Kerri Lopez, community life director for House of Neighborly Service, visited with students in Anthropology 200 to discuss progress on their research project.
Kerri Lopez, community life director for House of Neighborly Service, visited with students in Anthropology 200 to discuss progress on their research project.

UA Anthropology Students Size Up South Tucson

As part of a community development plan for the city, students in the Anthropology 200 course inventoried — through short stories and interviews — the community's arts and culture.
May 25, 2016
"After initial hard luck in reaching those for whom we'd been given contact information, one of our group members suggested that we broaden our definition of 'artist.' After some googling and a phone call, we set up an interview with one of the tattoo artists at Tattoo Azteca," said UA student Teresa Velasco. (Photo: Teresa Velasco)
"After initial hard luck in reaching those for whom we'd been given contact information, one of our group members suggested that we broaden our definition of 'artist.' After some googling and a phone call, we set up an interview with one of the tattoo artists at Tattoo Azteca," said UA student Teresa Velasco. (Photo: Teresa Velasco)
Student Roman Romero took a picture of a counter in Jeff’s Used Parts of license plates from around the U.S.
Student Roman Romero took a picture of a counter in Jeff’s Used Parts of license plates from around the U.S.

A group of University of Arizona students spent the spring semester creating a "cultural asset map" for the city of South Tucson, a land area of a little more than a square mile, aiding in the development of a plan to increase investments and grant funding in the city.

The mapping began after Kerri Lopez, the community life director for House of Neighborly Service, approached Maribel Alvarez, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology and the Southwest Center, about involving students in the process.

Throughout the semester, students in Alvarez's Anthropology 200 course immersed themselves in field experiences, ultimately creating the map and also ethnographic vignettes, to be shared via a public blog online.

The effort was part of a larger and ongoing initiative to identify the assets and strengths that make South Tucson a vibrant and culturally rich community.

"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," Lopez said.

"We need to have community input and feedback. South Tucson is a grassroots community," she said of the city, which is home to fewer than 6,000 residents and more than 500 businesses, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. "The people here are committed to their city and to their work within the city."

The Primavera Foundation hired the architecture and planning firm of Poster Frost Mirto, led by UA professor emeritus Corky Poster, to conduct a comprehensive strategic community development plan for the city. Joining forces with the foundation are the government of South Tucson and the House of Neighborly Service, a 70-year-old community center in South Tucson owned and operated by the YWCA. 

As part of the project, teams of UA 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.

"This project will help to spread knowledge of South Tucson to people outside and bring in new customers and new business," said Roman Romero, a student in the "occupational culture" group who is studying anthropology and classics at the UA. "I want to be a part of the team that helps make that kind of a difference."

Alvarez said this hands-on research is an example of the UA's 100% Engagement initiative, which marries students' experience with post-collegiate workforce priorities.

"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,'" Alvarez said.  

Ellery Lockwood was tasked with assessing South Tucson's "built environment," including houses, roads, signs, street art, restaurants and architecture. 

"I think the most valuable thing I learned from this project is that differences in architecture do not constitute 'inferiority,'" said Lockwood, who is studying psychology and also special education and rehabilitation. "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."

Teresa Velasco, who was assigned to the "artists" group, said she found that the best way to break down biases and stereotypes is through direct interaction with people.

"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," Velasco said.

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," Morado said. "In South Tucson, art is all around — it is about the people, for the people and by the people."

While the UA class project focused on art and culture, other efforts will look at housing, transportation, green spaces and infrastructure.

"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.