The Tarahumara: A People Apart (National Geographic)

By Cynthia Gorney
National Geographic contributing writer

The Tarahumara of Mexico evaded Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century. But can they survive the onslaught of modernity?

Each star in the night sky is a Tarahumara Indian whose souls—men have three and women have four, as they are the producers of new life—have all, finally, been extinguished. These are things anthropologists and resident priests tell you about the beliefs of the Tarahumara people, who call themselves the Rarámuri, and who live in and above the canyons of northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, where they retreated five centuries ago from invading Spaniards. The Spaniards had not only firearms and horses but also disturbing beard hair; from their presence came the Rarámuri word chabochi, which to this day means anyone who is not Tarahumara. Chabochi is not an insult, exactly, just a way of dividing the world. Its literal translation, which goes a long way toward evoking the current relationship between the Tarahumara and the rest of 21st-century Mexico, is “person with spiderwebbing across the face.”

The Tarahumara are reticent and private people who live long distances from each other, in small adobe or wood houses, or caves, or homes partway under outcroppings so that the rock itself provides the roofing. They brew an alcoholic beverage from corn, which they grow in small fields they plow by hand, and on celebratory occasions they gather to pass the drink from person to person, taking swigs from a hollowed half gourd, until they become voluble or dreamy or belligerent and lie down on the ground to sleep it off. They are extraordinary endurance runners, having lived for generations amid a transportation network of narrow footpaths through the canyons; Rarámuri means “foot-runner” or “he who walks well,” and they’ve been known to irritate American ultramarathoners by beating them while wearing huarache sandals and stopping now and then for a smoke.

They regard work as necessary for survival but lacking intrinsic moral merit of its own, and secondary to spiritual obligations and other matters of the soul. Their traditional economy is conducted by means of barter, not cash; they have a word for sharing that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish or English: “kórima,” a Tarahumara woman may say, opening her palm for what a chabochi would call charity. There will be no thank you for the proffered coin, though, as kórima implies the obligation to distribute wealth for the benefit of everyone.

They also eat a lot of Maruchan, the Japanese instant noodles that come in plastic-foam tubs. Foil-wrapped potato chips, too, and plastic liters of Coca-Cola, and Tecate beer in pop-top cans—you can spend six hours rattling in a four-wheel-drive pickup toward the deepest remove of a Tarahumara canyon, hairpinning around crumbling dirt roads hacked straight out of the cliffs, until the truck winds around the very last drop-off, and the sun is setting and the smoke is curling from distant chimneys and the sound of ceremonial drums is floating up from somewhere way below, and there along the footpaths are two empty soda bottles and a discarded tub of Maruchan. These are useful for holding the romantic chabochi imagination in check. By the most recent government count, 106,000 Tarahumara live in Mexico, making them one of the largest indigenous groups in North America; the majority still live in relative isolation in the area Mexico promotes as Copper Canyon, but both the place-name and the image of its inhabitants sketched by tourist outfits (“They live a simple life undisturbed by modern technologies,” reads one online write-up) turn out to be fragments, understatements, misleading in the neatness of their packaging.

The Copper Canyon itself, for example, or Barranca del Cobre, is actually only one of a dozen massive canyons in this part of the Sierra Madre. Several of them are deeper than the Grand Canyon. And chabochi commerce, legal and illegal, is pushing hard into all of them. The narco industry is increasing its use of the canyons for marijuana and opium poppy cultivation, displacing Tarahumara families from their corn, bean, and squash fields. Government efforts to bring roads and schoolbooks into Tarahumara communities are also bringing cheap tequila, thugs with guns, and all the chatarra, as Mexicans call junk food, hardy enough to stack up in makeshift general stores with no electricity. Traditional Tarahumara men wear wide headbands and loin coverings that leave their legs bare even when it’s freezing, but many more now wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, and pointy-toed boots in leather dyed to match their belts. Most Tarahumara women still wear multicolored head scarves and long skirts of flowery prints or deep-hued pleats or billowy pastels gathered into scallops like fancy window drapes. But some now wear blue jeans too.

The region’s first commercial airport is scheduled to be built in Creel, the former logging center whose present-day economy depends on the scenic railway line that runs through town. Government planners envision a subsequent hotel boom to accommodate eventual jetloads of new tourists. Officials in Chihuahua, the Mexican state encompassing most of the Tarahumara territory, are courting private investors for a proposed canyon-rim complex—bungee jumps, a chasm-spanning gondola, more hotels, and an “Indian village” for the permanent display of “rituals, ceremonies, and clothes”—to be built farther west on the railway route, along what’s now a tourist overlook crowded with Tarahumara vendors. The vendors are nearly all women and children, offering the baskets and weavings they have learned tourists like. Girls not yet old enough for school, or old enough but nonetheless spending their days hawking souvenirs, hold up fistfuls of braided bracelets while repeating the first Spanish they ever learned: “¿Compra?—Want to buy?”

The Copper Canyon development plan is full of uncertainty and controversy—the airport construction has already been delayed many times, and environmental arguments continue, especially since the whole Sierra region suffers from periodic drought. (Promises of ecological sensitivity weren’t going over well last spring, when everybody I met, including government officials, knew that one already existing hotel had for years been dumping its raw sewage into the nearest canyon; the owner, who insists septic repairs are under way, happens to be a former state tourism director.) But there’s a wider, more universally familiar drama taking place throughout the Sierra Tarahumara, as the territory is also called. With or without the airport, modern Mexico is arriving, permeating an indigenous culture that managed for a long time to keep outsiders largely at bay. Every impulse to imagine that this makes things simple, though—a once harmonious native people, defiled by invaders with misguided notions of what it means to be civilized—is yanked away in short order by the people who actually live in the canyons.

The clinic nurse in the Sierra Madre town of San Rafael, a 35-year-old half-Tarahumara woman named Lorena Olivas Reyes, says her Tarahumara patients are sufficiently chabochified—that’s the term in the Sierra, chabochiado—that she doesn’t have to invent a new Rarámuri construction for the phrase “high blood pressure,” which does not exist in Rarámuri. She is able to use Spanish when she explains to her patients that they, like chabochis, are now suffering from alta presión. Lorena has high, sculpted cheekbones and thick, waist-length black hair, which is wound into a tidy chignon while she’s at work in San Rafael. Whenever I’ve seen her at the clinic, she’s been in her nursing whites, looking regal and severe as she moves efficiently among the Tarahumara women in their glorious long skirts.

Lorena first migrated from the place where she grew up, a canyon-walled Tarahumara settlement called Guagüeyvo, when she was 13 years old. She climbed out, literally—there was no road then, and the exit trails head right up the canyon slope—because she loved learning, and the next available grades were in a school too many hours away for even a foot-runner child to navigate every day. I learned this the day Lorena and I convinced a San Rafael carpenter to drive us the five hours to Guagüeyvo in his pickup truck, along with Lorena’s three sons, an old bicycle, a tub of lard, a wheel of cheese, a bag of foil-wrapped chocolates, and two rose plants for her mother’s garden.

It was the Thursday of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the pre-Easter days that mark the most sacred time of the Tarahumara year. Jesuit priests first brought Christianity to the Sierra Tarahumara during the 1600s, but they were thrown out a century later, when political tensions prompted the Spaniards to expel all Society of Jesus members from New Spain, and by the time the Jesuits returned in 1900, Tarahumara religious practice had morphed into an intensely held juxtaposition, Catholic liturgy combined with ancient faith, that prevails now in much of the Sierra Madre. Things happen in the canyons during Semana Santa that would startle most Christian outsiders coming upon them for the first time—there’s a Judas-in-effigy part a newcomer might fret about allowing a small child to watch; and the Pharisees, the pious Jews of the biblical era, assume primary roles in a pageant of running, drumming, dancing, drinking, and battle. It makes for powerful spectacle, the men sometimes painting their faces and torsos in fierce pointillist arrangements of white against skin, and every spring the weeklong ceremonies attract thousands of visitors to the Sierra. They don’t come to Guagüeyvo, though, as it’s not even marked on some maps. The whole community is a scattering of dwellings around a brushy concave place in the cliffs, and inside Lorena’s family’s kitchen we sat around a long table at dusk, eating hot tortillas, which her mother, Fidencia, kept lifting off the stove top and dropping onto a plastic plate.

“How’s it going with the dancing?” Lorena asked.

“The lead Pharisee fell and broke his leg,” Fidencia said.

They were speaking in Spanish, which Fidencia learned in the Rarámuri elementary school, several hours’ walk from the cave where she was born, during the years before she married Lorena’s father, Catarino Olivas Mancinas. He is a miner’s descendant, from a non-Tarahumara family that goes back a long way in the Sierra Madre. The house he keeps adding on to is among the nicest in Guagüeyvo: extra sleeping rooms with mattresses for the adult children and grandchildren who also live here, plus concrete floors, and a porch with pried-out automobile bench seats for sofas. There’s a small solar panel too, which illuminates a couple of buzzing yellow lamps after dark; a road to Guagüeyvo was finally built three years ago, its dirt surface just wide enough for the delivery of electrical poles, but the poles aren’t functional yet. Fidencia has been told electricity will come soon. When it does, Lorena will bring her a refrigerator.

This was something to contemplate, this refrigerator. I knew precisely what it would look like: black and shiny. It belongs to Lorena, and at present it’s in her kitchen in San Rafael, where there are a couple of paved streets, and most of the houses have electric hookups and flush toilets. It had been a year since Lorena and Fidencia had last seen each other, and although their reunion had been reserved—Fidencia lumbering toward her daughter and nodding and accepting a light embrace—Fidencia now stayed close by Lorena’s side as the two of them patted out tortillas and tossed them on the stove. The corn for the tortillas was from the previous season’s harvest. Fidencia had collected dried blue kernels that morning, soaked the corn in water from the storage tank outside, cranked the corn through the hand grinder on the porch, and smashed the grindings into meal on the stone metate, the one she brought from the family cave, the kind her grandmother had used, and her great-great-great-grandmother also. Then Fidencia had gone outside again, to haul in an armload from the woodpile and start a fire in the iron stove.

The tortillas were thick and tasted delicious. Fidencia had pulled a chicken from the coop that morning and beheaded it and de-feathered it and dismembered it with a knife before dropping it into the pot, so there was the aroma of simmering caldo, meat and vegetable soup. She was wearing a flowery rose-colored skirt, a bright blue sweatshirt, and a bandanna tied under her chin. Her arms looked as strong as a weight lifter’s. (“You know how I get rid of being tired when I’m at work?” Lorena asked me later. “I say to myself, My mother is more tired than I am.”) I had heard one of the Jesuits remark that the expanding network of truck-navigable roads was causing the Tarahumara to lose their walking and running endurance over long distances, and now with my mouth full of tortilla in the golden light of the stove fire, I found myself envisioning electricity in Guagüeyvo as a pileup of metallic chabochi objects with cords sticking out—push-button grinders, digital clocks, hair dryers, the new black refrigerator, TVs broadcasting telenovelas between commercials for mascara and laundry soap. I asked Fidencia how she would react, should somebody bring all these items into her home, and she stopped looking at her daughter long enough to take me in for a moment, gravely but kindly, as though she were trying to figure out whether I could possibly be as stupid as I appeared.

“That would be very good,” she said.

When I glanced at Lorena, she was trying, with Tarahumara dignity, not to laugh.

The choice of the Sierra Madre as a strategic retreat from the Spaniards all those centuries ago is both the gift and the burden of the Tarahumara today. Their ancestors weren’t cowards or pacifists; histories recount violent rebellions among Tarahumara in less remote mission and mining centers, where colonists used them for brute labor while trying to press them into European-style village living. But as a people, the Tarahumara survived largely because of what a Sierra priest described to me as a gift for the evasive maneuver—and here the priest clapped his right hand over his left and then slithered the left out gently from underneath, like a fish slipping through a crack in the rocks.

The geography that made the Tarahumara’s lands so inaccessible to conquerors, though, made them irresistible to a succession of plunderers. The peaks and canyons contained silver and other minerals, which drew miners as early as the 17th century. The forests attracted loggers, who leveled the trees and eventually—under the initial leadership of a late 1800s American engineer—got a railway built to carry out the spoils. The construction effort lasted almost 80 years; the completed track that winds through the Sierra Madre, with its high bridges and multiple tunnels, is a marvel of railway engineering. These days the logs are brought out by truck (still in reckless numbers, logging critics say, despite their admonitions about the degradation of the forest), and the principal train now using the Sierra track is called the Chihuahua Pacífico, or more familiarly, the Chepe. It’s pronounced CHEH-peh, and its main job is hauling tourists.

Tarahumara and other locals ride the second-class Chepe regularly, en route to the towns or seasonal fruit-picking jobs just beyond the mountains. But the real Chepe money comes from outsiders, Mexican and foreign, who crane their necks out the railcar half-doors and disembark at the overlooks, where the first full view of the canyons is so astonishing, such a dizzying display—the Copper label isn’t from the mineral, but rather from the luminous colors of the massive sunlit cliffs—that the next exploitable resource is obvious: grandeur. You’re standing there blinking, taking it in, thinking: This is too beautiful. There are too many people with money who want a piece of this, including the entire development-hungry nation of Mexico. It’s not a fair fight.

Scholars of the Tarahumara say their culture is remarkable in its tenacity—that for centuries they have sidestepped one form of chabochi interference after another, which is why the language remains vigorous, the religious beliefs intense, and so many women still wear the scarf and long skirt. Once I watched a women’s race outside a grim-looking Rarámuri enclave in Chihuahua city, where thousands of Tarahumara have migrated to live in close-quartered ghettos that take up entire blocks. The Tarahumara do much of their running in a traditional form of Rarámuri competition, people gathering to bet livestock or other possessions on the outcome. The men race in staggeringly long trail runs, wearing huaraches or barefoot, while steadily kicking a baseball-size wooden sphere. When the women run, they fling and catch hoops with long sticks as they go, and that’s how the girls and young women were running through the streets of Chihuahua, huaraches slapping the pavement, skirts flapping at their calves. Behind the cheering spectators, who looked to be their aunts and grandmothers, the wagered goods were heaped hip high: a mound of Rarámuri garments, brilliant as jockey silks.

But the mound was on a concrete sidewalk. Behind it, the warren of living quarters was as crowded as buildings I’d seen Tarahumara in the canyons use for sheltering goats. There are teachers and carpenters inside the tiny apartments of Rarámuri enclaves, and resident elders respectfully deferred to for community leadership, and university students majoring in anthropology or industrial engineering. But there are also narco workers, everybody knows that, and teenage boys slouched against the walls with their caps turned backward, and glue sniffers and beggars, and girls having babies at 13, and diabetes cases to go along with the junk-food obesity and the alta presión. These aren’t entirely urban scourges, either; in Guagüeyvo I met a young chabochi doctor who kept a clinic wall chart of malnutrition cases in children under five—60 such cases as of this past spring, he told me, the combined consequence of poverty, depleted crops, and alcoholic parents too dulled by corn brew or trucked-in liquor to understand that their children are not getting enough to eat.

“The life of the Tarahumara has changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 300,” a Creel priest named Pedro Juan de Velasco Rivero told me. He is one of a group of Sierra-based Jesuits who serve as traveling clerics and Tarahumara-chabochi intermediaries—several speak excellent Rarámuri—and who are now among Mexico’s most adamant critics of chabochi culture’s effect upon the Tarahumara. Outside of the state tourism office it’s hard to find anyone in Chihuahua who believes wholeheartedly in the Copper Canyon development blueprint, with its vast glass-and-steel canyon-rim scaffolding and its enthusiastic estimates of the size of the potential visitor market: 7.2 million from the U.S., one brochure declares in headline, another 5.5 million from Mexico. But I heard chabochis and even a few Tarahumara say the region could use this economic boost—some built-up tourist facilities and a local commercial airport. Poverty is not noble, one Creel hotel owner said heatedly, even when it lives in splendid canyons and dresses in beautiful skirts.

To which the priests reply: Jobs cleaning hotel rooms, with pretty paintings of Tarahumara on the lobby walls, are no advancement at all. “Don’t pretend these are projects to help the Tarahumara,” de Velasco said crisply. “They’re to attract tourists and increase private profits. A ‘Tarahumara village’ is an absurdity—a lie, really. A gondola over the canyon would be a desecration. And this is an area without water; one new hotel will use more in a day than what a Tarahumara family consumes in a year. With what the government is preparing to invest for hotels, they could bring potable water to all the Tarahumara, which would be much more useful to them than creating a fake village where they can sell things.”

After dark in Guagüeyvo, on the night before Good Friday, people began gathering outside the church, a half mile from Lorena’s parents’ house, across a fallow cornfield and a rocky stream gully. The drumming hadn’t stopped; it would continue all night, off and on, and throughout the next 51 hours. Semana Santa rituals had been explained to me by anthropologists, by Tarahumara in other communities, by relatives in Fidencia’s kitchen, and there wasn’t much overlap in the explanations. The drumming, for example: It starts up three weeks before Semana Santa, all over the Sierra Madre, and a soft-voiced woman stirring lunch stew at a Rarámuri school had told me the sound keeps God from dozing off, because the devil comes nearest this time of the year.

When I tried this on Fidencia, she replied along the lines of, “Isn’t that interesting,” in a let’s-humor-the-chabochi sort of way, and shrugged. We drum because it’s time to drum, she said, sounding exactly like my grandmothertrying to remember why a wine glass gets stomped on at the end of Jewish weddings. The Pharisees applying paint to their bodies; the costumed soldiers carrying decorated wooden swords; the shoulder-borne bowers containing Jesus and the Virgin; the straw effigy of Judas—startlingly shaped, one can’t help but notice, to suggest the recent ingestion of a lot of Viagra—these are Semana Santa elements replicated all over the Sierra Madre, the crucifixion story superimposed upon planting-season ceremonies, good-over-evil catharsis, and a pre-Christian reverence for the rain, the sun, the moon.

In Guagüeyvo I made one delicate inquiry about Judas’s anatomy, having waited for a moment when no men were present, and every woman in the room hooted with laughter. But nobody was sure about the answer, and a visiting nun said she gathered the intent was to make Judas look ridiculous. “Remember, he’s a traitor,” the nun said. “And he’s about to be destroyed.”

Now the moon was full as Lorena and I started out across the cornfield. I had put on a skirt and tied a bandanna over my hair, wanting to appear respectful, and Lorena, who was in the corduroy jeans she’d been wearing all day, looked at me reproachfully. “You dressed up,” she said, and sighed. “Well, OK.”

She went back into the house and came out wearing a skirt and scarf—but the scarf was wrapped as a headband, not tied under her chin. As we walked in the moonlight toward the churchyard, where Lorena’s cousins were beating the goatskin drums and dancing in snaky lines, she shoved rocks out of the way with her athletic shoes. “I’m not putting on huaraches, though” she said. “I get too many stones under my feet.”

It’s so easy to absorb this in a certain way, the mixed-heritage woman in battle with her own identity, and so on. But Lorena’s father was in the churchyard already, playing a Tarahumara wood flute with his eyes closed as men with painted faces traced a slow skipping grapevine around him. He is a lean, dark-skinned man who had shaken my hand without comment when I arrived, fixed his gaze on me for a time, and then said abruptly, “Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?” After he heard my answer (home, in California), he nodded, asked me whether Osama bin Laden had been located yet, and went back to playing his flute. He and his twin brother were helping direct the Semana Santa ceremonies. They belong to Guagüeyvo. Lorena does not, not anymore, because she wants for herself and her three young sons things the canyon’s isolation and inadequate elementary school can’t provide. After she began working as a nurse, she came home for five years, posted at the small medical facility the state had built beside the Guagüeyvo school. They offered to let her stay on. She elected not to. She no longer owns a Rarámuri skirt that fits.

“I am an indigenous woman,” Lorena said to me late that night, as we sat up talking; we were grappling with the idea of identity, what it means to be of one culture or another, and how easy it is to muddle things: When do efforts to preserve an indigenous culture begin to trap individuals in some romantic notion of what that culture is supposed to be? Lorena has no enthusiasm for the Copper Canyon development plan; room-cleaning jobs are not what her people need, she said, and she feels a little queasy when she sees the Rarámuri handicraft sellers looking solemn and colorful while the tourists take their pictures. But her reasons are fundamentally unsentimental: They don’t make enough money at it. They ought to charge more than they do. And their children ought to be in school. And they ought to stop teaching their sons how to drink.

A single candle was burning in the back room Lorena and I were sharing with two of her boys. It was past midnight. We could still hear the drums. “I feel so calm when I come here,” Lorena whispered.

Then she said, suddenly, “I’m going to have a birthday party when my son turns six. I’ll tell my sisters I want them to come. I want them to leave here. Maybe just for a few days. But I want them to see what it feels like in town.” She meant her two unmarried sisters, both younger, both minimally schooled, living in the family house. The older of the two has three children already, but the children’s father has another family in Guagüeyvo. “They could be bilingual nurses too, working in clinics,” Lorena whispered. “There is nothing for them here.”

Judas burned on Saturday morning. The vats of corn brew were dragged into the open, drinking began at first light, and hot pozole, corn stew made with a slaughtered goat and rabbits caught by Pharisees on the trail the day before, was dished from giant barrels outside a house up the canyon from Lorena’s. (“I would walk with you on the trails this afternoon to homes you are unable to see from here,” one of Lorena’s cousins said courteously, handing me a dish of pozole and a gourd of the corn brew, “but I plan to be extremely drunk.”) Then everybody tramped to the churchyard. The effigy was dragged to an open place, a black baseball cap on its head, and a half dozen drunk men fell upon it, shouting, kicking, ripping at the limbs. Finally someone put a match to Judas, and when there was nothing left but ashes and charred bits of straw, the drunk men stood back unsteadily, breathing hard.

Someone cried, “¿Ahora qué hacemos?”

Lorena broke up laughing. She shot me a look. She squeezed her five-year-old’s shoulders and repeated this, loudly. “¿Ahora qué hacemos?—What do we do next?”

Tags: Copper Cannyon,, Tarahumara, National Geographic