also a great sense of determination. I recall how wary I was to be a part of my cousin's wedding. Having been at a distance from my own Khmer culture for a while, I understood the great pressure of properly presenting myself during such a grand tradition.

My cousin Sambo married her boyfriend of eight years Ryan in October of 2011. Although Ryan is considered an outsider of Khmer tradition and culture because he is not of Khmer descent, but rather of Irish and Polish descent, he is linked-in through Sambo. Khmer weddings are one of the most joyous occasions for any Khmer family. Sambo informed me that a traditional Khmer wedding symbolizes the legend of the origin of Cambodia and parallels the marriage of the first Khmer prince, Preah Thong, to the Naga princess, Neang Neak. The story goes that the prince was a foreigner who was exiled from his homeland but that during his travels, he encountered and fell in love with the Naga princess. The father of the Naga princess, as a marriage gift, swallowed up part of the ocean to form the land of Cambodia and thus, this is the story of how Cambodia originated.    


Understanding the story of the first Khmer wedding was critical in the participation of a Khmer wedding. It gives greater purpose to every prayer that is spoken, ritual performed, fruit eaten and jewelry worn. I believe it was for this reason that Sambo made sure to not only educate Ryan and me, but also, every family member through a pamphlet that was handed out on the first day of the wedding. It should be noted that Khmer weddings are a two-day process. It is traditional for Khmer weddings to be held at the home of the Bride's parents and thus, when I arrived at my aunt's home, I was immediately ushered upstairs to hair and makeup. Sambo embraced me immediately at the door, glowing from head to toe, with roses in her hair, gold jewelry from head to toe and the most intricately detailed Khmer ensemble.




Before every ceremony, it is traditional that the bride be led into each ritual by a trusted individual. On this occasion, her sister led her to the first ritual, Soat Mun, or "blessing from the monks". I looked down from the balcony of the stairs only to see half a dozen flashing cameras, but close to the entryway sat three monks. They were simply dressed in their traditional orange robes, not a single hair on their heads and eyes so bright. At the top of the stairs I met the groom, Ryan, as he was holding onto Sambo's hand, clearly nervous to begin. It is customary to sit with your legs to the side in front of the monks, out of respect, but this is more easily said than done in the ensembles we were in. Once everyone had sat down, we placed our hands in prayer, above our foreheads (outsiders are unaware that it is disrespectful to place your hands below your forehead- an indication that the monks are below you) and bowed to the monks eight times. The head monk began to hum, indicating that meditation was about to begin. His humming lasted about five minutes and once he ceased, he began invoking blessings specific to the bride and groom.  




The second and final ceremony of the first day is called Bang Chhat Madaiy, which translates to "Honoring of the parents". The ritual is based off of the Khmer sentiment, "Rumleuk kun madaiy oeupuk" ("Remember the kindness of your parents"). The bridal party was allowed to stay downstairs for the customary photos but was quickly ushered back upstairs to be changed for this second ceremony. This was a ceremony that only Sambo was to do on her own without her bridesmaids or the groom. This very sentimental ritual has roots in a Khmer parable about not forgetting "kun"- the gratitude one owes for a kind act. In the Khmer culture, respect for your elders is a very strong value that is recalled during critical times in your life, from your birth, to your wedding and finally, to your death.


The second day of rituals began very, very early. The first ceremony of the second day is called Hai Gom Gomloh, which simply means "The Groom's Processional". In the Groom's Processional, it is customary that the bride wait at her parent's home while her groom gathers a procession of family of friends who will approach the bride's home with platters of gifts (usually Khmer fruits and desserts), led by a Khmer band of musicians and singers. The next ritual was to be performed by the bride and groom without their parties. The ritual was called Sien Doan Toa ("Call to the Ancestors"). This was a very emotional ceremony for Sambo, her mother and our entire family. Sambo lost her father at a very young age during the Khmer Rouge and about a year prior, she and I lost a close aunt. The ritual called upon family and friends who had passed to observe the wedding in spirit, in order to include them in their day of happiness. It was performed upstairs on the balcony, where incense was lit and prayers were sent up to the heavens. The ritual is a symbol of how important family bonds are in the Khmer culture. Western weddings and Khmer weddings do not differ in their symbolism of bringing two families together.  


The third ceremony of the day is called Gaat Sah ("Cleansing Ceremony") because the bride and groom must be cleansed, according to tradition, prior to being officially married. The last two ceremonies are performed consecutively without a wardrobe change. The bride and groom sat in chairs like the prince and princess they represented, with their parties behind them and platters of food and their families before them. The second to last ceremony is called Bongvul Pbopul ("Passing of Blessings"). It is based off of the Khmer sentiment, "Mun ouy laing leah, mun ouy prort peah" ("Do not separate, do not part ways"). This ceremony calls upon currently married couples to gather in a circle around the bride and groom. Three candles are lit and passed from person to person in order to have the individual pass their right hand over the candle, a symbol of sending a silent blessing to the bride and groom- blessings that contain the special quality or essence that has preserved their own union. The candles are each passed around the circle seven times in a clockwise manner.  




The final ceremony is called Sompeas Ptem ("Knot Tying Ceremony"). This is the longest ceremony (which is evident in the strained smiles of both parties who are forced to smile for hundreds of photos). It calls upon close family and friends to come forward in order to bring their best wishes to the new couple by each individually tying red ribbons around each of their wrists and sometimes offering small tokens of advice. The bride and groom are traditionally required to wear the ribbons for three days in order to preserve the luck, but in modern Khmer weddings this requirement is no longer upheld.  


These are the rituals of a Khmer wedding. They are beautiful and deeply embedded within tradition. The actions of each ritual represent an activity that serves a function, while each function has meaning that makes way to the greater understanding of the beliefs and the mythology that is the foundation for our shared culture.



The Meaning of the Quinceañera

By Itzel Cordova

Growing up in a Mexican/Hispanic family in Arizona has exposed me to many traditions and practices ranging from foods to music to parties. One of my favorite experiences has been the quinceañera. A quinceañera is coming of age ritual or a celebration where fifteen year old girls are presented to their communities as young ladies and no longer girls. The Quinceañera tradition is believed to have started when the Spanish conquerors brought the tradition to Mexico. Others say similar traditions already existed among Mesoamerican civilizations.  Traditionally, the family comes together many months, even years before the daughter's fifteenth birthday, to begin the preparations. This is a celebration that not only fifteen year old girls look forward to with pride and happiness but also the parents.





Many components go into planning this festive event. Things to think about are the mass of thanks, the banquet ceremony, and the waltz. One must think about the court of honor, damas or maids, chambelanes or escorts, as well as a chambelan de honor. Good family friends also become padrinos or madrinas and help out by providing various parts of the girl's accessories or monetary help. Planning also includes ordering invitations, cakes and a dress.


Coming from a large family, I have been to many quinceañeras. I had my very own quinceañera; I was in my sister's quinceañera as a "madrina;" and I have been part of the court in a friend's quinceañera. I have attended family and friends' quinceañeras as a guest as well as just gone to strangers' quinceañeras as an outsider.


My family is from a small town in Sonora, Mexico. Every December the small town, Sahuaripa, Sonora, hosts its annual "fiestas" to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe. During that time of year, many people celebrate weddings and quinceañeras so that the whole town can enjoy them. Even though I turned fifteen in January and my sister turned fifteen in October, our quinceañeras were celebrated in December.


Nowadays some families are thinking of themes to add to their quinceañeras, but it is customary to follow a color scheme. That color is worn by the damas, chambelanes, center pieces, cake and accessories. Accessories, such as cake cutting utensils, wine glasses for the toast, customary kneeling pillow, last doll and even the invitations are adorned with ribbons in the chosen color.





One of the most exciting things that a young girl looks forward to is her quinceañera dress. It is tradition for the quinceañera to wear a white wedding style dress. The significance of this material folk expression of a dress is to show the community that the young girl is now a lady and can enter into a role of honor in society. The white signifies purity of a young girl. Along with the dress there is also a bouquet. The quinceañera takes real flowers into the church, and leaves with her artificial bouquet. More recently, girls are starting to choose dresses of bright strong colors as opposed to the traditional white. Both my sister and I wore white dresses, but I have attended quinceañera where red, pink, purple, or blue dresses were worn.


The day the event arrives, after much planning, the young girl begins to get ready. Traditionally, it will be the first time she will be wearing makeup. At this time her court of honor gets ready as well. It is tradition for the quinceañera to be accompanied by fourteen young girls and fourteen young boys as escorts which make up her court. Sometimes the court will only be seven boys and seven girls, sometimes only girls or only boys, and sometimes there is no damas or chambelanes that accompany the quinceañera. I was accompanied by a court of only girls who wore lime green dresses which was my theme color. Even though a quinceañera may choose to have a large court to accompany her or no court, one thing all quinceañera have to have is the chambelan de honor. He is the escort that accompanies the quinceañera herself. Usually it is a cousin in the family, brother or close friend. Since prior to this day the quinceañera is still a girl, she is not allowed to have a boyfriend, so the chambelan de honor is rarely a boyfriend. Both my sister and I were accompanied by our cousins.


Although my sister was not accompanied by damas or chambelanes in her quinceañera, she still had a court of honor that consisted of her padrinos and madrinas. These are couples, family friends, or aunts and uncles that contribute to the quinceañera in one way or another. They provide money to go towards paying different aspects of the event, or donate specific items, such as the cake, quinceañera ring, dress or high heels. For my sister's quinceañera I was the madrina for the high heels.


The celebration begins with the mass of thanks. It is comparable to a baptism mass, in the sense that the family comes together and gives thanks that the young girl has come to this point in her life. The entrance into the church is very much like a wedding. The court of honor enters before the quinceañera. They are followed by parents of the quinceañera and lastly, the quinceañera herself. All stand while the court, parents, and quinceañera enter. During the mass, the quinceañera gets her bible and rosary blessed, as well as the quinceañera ring that the madrina and padrino have provided. After the mass, the quinceañera takes her bouquet of flowers to the Virgen de Guadalupe and offers a prayer. She then leads the court of honor out and the guests follow. She is then congratulated outside.




After the mass ceremony, the family and guest head out to the venue or the location of the banquet festivities. Not all quinceañeras have a party after the ceremony, but often families will either rent out a banquet hall for the night, while others may have a smaller gathering or simple dinner. Wherever the location may be, there are many decorations. It is customary to have a "mesa de honor," which is the table where the quinceañera, chambelanes, damas, madrinas, padrinos and parents will toast. This is the table where the last doll is placed. At the surrounding tables is the cake as well as a table for the gifts. The location of the celebration after the mass of both my sister's and my quinceañeras was out in the open air in the pueblo's "plaza." Even though we gave invitations to all our families and close friends, our quinceañeras were open for the whole town to come and enjoy the festivities.    



To be continued.......................... (read next month's edition for more)



Photographing Folklifefolklore 

A conversation between TMY Program Director Maribel Alvarez and Folklore Field School Photography Instructor  Therese Perreault

Note: The first-ever Tucson Meet Yourself Folklore Field School took place between May 18th and June 9th. A total of 28 students were admitted as the initial cohort. Due to space limitations we simply couldn't accept any more participants; the interest in the Field School was so great that we turned away at least another 15 people and have now started a waiting list for the next class offering. In the April BorderLore edition we talked to Regina Kelly, who is the leading instructor for the Field School's writing track. See that archived story here. In this edition, we follow up writing with photography. If you have questions about the Field School, email us at

Therese Perreault

MA: Therese, thanks so much for being a part of the first ever TMY Folklore Field School. The Field School's curriculum included photography, along with writing, as one of several vital elements of good cultural documentation. How do you see the two skills working together?

I believe that a good story sits on the writing, at the same time visuals carry and support a story.  For me, together they create a full expression.

MA: In your experience, how is a story told through the medium of photography different from a story told only through words on a page?   

TP: Whoever first said it got it right: "A picture is worth a thousand words." While it may sound cliché, we are becoming more and more a visual society.  It is through visual experience that we communicate when language or time or place is a barrier.  In our usage, in folklore, photography becomes a wonderful partner because so many details and information can be contained in the image; so much more than what we might write about.  Intentionally-made photographs (from the heart) fill in the spaces in a story, carry us through and help to build emotion and curiosity.  Well-placed and thought-out images can propel the sensory part of a story. As with writing, however, there is always discipline (and personal style) involved in telling a story; the same is true about photography.   

Are these two distinct modes of storytelling?

TP: If you mean documentary photography versus cultural documentation more broadly speaking, I think they can be different depending on the context of how they are shown - and the intention when making them.  Most documentary photographers (reportage, journalistic) hold themselves to high principles of "truth" (wow, so that might be too loaded a word to use - however, it is accurate). For me, the two modes merge into one because my intention with photography has always been to tell a story or give a view into a place, time or experience --not as a snapshot but as multi-layered communication of an experience.

Students at the TMY Field School write descriptions of artifacts they brought to class

MA: You have taught photography for years, what surprises students most when they enroll in your classes?  

TP: How much photography comes form the heart - not a fancy camera, not technical genius - but really from the heart. We all know when it clicks (ha, no pun or pun intended?). I mean, we get a feeling when an image is just right, when it expresses exactly what we intended.  It is not a contrived feeling, it becomes real as you do it ---there is no shortcut.

MA: Many Native American communities and other cultural groups have restrictions on the use of photography, why is it important for aspiring ethnographers/folklorists and cultural documentarians to develop at the onset a clear ethical code for the taking and use of photographs?

TP: I have a thought about being intentional and that implies as well the "dialogue" with the subjects -the humanity implied in photo-taking must not be overshadowed by a selfish act of appropriation. Any photographer must be willing to let the shot go.  Simply said, if it is not welcomed or permitted, don't.  No sneaking - no zoom.  Oddly, this is one of the hardest points for some students to understand.  They seem to think "getting the shot is everything" - over relationships, over trust. It does not work and the shot doesn't work and then there's karma, you know ---mislead or lie and you got one debit in the karma bank.


While I love street photography, and capturing the randomness of the city or place, I never just "take" the photograph at all costs.  If there is a person involved and I get "a no signal" I change the shot, I don't include them - it becomes a different shot altogether.   I can and anyone can read when someone does not want to be photographed - the head goes down, they turn or look away.  It is not hard to know.  What I mean is I approach with courtesy and respect. I tell them why I'm there and what the project is when I introduce myself; pretty basic stuff.   


MA: What is your favorite photograph of all time? Why?


TP: So hard to pick one. New photographers emerge all the time with wonderful images that I love.  Two old favorites - who helped me come up - the photographers & images I find inspiration from are: Gertrude Kasebier's "Mother & Daughter" and Tony Ray Jones's "Brighton Beach."  I love Gertrude because she was one of the first women photographers and her images are so full of feeling and emotion.  I love Tony because he takes the ordinary and shines a light on it  -in a humorous way.  I love them both.  Wow, how to get into my heart.


Therese Perreault founded Arts Marketplace and Community Storytelling Arts in Tucson, AZ. Arts Marketplace provides business training and professional development tools for individual artists and creative entrepreneurs to gain exposure, advance their career and grow professionally. Community Storytelling Arts is a collaborative space for independent artists and creative entrepreneurs working at the intersection of arts, community and business using creative expression through visuals and narrative to build community.

Therese teaches photography at the Arts Institute and is guest artist with the Pima Public Library to bring creative expression into the community. She was a guest photographer at Voices, Inc. and Peoria Unified School District, where she worked on a World War II oral history project. She has also worked with Voices, Inc. as a guest photographer with a South Park initiative. The South Park project was an intergenerational community project in which youth and senior citizens team up to photograph and write about their neighborhood.

Prior to moving to Tucson she was the Director of Career Services for Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts. Therese developed an "Artist as Entrepreneur" workshop to help artists understand how to manage their art business. She has a BFA, Photography, from the University of Maine and an MBA from Simmons College, Boston.  Currently Therese is in the process of creating a photographic essay on descansos and their significance in modern cultural and religious traditions.





DIGITAL STORYTELLING WORKSHOPS (at reduced admission)   




Community Storytelling Arts will be teaching Digital Storytelling Workshops in the heart of downtown at Pima County /Tucson Women's Commission 240 North Court Avenue Tucson, AZ.


Workshop participants share stories, write and record narration, choose photos, video clips, and music, and learn to edit a short digital video of their own true story. The stories can be used for personal enrichment, family life histories, community and team building, training, advocacy, recruiting, fundraising and technology literacy.  At the end of the 3 ½ day workshop you will have completed a 2-4 minute digital story. 


Summertime Workshop dates:

  • July 25-28
  • August 22-25


The workshop is $395 per person  for  friends of Tucson Meet Yourself - (general public $495) Registration is limited to 10 participants per workshop.


To register and for more information contact  


Still not sure what digital storytelling is? See previous stories completed by workshop participants here.  


Fermenting (that thing that culture does)

by Barbara Rose

Here are the cholla buds, a big jug full, harvested three weeks ago in my desert home, Bean Tree Farm, in the Northern Tucson Mountains. I'm experimenting with them, fer menting "cholla-chi". Next to them is a bubbling gallon jar jammed full of garden cabbage, garlic, onions, chiles and more cholla buds, the salty brine trying to bubble over the weight that's holding the vegetables down. I've just tasted them (mmmmm!); added a little magenta-colored prickly-pear juice (harvested processed and frozen late last summer) for color, flavor and nutrition.




Covered now with old linen cloths from my grandma Evie, and fragrantly (if you like the scent of garlic and fish sauce!) fermenting away for perhaps another week, or "until it's ready", I return to my reading- Sandor Katz's (or Sandorkraut as he is affectionately known) "The Art of Fermentation- An in-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts & Processes From Around the World".


I've just attended the first Tucson Folklore Field School, conducted by the stellar staff of Tucson Meet Yourself, held at another community treasure, Native Seeds S.E.A.R.C.H. Three days of immersion in folk culture documentation, delicious food and lore, with instructors Jim Griffith, Maribel Alvarez, Regina Kelly, Therese Perrault, and nearly 30

students who are passionate about folkways, peoples' culture, and promoting folklore's incredible value to our society. This I know: everyone in the class was a product of a rich and enduring culture which bubbled away underneath our skins, erupting in stories, songs, artifacts and enjoyment. My homework and my "artifact" for the class was contained in a jar of desert kimchi, and I'm fermenting a story.


I fell in love with Sandor Katz's work when my friend Racheli, an Israeli artist and peace activist, gave me a copy of Sandor's first book, "Wild Fermentation", years ago. In his writings I found folklife which connects us through the centuries: cultures which nourish and are passed on, even through our cells, our saliva; our intestines, and through beer-tesguino, wine- saguaro, to bring the rain, pulque, pickles, sausage, bread!  



 Sandor writes: " What exactly is culture?..... Secret family recipes. Life Lessons, like learning how to identify edible plants, learning to garden, learning to cook, learning to fish, learning to procure, use and preserve precious food resources. Fermentation."


"Fermenting (R)evolution," I am fond of saying.. As a long-time student and practitioner of the culture of yummy things, I believe "The Art of Fermentation" deserves a place at every hearth where the heart and hands work together. How do I know this? From making simple and delicious fermented foods for my family and friends, and learning to be a

fearless fermenter. Sandor has shown us the way to a culture which truly nourishes and sustains us. On tesguino, the traditional corn beer of the Chihuahuan Sierra, he quotes anthropologist John G. Kennedy about a tesguinada, or drinking gathering: "It is the religious group, the economic group, the entertainment group, the group at which disputes

are settled, marriages arranged, and deals completed."


The meanings ring deep somewhere in the terrain of my own project: Culture /Ferment. Sandor makes tesguino in his kitchen in Tennessee. A cultural revolution. When I build a "desert kimchi" what I'm really building is a food bridge to my own ancestors, who cultured salted cucumbers, cabbage, tongue and green tomatoes with garlic and spices in Russia, Lithuania and Belarus.   


Bean Tree Farm is a 20 acre saguaro/ ironwood forest, conservation area and ecological community, where we harvest, care for and teach about Sonoran Desert perennial edible plants, herbs, and more!    


Thanks for reading this newsletter. We welcome your feedback, commentary, and any suggestions or ideas. Write to us at: 


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Tucson's Chow Card Have You Heard About the 2012 Tucson CHOW CARD?



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