Writing, a Cultural Focus

For more than four years I have been managing editor of an e-Journal called BorderLore, produced by the Southwest Folklife Alliance. All editions have a themed cultural focus — with stories, references and images emerging from the theme. It is a joy to explore elements of everyday folklife, and tell cultural stories related to the theme we celebrate. Here are some of my favorite editions:

Ed Dia de San Juan Tucson FiestaFebruary 2016: “Creative City

March 2016: “Architecture

January 2015: “Tell Me A Story”

March 2015: “Culture: Linchpin of Learning”

April/May 2015: “Continuum, Unframed: Multicultural Practices in End of Life”

June 2015: “Mapped: Cultural Mapping”

July/August 2015: “Democracy”

September 2015: “Mastery: Traditional Arts”

October/November 2015: “Recollection: The Universal Significance of Memory”

Visit the Southwest Folklife Alliance BorderLore archives here.

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Grandma’s Story, Silk Throwing in Calabria

My story appeared in Taproot Magazine, Issue 8, Reclaim. I am so grateful to this publication — a magazine and community that have warmed my spirit. The writing process was influential in helping me explore my roots in the province of Reggio Calabria, as well as my Italian heritage in Silk-Throwing and Needlework Arts

(See pins of Calabria visit on my Italy Pinterest board here.) Story follows:

Fingers flying, she always worked amazing patterns of color and meaning with her threads. This I remember of my grandmother.  I was seven as I watched my grandmother turn abstractions into cultural expression through her lace.  The rites of passage flowed through me back then, as I admired the beauty of her work, drawn in to explore the silk’s meaning as well as loveliness.  Tradition was the “connective-ness” of everything for Grandma. She was never at a loss for inspiration, pulling from her past and from the energy of living cultural traditions to create folk art that is part mystery and part familiar. I wanted to grasp the silk’s meaning and I did, sitting at her knee.


In Grandma’s masterful techniques, I found traditions that delight.  I was always struck by how much her art had to say to me. She died when I was seven, but her love of fabric and lace stayed with me.

I had just begun to learn to use a needle when my grandmother died, in 1957. For years after her death, I daydreamed about her clicking needles and threads, missing the comfort of her apron as well as the beauty of her work.


Decades passed:  The yearning for those days at her side, watching her cook or embroider, ingesting those skills, somehow diminished with time. Although I still missed her and honored her memory, the passion for her handiwork and her clever applications of intricate embroidery faded in my late teen years. I seemed to have accepted it as my fate, to learn the appreciation but not skills.

So for years, through college, into and through the racetrack of metropolitan life, on to when I moved away from gritty environs of NYC and immigrant community, I  felt satisfied that I had inherited my grandmother’s appreciation for needlework, as well as a small, treasured collection of handiwork my mother had saved. All that should be enough, sustain me, at least that is what I thought at the time.


But then something happened, a reawakening when I had my own son. It is alive inside me now as I reach my grandmother’s age, when she died. It is a need to reclaim the art she conveyed to me.


Child of Threads

But we are ahead of ourselves.


First, let me introduce you to my grandmother – from whom my love of needlework art, fiber and embellishments emerged. Domenica Antonina Giuffre was born August 28, 1888 in Villa San Giovanni, a comune (or township) of the Calabria region in southern Italy. This region was a center of sericulture (silk industry production), because the moderate climate and rugged terrain sloping down to the Straits of Messina were a perfect environment for the white mulberry tree, upon whose leaves the silkworm fed.

My grandmother’s mother, Maria (Zagari) Giuffre, worked as a silk thrower in the mill at Villa San Giovanni.  In 1899, when she was just 11 years old, my grandmother was given to her mother’s sister, Angela Lagari, to come to America. Why my grandmother traveled to America without her own immediate family is another story…one that I now am slowly starting to research and understand. Back then, poorer families in a southern Calabria comune didn’t have too many choices, and if a child could be given an opportunity in a new land, that opportunity was seized. For now I must say that I believe my grandmother’s aunt loved her, treated her like a daughter, and continued to teach her embroidery and needlework arts as my great-grandmother had begun to do.


My grandmother became a master of embroidery stitches that were worked in silk. Her handwork was her joy but it also was her livelihood: I learned that (probably around 1914) my grandmother worked in factories that beaded lampshades and also embellished costumes for the New York City Opera.  My grandfather, too, worked in fiber and cloth – He was a tailor, creating impeccable garments for the wealthy patrons.  I believe it was via introduction that they met, and were married in the downtown Brooklyn, NY community where many immigrant families lived. Around the time of my grandparents’ marriage (I gather through research of records), Aunt Angela, who had become like a mother to my grandmother, died in an influenza epidemic. When I look at my grandmother’s wedding portrait I actually sense sadness and a determination in her eyes.


My grandmother, using her needles to earn a living, continued to find joy in her craft, in personal ways. I remember the pace of her long and short strokes, which gave a rhythm and animation to the intricate doilies, cloths and clothing she would create at home.  My grandmother’s handwork communicated her love and respect for family. I believe she expressed herself throughout her life, through her work with threads and beads.

Plain sewing skills are necessary before learning embroidery. I imagine that my grandmother learned her practice of needle arts at the knee of her mother and then her aunt…just as I learned them at her knee. When I now think about my family’s family artifacts and stories, and the foundation of personal folklore and folkarts that has been formed through Grandma’s craft, I realize that I am tied also to roots of a silk-throwing culture that began for my family in mid-1800s, in Italy.
Reclaiming the Folk art in My Heritage
Does inspiration always come by looking through a rear view mirror into culture? For me that is what happened. I decided last year to visit Villa San Giovanni, to try to glimpse the ancient processes and rituals are at the heart of art, to give it new meaning in my life.  My trip was a brief one – stumbling through history, visits to the comune office and quick intros to distant family still remaining – all with no command of my grandmother’s native language. Because of the devastating Earthquakes in Villa San Giovanni, many records were lost. But through Calabria researchers I was able to find some scraps of information regarding the local craft of sericulture. This handcraft was practiced in small mills. Due to a mix of earthquakes, Italian politics and wealthier regions adapting the practice more efficiently – the local industry eventually dried up. So when I returned there was nothing left save for the bones of old factories and scattered mulberry trees in the hills. As a result, I have clung even more tightly to the few pieces of my grandmother’s handiwork that have survived….and take pride knowing that she was a bearer of a beautiful traditions that evolved in many ways, in a mix of experiences and under the influence of family as teachers.  

The Christening Gown
My collection includes my grandmother’s needlework in both silks and delicate crochet cottons.  There are her traditional Italian lace doilies, her tablecloths with fine embroidery and drawn thread designs, her beaded purses and the crocheted sweater made for my mom.  Core to my collection is the 1916 christening gown, slip and cap made from linen and embellished with silks and details. This I know: The gown was created with such love and attention for my dad, Francis Anthony Surfaro, the first born son of Italian immigrant artisans.

The embroidery I see on the christening gown needs no interpretation if you look at it from an atheistic sense – all lovers of beauty I suspect will admire her work.  Almost a century after it was made the garment conveys an expression of skilled art generated from a deep pride in a heritage that I would like to make my own.  When the gown, so carefully preserved by my grandparents and parents, was passed on to me, I began to look more carefully at the details of the christening gown – the stitches, patterns, and smocking that was evidence of my grandmother’s skill in the practice of traditional Italian silk and needlework arts. At first glance, an observer might just see a pretty garment. But, looking closer, a layering craftsmanship is revealed that communicated the depth of the heritage I seek to reclaim.
To this day, more than 55 years after her death, my grandmother’s silk is still the fabric of life for me. It’s the thread that dances in the embroidery of that very special christening gown made in 1916 for my dad, a gown also worn by me in 1950 and then again by my son, when he was christened in 1983.

Grandmother, in My Mind’s Eye

The cream-colored christening gown has lived most of its life nested in a dresser drawer. But it is alive on its own, still, because of my grandmother’s work and because of my mom’s care. It is alive because it is scented with family but especially with my father and most recently my son. I hope it will stay in my family, generation after generation, where children and mothers will feel its linen and the embossed designs and know it came from a rich history and it came from love.

It came from my grandmother’s belief and pride in her culture, and from a generosity to share with her community, when she brought her first son into a new world. I know holding him in that christening gown, in America, was an unspeakable emotion, with visions of a future limitless in front of her, such pride in her child and where he would go.

The gown speaks to me more, now. I see it as a marker of my family history. The gown is a symbol of a rare craft and of Italian American hope in a free new world. The gown is a symbol of sadness, too, because in it I watch the end of a passing of a traditional art. I was too young to learn its subtleties from my grandmother. As a teen I employed sewing arts passed along by my mom, but I did not pursue to intricacies of the embellishment arts, including the embroidery. How I wished I had asked more questions, learned more, to be able someday to teach the skill to my own grandchildren. The importance of the tradition is not enough, but it is the base from which I am learning reclamation.


The christening gown is symbolic of my personal process to reclaim heritage. I still ask myself many questions in my research – some answers will never be found. Who knows if the silks my grandmother used were from Calabria silkworms, nurtured by Calabrian white mulberries?  My grandmother’s mom, who worked in the silk mill in Villa San Giovanni, could have woven those threads. This I would like to believe. There are treads upon threads of beautiful and sturdy strands in the gown, still firm today.

The very finely detailed flowers, balls and lines of stitches, using Venetian lace designs and Sicilian drawn threadwork, smocking and patterning: How long did the gown take her to make? When did she start it? How did she feel when she gave birth to my dad and christened him, for the entire world to see, the first Surfaro in America?

I have a formal portrait, 1916, of my father in his christening gown. I have an old and crumbling photo of my grandmother and grandfather at their wedding ceremony. Stern and proper as the style of the day dictated, their proud gaze moved me today. I see a glimpse of such hope in her eyes. You will see it, I think, in the photo I send to accompany this story.

I was young, but I always will remember sitting alongside my grandmother in the kitchen or in her backyard garden, filled with mint leaves, basil and other herbs. It was all one in the kitchen, this practice of sewing and cooking and family talk. Keeping the memory strong reinforces my reclamation.

When Grandma died, my mom gathered many things, including the christening gown. I am glad she did.

After Brett’s christening day 30 years ago, I put the gown back in my drawer… and it has stayed with me ever since. I carried it here to Tucson, Arizona where it speaks strongly to me. It tells me of lost rituals of hand and thread.


In reclaiming the symbols of the christening gown, lately I have been feeling great, joyful power. Perhaps in my retirement I will learn to make something beautiful to sit alongside the gown.  I know I will continue to honor the skills and traditions brought alive in the gown. May the gown anchor my family folklore, and help my family reclaim the great pride it symbolizes, for generations to come.




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Paper & Thread: Japanese Tradition in Tucson, May 15

Beautiful Fukumi wraps her temari thread balls in the traditions of her ancestors, in an art so vibrant with symbolism and beauty. Fukumi learned the traditional arts from her grandmother, who owned a textile factory in Japan. Fukumi’s favorite temari is the Chrysanthemum (Kiku) design.

Fukumi demonstrates annually at Tucson Meet Yourself, and on Wednesday, May 15 it is with joy that I help host a demonstration and display of Fukumi’s arts at Ben’s Bells in downtown Tucson. At this free event  Fukumi will demonstrate her exquisite work in the art of furoshiki (cloth folding), tamari (thread art) and origami (paper art).  Those who attend also will be treated to sweet or savory Japanese snacks, bottles of Ramune or green tea.

Fukumi’s website is Desert Origami. Please come to Ben’s Bells on May 15 and enjoy!

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Writing online, seriously

Our obsession with online is disrupting journalism again and again. With everyone reading these days via smartphone or tablet (one in three minutes online is now spent on mobile devices), we writers wonder how best to write for the web.

In cyberspace, the way to tell stories (of people, experiences and ideas I encounter) is differeTucson, writing, pennt. What I remember when I write for the web:

  • Readers are scanners these days. Thus: Ruthlessly edit text and ensure that content contains clear heads, simple short paragraphs with words highlighted as hyperlinks. Ensure that each sentence I write moves the story forward.
  • Copy is classic. Retain the traditional inverted pyramid, moving copy from the critical to the less vital details.
  • Let people explore concepts thoroughly, by providing links in your content
  • Be mindful of accessibility as you visualize your page, even in a blog post. Accessibility is an issue for people with limited sight, for example. I write in headlines; I prepare alt text for images. I explain content of hyperlinks.
  • Newsprint (inverted L) design is relevant. Always guide the reader’s eye with effective, simple flow.
  • Use bullets when possible. People like bulleted lists.
  • Be compelling and conversational.
  • Don’t lose your focus on quality, grammar and punctuation.
  • Write in the active voice, in the all-present web medium.
  • Web writing is unique! Write with title tags and keywords!

There’s good advice across the web to help you understand the surfers and the readers. I’m a fan of Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox and suggest his site for resources on how users read on the web.

I’m also a fan of the Poynter Institute’s e-learning projects for journalism training, and suggest The Writer’s Workbench for effective tools.

Here’s an inspirational post for writers who want to hone their craft.

Travel writers (and the curious) should read this blog post.

Rambling through the Tucson desert, touching Reggio Calabria towns of my ancestors, or even revisiting my cherished Brooklyn – I realize my travels have stories to tell. I reach within to my training from decades ago, and know that the craft of journalism is not dead. 

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Writer Resources: Curate Content & More

Winter rains have reached our desert, invigorating our plants,  sustaining our wildlife, and greening our mountains. Tucson is refreshed!

It’s also a busy writing time in Tucson, with Gem Show and Rodeo fever upon us. It’s time to sharpen skills in my craft, energize my blogs and ensure strong SEO tools are in place to support my content. We know that in this saturated world of infographics and blogging, it isn’t easy to gain traction. But I am following a few simple steps, and offer them for your reference:

  • Enliven content on a regular basis. Need ideas? Create infographics with varied data sources that are visually stimulating and contain solid info chunks that are good for sharing. Here’s a list of sites that value great infographics.
  • Leverage current events without being “just another voice” in a sea of opinions.  Speak from your soul and not for what’s trending.
  • Content curation is highly effective to boost the credibility and professionalism of your work. See this list for the best in content curation tools.
  • Some other useful SEO tools for your ongoing analysis and support:
    1. Compare your keywords; map with competitors in mind. Of course use Google Keyword tools. Yahoo!Clues is interesting to see how people search.
    2. I like Social Mention to tap sentiment about brands, companies and issues.
    3. There’s been a lot of talk about new Facebook page reach. I often manage Facebook for business and non-profit accounts (as well as posting my own) and it’s important to understand new algorithms. Here is a good post that breaks down the four factors of Facebook post optimization.

I hope your 2013 writing calendar is full of challenging assignments. But please take time to regularly sit with yourself, to put aside frantic deadlines and listen to silence and to what nature reveals to you. With spirit refreshed, your writing will flow beyond the noise and be more effective for your clients, more satisfying for you.

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I Am Tucson, So Are You

The joyful mosaic nearby the historic Charles Brown House in Downtown Tucson challenges all of us to reclaim our own definition of civic engagement. How do you actively participate in your city? How are you Tucson, too?

Immersion is a key word. It’s not just a matter of visiting a gallery opening or frequenting a restaurant (although supporting local economies is critical). Civic engagement should go beyond the monthly meeting and become a life process. For me, this translates into my writing and work with folklife — my way of contributing to society by celebrating civic entrepreneurs,  reporting on the history, artists, nature or the economics of what is sustainable and local, and documenting our community sense of place that creates the unique fabric that is Tucson.

How are you a community-builder? Examine your actions every day for your answer. Relationships – how you partner with people or new ideas around you determines how you combine efforts to make our world a better place. How you join with others defines true civic stewardship.

My thanks to Ben’s Bells, a wonderful organization that not only constructed the mosaic, “I am Tucson,” (with me pictured above), but also works outside conventional compartments of community engagement. Jeannette (Ben’s Bell’s founder) is an inspiration of kindness, engagement and stewardship.


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In Tucson, Remembrance Lives On

Tucson Writer Day of the Dead PhotographTonight, in Tucson, be prepared for oddly-adorned participants who walk in reverence and celebration.It’s a special night in Tucson, our All Souls Procession. The Procession whispers of ancient times and celebrates a cycle of life and death in a Fall ritual that links spirituality, art and spectacle.

The All Souls Procession is 21-plus years of annual remembrance. It began as a personal expression of grief for artist Susan Kay Johnson to honor her father’s passing. I often wonder what Susan feels about the evolution of her expression of remembrance.

Tonight’s Procession is the centerpiece of joyful community gathering, a tradition that nourishes the spirit of the living while creatively remembering the dead. There are 20,000-plus involved, including waves of angels, skeletons with carts or floats awash in glow lights, candles and paper lanterns. A Grande Finale at the Mercado San Agustin culminates in a ritual performance by Flam Chen and a symbolic fiery cleansing with a huge Urn.

Tucson Writer Day of the Dead PhotoParticularly in light of the terrible chaos and death wrought by Hurricane Sandy…because of the terrible division we see in this country wrought by extremist politics – tonight’s procession carries great meaning. I hope the tradition continues, and I’ve contributed dollars as I can to the non-profit responsible. The Red Cross needs our dollars, too, as does non-partisan believers like Gabby Giffords/Captain Mark Kelly’s PAC.

Remember tonight, and vote on Tuesday.

More on my other Tucson Cowgirl blog here.

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Tucson writer re-learns the art of cursive

Mont Blanc, writing cursiveI am a writer without her keyboard tools these days. After one of Tucson’s wonderful monsoons, I was walking and paying attention to the refreshed desert (not my footing). I took a nasty tumble on a steep hill covered in wet pebbles. Seconds of inattention netted two broken wrist bones. Typing is nearly impossible for the next eight weeks, unless I peck with one hand. And thus I have turned to pen and paper for my interviewing and my note-taking.

Although not without its negatives (pain, uncomfortable cast, etc.), the incident has given me a huge, unexpected blessing: I have re-awakened to the joys of handwriting.

True, I can’t live without my mobile tech and my computers. But this mis-adventure has reminded of the pleasures of ink-to-paper, of crafting words with a favorite pen and a lovely notebook. For some reason – maybe just the additional time needed to use the pen and paper, or holding a fountain pen – but I feel more pleasure and power in my writing.

And I have a chance now to look at the letters that make up my words and admire their beauty. Call me old fashioned but, I love the elegance and design of the handwritten. There is a life to cursive – a unique and personal, human flow associated with handwriting.  The swirl of the “S” or the unique script of “E” forms my personal identity and allows me self-expression.

I’ve always shared a love of paper and pens with my brother Steve Surfaro and, because he travels extensively as an engineer and security consultant, I’ve benefited: I treasure his gifts of Japanese paper, Moleskin journals, tiny pencils and, gloriously, the Mont Blanc pen (pictured in this post). When I’m feeling down I can take out my Mont Blanc, select a pretty ink color, and write my troubles away.

We all have mementos that include handwritten letters, yes? The penmanship (of past lovers, good friends, family now deceased) brings back wonderful memories. How these letters on paper trigger so many emotions is a tribute to the power of cursive, which will never outlive its usefulness.

Read the Wall Street Journal reporting on a scientific study that reveals a positive link between penmanship and learning.

Read the New York Times article on the case for cursive handwriting.

And one more CNN report on handwriting influence in a quality life.

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Tucson Writers of Folklore, A Field School Experience

I completed my first field school! It’s part of my journey to rediscover my ancestry and my connections to Italian sericulture (silk throwing) traditions.  The field school was an academic and creative writing experience — a  process challenging me and allowing me to focus on self, place, heritage and the cultural arts relevant to my history.

At Native Seed Search headquarters, in desert lands near the Rillito River, about 27 of us joined folklorists in a journey to celebrate folklore, hone skills and shape stories. My brain is still churning from the learning, but before this weekend is over I want to post a quick note about this amazing intercultural writers’ experience.

It’s a note of thanks to teachers, led by Dr. Maribel Alvarez (and managed within her Tucson Meet Yourself projects). Faculty included folklorist Dr. Jim Griffith, doctoral candidate and founding executive director of Voices Regina Kelly, and Arts Institute instructor/digital storyteller guru Therese Perreault. They fed us generously with their knowledge as well as their experiences in the cultural eco-systems of life.

Expressive culture, says Maribel, are those layers of embellishment and knowledge that reflect the practices of people as they express their community and traditions.  When we experience other people in the context of their rituals, tools, clothes, food, music, arts and stories, isn’t it true that we are so enriched? If you have attended a Native American ceremony, eaten a new ethnic food, heard a folk legend, or attended the Tucson Meet Yourself folklife festival, I think you know what I mean.

So for a few days our enthusiastic group dove into study of the multi-cultural, as a backbone for our own individual research. Unique, heart-warming, incredible projects are underway as a result of this class. I look forward to keeping in touch with my partners as they work through their research and produce results.

For now, here are three resource tips for those looking to conduct their own research projects in folklore writing:

  1. A most detailed reference book on field research, and on establishing our own voice, methodologies and writing of folklore projects is Fieldworking.I bought the book and love it.
  2. If you’re interested in folklore and don’t own a Jim Griffith book — go get one! I have three. And in the meantime listen to some audio of Jim, discussing traditional arts, Native American stories, traditional foods, traditional arts and more.
  3. Keep in touch with local folklore. In Tucson, sign-up to receive copies of the BorderLore newsletter, which is now part of Tucson Meet Yourself. I’ll be editing a few editions over the summer and hope you’ll be with me, to share or comment. Viva our own voices, our personal stories.

Note: the flip chart detail is from Dr. Maribel Alvarez’s opening lecture.



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Random Writing, 2008, True Today

“Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern —
it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that . . . one stitch
at a time, taken patiently.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oh, how I love this quote! It assures me that all this small projects I have started eventually will flower. All it takes is patience (and some talent, I hope!).

And how appropriate the quote is today, especially. In 2008, when I pondered the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote,  I was home  mending from an operation. Today there are still reasons for me to take life patiently, one stitch at a time this week.

Every once in a while God sends us an email (in the form of world tragedies, neighbors in calamity, economic messes, personal frustrations) to illustrate the frailty of life, the preciousness of the day-to-day.

Stop! Look! Listen! And enjoy. It’s all about right now, right here.

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