The railway station at Divisadero, one of Copper Canyon's most popular stopovers in the southwest region of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, was a riot of activity. It was a shopper's delight and gave us a chance to buy Tarahumara handicrafts and gain a brief glimpse of Tarahumara women weaving baskets, indifferent to the clamor around them.
The calmness of these workingwomen was a vivid contrast to the chatter of the passengers waiting to board. These serene Tarahumara women were an indication as to why these indigenous people outlasted the Spanish Conquistadors, missionary indoctrination and European settlers. The Spanish initially encountered the Tarahumara (a name given to them by the Spaniards) in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the 16th century. In the ensuing years, as the Conquistadors encroached on their lands, the Tarahumaras retreated. Melting into the nearly inaccessible mountains, they followed their own way of life and survived undisturbed.
Subsequently, after minerals were discovered in their mountains, the Tarahumaras had to once again flee further into remote inhospitable canyons. The ensuing isolation helped greatly in the preservation of their language and traditions. Today, the 50 to 70 thousand Tarahumaras, scattered over 25,900 sq km (10,000 sq mi) of mountains and canyons of the Sierra Tarahumara (part of the western Sierra Madre Mountains), are one of the few groups of Mexican aboriginals who retain much of their pre-Colombian culture.
Calling themselves Rarámuri (meaning ‘the ones who run and walk’ or ‘those who walk correctly through life’, the Tarahumara remain today basically the same people as when the first Conquistadors, searching for the seven golden cities of Cebola, stormed through the Americas.
They are probably the most isolated and authentic of the indigenous people in North America living in the same primitive manner as their legendary ancestors. Even now, most of the Tarahumaras still live in caves, under cliffs or in crude wooden huts to protect themselves from the hostile elements. They remain to some extent nomadic, moving from their summer homes in the cool upper parts of the Canyon in summer to the jungle-like canyon floors in winter. Unsociable and shy by nature, only four to five families usually settle close together in the rugged mountains, living a simple life undisturbed by modern technologies.
Most Tarahumaras, with the exception of those working in towns, have little contact with visitors. They are expert tillers of the soil and eke out a living from small fields by simple subsistence farming. Beans, corn, potatoes and apples are their principal staples. Their main food is pinole, a dish of dry corn, ground and mixed with sugar. These, along with a little meat from hunting or from the few goats and sheep they raise, form their regular diet.