Diverse Communities Celebrate at the Tamejavi Festival
by Liz Stark
Tamejavi is not a word you will find in any English dictionary—or for that matter, a dictionary in any language—but it is a word full of meaning for many in California’s diverse Central Valley where the Tamejavi Festival has become a celebrated cultural and community event.
Tamejavi draws from three words: “Ta” from the Hmong taj laj tshav puam, “me” from the Spanish mercado, and “javi” from the Mixtec nunjavi, all of which translate as “market” or “plaza.” The marketplace is a key feature in many societies—a place that brings people together to share stories, food, and culture. The Tamejavi Festival serves the same purpose—drawing together the Central Valley’s many diverse communities and allowing them the opportunity to express and celebrate their cultural traditions.
Performances at the Tamejavi Festival in California include Filipino dancing. Photo by Tudor Stanley
The Tamejavi Festival is a program of the Pan Valley Institute (PVI). Founded in 1998 by the American Friends Service Committee, this Fresno-based education center appreciated that immigrants needed their own place where they could both learn from each other and learn about their new society, and acknowledged that these individuals can contribute new and valuable cultural perspectives. “We recognized that immigrants brought with them a cultural and political life and we wanted to create a space for them to express that,” said Myrna Martinez Nateras, PVI program director.
California’s Fresno County has a population of more than 940,000, of which more than 65 percent is an ethnicity other than Caucasian, including Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and African American. The Pan Valley Institute quickly learned that many immigrants to the Central Valley were missing an outlet to practice their native traditions and welcomed the opportunity to share them. As a result of this positive feedback, the institute looked for a way to share this cultural wealth with a larger audience, eventually creating the Tamejavi Festival.
Originally planned as a one-time event, the Tamejavi Festival has since been held biennially in parks and cultural venues around the city of Fresno and is attended by more than 2,000 people, bringing together the diverse communities that live side by side in the Central Valley. Along with music, theater, dance, and poetry presentations, the one-day festival also includes discussion groups, a film series, children’s activities, and an outdoor marketplace featuring crafts and a variety of cuisines.
A performance of the Latin American Danza de los Diablitos. Photo by David Bacon
After the first Tamejavi in 2002, the Pan Valley Institute quickly realized that not only was there a positive reaction among community members that attended the event, but that the process of organizing the festival was just as, if not more, meaningful. Members of each of the different ethnic communities form a planning committee that works year-round to shape and develop the festival. Given the title of “cultural organizers,” these individuals were identified by PVI as knowledgeable about their communities’ cultural traditions and were given instructions on how to coordinate events and build relationships within the community. “Communities manage to find a way of making and producing art, even if they have no support, because it’s important to them,” said Nateras. “Tamejavi gives value to what they are doing and supports them.”
More than 100 community members volunteer the day of the festival, and many people who have volunteered from the beginning have since engaged their families in putting on the festival. California State University, Fresno has also provided a steady stream of volunteers; faculty became involved and then encouraged their students to help. PVI has received festival support from foundations, such as the Rockefeller, James Irvine, and the Marguerite Casey Foundations, and developed local partnerships with organizations such as the Fresno Art Museum, which, along with Radio Park, was home to the 2007 Tamejavi Festival. This partnership was mutually beneficial as it brought new audiences to both the museum and the festival. From beginning to end, the Tamejavi Festival is a community-driven event.
The audience enjoys a performance during the 2009 festival. Photo by Eduardo Stanley
When Juan Santiago Ramirez immigrated to the Central Valley from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2001 at the age of 11, he brought with him knowledge of the beliefs and traditions of the Zapoteco community. While performing with the traditional dance group Grupo Folklorico Se’esavi, Ramirez came to the attention of the Pan Valley Institute and was asked to represent the Zapoteco community on the planning committee and serve as volunteer organizer for the 2006 event, which took place in the city of Madera. “Back then, I never thought it was possible to bring someone together from the Iranian community, Hmong community, African-American community, and the indigenous community to sit around a table and have a dialogue that eventually turned into a festival,” said Ramirez. “I learned how to communicate with these other ethnic groups and work toward a common goal.”
Ramirez has also seen the effect of the Tamejavi Festival on changing stereotypes about Latinos. He explains that mainstream media often labels Latinos as lazy and taking advantage of social agencies. “But we contribute to the American society with our culture, our food, our language… [this] all contradicts the stereotype.” The Tamejavi Festival helps the Central Valley’s diverse populations to feel accepted and valued for such contributions. “Many of the immigrant communities felt that they could not share their cultural traditions, that there was something wrong with that,” said Nateras. “I think Tamejavi gave value to that.”
As the festival became better known, representatives from other communities became involved in the planning process as organizers so that their cultures could be represented. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2010 study Live from Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, 83 percent of those who attended the 2009 Tamejavi Festival said they were introduced to a new style of art. Nateras said, “Every time, new groups join. It started with Latinos and Hmongs. Now the Filipino and Persian communities join. That has been the beauty of the event—every year new communities come.” Estela Galvan, PVI program associate, echoed Nateras’s statement: “Anyone is welcome—it’s for all of us. That’s what attracts people to it.”
A Hmong group playing the traditional instrument, the qeej, at the 2004 Tamejavi Festival. Photo by Terry Foss
The success of Tamejavi encouraged PVI to develop year-round programming, such as film series and workshops with master artists, and to spread its programming to cities outside of Fresno, which in turn has helped to spur interest in the Tamejavi Festival. In addition, the Pan Valley Institute has encouraged cultural exchanges in which specific cultural events, such as the Hmong New Year, are celebrated. Prior to attending the event, the institute will inform participants about the tradition and its significance; after the event, the participants come together to discuss their experience. All of this contributes to PVI’s efforts to promote an understanding of different cultures and supports immigrants in their endeavors to become more socially and politically included in society.
In fewer than 10 years, the Tamejavi Festival has become an essential part of life in the Central Valley, bringing to light the rich, diverse culture that makes up this region. As reported in Live from Your Neighborhood, these efforts are appreciated: more than 84 percent of participants said that they felt that Tamejavi was an important part of their community life. Galvan said that on the day of the festival, “You can see and feel a sense of community unity. At that moment, people are celebrating together that this is who we are. I’m welcome here. And I’m sharing that with other people.”