Hecho a Mano, by James S. Griffith. University of Arizona Press, Tucson. Paperback: $17.95. 104 pages.
Driving through Tucson, Ariz., a visitor might not register the ornate front-yard fences and low-rider cars along the city's palm-lined streets. Yet in the book Hecho a Mano, by folklorist Jim Griffith, what's everyday comes vividly alive. Griffith takes us inside the houses, workshops and communities of Los Tucsonenses, the city's numerous Mexican-American residents. We meet Angelita Montoya, with a basket of confetti-stuffed eggs called cascarones. "Bambi" Gomez works leather into tooled belts, and Carlos Gonzales shows how he creates a posh interior for a low-rider Chevrolet Impala.
Unlike Phoenix, Tucson has deep Hispanic roots. It was founded in 1775, as a cavalry fort for the Spanish army, and it remained primarily Hispanic until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. Griffith recognizes the interdependence that has grown between the Tucsonense culture and its folk arts traditions. Hecho a Mano ("made by hand") often reads like ethnography, as it pays attention to the societal context of each art. Griffith points out that Tucson's artists often fuse the culture's dominant religion, Catholicism, into their work, while gender also plays a vital role. Men seem more likely to carve wood, forge iron and bend neon inside workshops; women often work in the home, designing cloth by removing threads, cooking feasts and constructing yard ornaments.
Perhaps most satisfying is the way Griffith ties together established crafts such as making paper flowers and newer ones like decorating and personalizing low-rider cars and bicycles. In doing so, he shows that neither is all old or all new; these folk artists constantly update and transform their traditional arts.