A journey to Mexico to meet the Tarahumara

The Tarahumara: tough times never last but tough people do

A Tarahumara ball player in Basihuare, Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua, Mexico (Photo by Gerard Tournebize).

A Tarahumara ball player in Basihuare, Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua, Mexico (Photo by Gerard Tournebize).

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment in a series depiciting the author's experiences in Mexico.

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico-Our comfortable tourist train rolled out of Los Mochis, an industrial town on Mexico's Sea of Cortez, and into the early morning darkness. We were headed inland, through Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) and the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Fifteen hours later, after a few stops along the way, we arrived in Ciudad Chihuahua. Our train rolled over 300 miles of tracks and cut through 28,000 square miles of some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.

Unlike the old "clickity-clack, clickity-clack, choo-choo" in that black-and-white Western with Humphry Bogart, the Ferrocarril de Chihuahua al Pacifico "Chepe" is a world class operation. And, for many of the 250,000 passengers from the four corners of the earth who ride the train each year, the experience is an adventure of a lifetime.

"Our Copper Canyon train ride has been ranked as one of the 10 Most Exciting Train Rides in the World by the Society of American Travel Writers," said Rosalva Delgado, Chepe general manager for tourism. "We are also highlighted in the book published by Barnes & Noble: Great Train Rides of the World," she added.

Delgado was pleased and proud to tell the story.

"This link through Copper Canyon was completed in l961 after an investment of $90 million dollars and 90 years of planning. It was developed as part of a larger rail system to shorten the distance from Kansas City to a port on the Pacific Ocean," she said. "The engineers shortened the distance by 400 miles. To lay tracks across this rugged terrain they had to construct 37 bridges and dig 86 tunnels. When their work was done they had created a masterpiece of Mexican civil engineering," Delgado added.

The Sierra Tarahumara (TAR-ah-hu-MAR-ah), as the mountain range is called in the Copper Canyon area, has long been home to a people even more fascinating than the scenery and the train. They are the Tarahumara Indians who lived on the fertile plains of northern Mexico, some 200 miles south of El Paso, Texas, long before the Spanish conquistadores arrived to serve the Lord and a quest for gold and glory. By all accounts the Tarahumara want nothing more from life than to be left alone.

For over 30 years now, I have been reading about the tough times currently confronting the Tarahumara. Since I am now retired and have more time on my hands I decided to visit Mexico and see what was going on.

Little is known about the Tarahumara before the arrival of the Spanish since they do not have a written language. Scholars believe they arrived in the area over 2,000 years ago as hunters and gatherers. With the discovery of a few farming techniques they settled down from their wandering ways to enjoy a more stable food supply.

In time, they met and mingled with other Native people and may have been involved with the trade routes that extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and north to such cultural centers as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Undoubted-ly they had contact with the more developed cultures, to the south, in central Mexico.

Linguistically, they are related to the Hopi, Pima and Tohono O'Odham through the Uto-Aztecan language. They are thought to have had "culture cousin" ties with the Chichimeca, who were antecedents of the Aztecs before the Aztecs left this area and headed south in search of "the eagle, perched on a cactus, devouring a snake." When they found the eagle and the snake they settled and developed one of the most advanced civilizations in the world.

According to the latest census, the Tarahumara number about 50,000 to 70,000, making them the second largest group (to the Navajos) of Native Americans in North America. Some contend that because they were able to prosper in this isolated area of the Sierra Madre for so long, they could be the purest ethnic group and the last free living-Indigenous people on the continent.

The Tarahumara are considered friendly, dignified and reclusive by all who come in contact with them. They are a devoutly spiritual people with beliefs and a moral code so strict that they are unable to tell a lie.

Initial contact with European civilization began with Jesuit missionaries who arrived in the Tarahumara territory in 1607. The Spanish priests, affectionately known as the "Black Robes," brought the Catholic religion and introduced agricultural implements such as irrigation, the iron plow, and the ax. They also introduced domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. These innovations played an important part in developing the traditional culture that the Tarahumara enjoy today.

The Jesuits were expelled from Nueva España by King Charles III, in 1767, for political reasons, and did not return to the Tarahumara country until l900. During their absence the Tarahumara developed a unique form of Catholic worship by mixing Christian rituals with their own traditional, pre-contact beliefs.

Siriames, traditional headmen, assumed duties normally reserved for priests. They performed marriages, baptisms, and provided religious instruction. When the Jesuits went home to Spain the spiritual guidance of the Tarahumara was under tribal control.

The Tarahumara developed a unique brand of Catholic worship that would probably never be recognized by the pope in Rome. However, the few Tarahumara that were observed at Sunday mass in the cathedral in Chihuahua did not seem uncomfortable or out of place in their traditional colorful dress.

In 1631 silver was discovered in the Tarahumara territory. An opportunity to get rich drew many non-Indian outsiders or chavochis (cha-bow-chees) to their homelands.

Tough times for the Tarahumara were about to begin. Initially, they were looked upon as a source of cheap labor for the Spaniards who enslaved them to work in the mines. Their farmlands were confiscated for the crops needed to feed the invaders.

To avoid abuse by chavochis and survive as a people, some sought solitude by moving off the fertile plains into the rugged mountains and inhospitable canyons. This reaction started their signature pattern for coping with chavochis and the tough times they inevitably presented for the Tarahumara.

In those early days, there was always sufficient space to hide in the isolated and remote canyons that are four times larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona and encompass an area larger than the Navajo Reservation. The recent introduction of the train and paved roadways have made the mountains and canyons more accessible. This in turn supports and facilitates unwelcomed contacts with the dominant Mexican culture and the modern technological world.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 huge land grants were given to individuals to help colonize the vast wilderness of Northern Mexico. While the land traditionally belonged to the Tarahumara, their rights were never recognized nor protected by treaties and a system of reservations that Indigenous people were provided with up north in the United States. Once again, when confronted by tough times, more Tarahumara headed into the mountains and canyons in a desperate attempt to be left alone and to get away from it all.

After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921), leaders like Pancho Villa, persuaded the Mexican government to divide the huge haciendas of the rich and distribute the land to the poor people in Mexico including the Tarahumara. The government created a system called ejidos -local agencies that held the land, in common, for the members of the community.

While the establishment of ejidos is often considered one of the greatest land reform movements in world history, the system failed to take into account the unique needs and cultural traits of the Tarahumara. The ejidos afforded no protection of their traditional lands from chabochis who were allowed to move onto Tarahumara land and settle.

Today most Tarahumara still prefer their traditional way of living in small family units scattered throughout isolated community settlements. The Jesuits organize them, with some success, into larger, more compact communities called pueblos. They implemented a community-building policy know as reducciones,- the intent of which was to encourage development of more centralized communities, that could provide the Tarahumara with some protection from the hostile chabochis.

Their basic community units, called ranchos, consist of three to seven families who share labor and material goods. There is no central government uniting all of the Tarahumara as a people and their pueblo is the largest socio-political agency to which they feel any allegiance.

Tarahumara build their homes around caves and under cliffs. Stone and wood materials are used to construct the walls. Corrugated metal material is used to cover the roofs. A few homes are constructed with adobe.

Household goods consist of little more than mats, hides for bedding, gourds and ceramic jars for storage and a mano and metate for grinding corn.

Corn comprises about 85 percent of their diet and is a food source not only for their bodies but their souls. Domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep and goats are bred primarily to produce fertilizer for their fields.

Traditionally their economic system encouraged self-sufficiency, for everyday needs, through bartering. Today, the Tarahumara are entering into the wage and cash economy of Mexico. These activities require extensive contact and inter-action with the dominant economic institutions of Mexico, i.e. mining, lumbering, tourism and seasonal work in nearby towns. The shift to a wage earning economy places a great deal of stress on their ability to fully participate in social, religious, and cultural activities. Earning wages may appear beneficial to outsiders but in reality they often detract from full participation in their cultural activities and traditional way of life.

Tarahumara crafts are becoming an important part of their culture and economic activities. Sales from their craftwork allows them to earn some income while remaining close to home.

See the next installment of this article in the Oct. 31 edition of the Navajo Hopi Observer.

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