Jeff Biggers illuminates the people of the Sierra Madre in his historic, yet personal book In the Sierra Madre. Biggers and his wife, Carla, rented a rustic cabin from a local woman, set up a solar panel, and settled in for 9 months while she worked on her thesis about the local attempt at multicultural education.
Biggers quickly began chopping wood, planting corn, and settling into the rhythm of a quiet, manual work-heavy lifestyle. He became part of the community by playing his banjo at tesguinada (local corn liquor parties), learning to play an indigenous Tarahamara instrument: the chapareke, and volunteering to labor on many people’s houses and projects.
The difference in cultures was marked by one of the first questions asked of him: “What does your father grow?” As Biggers works alongside the people of the village and begins to cultivate closer relationships with them, we slowly gain an understanding, as he does, about the Raramuri culture and its focus on family and survival.
The almost empty village that the couple lived in was flooded with people every Sunday as the Raramuri walked up steep paths from their isolated houses and cliff dwellings to the Sunday gathering. This normally quiet culture became more animated with church, the community meeting, and even cheering on Basketball players.
The depth of Biggers study into the history of the Sierra Madre was astounding. I haven’t read travel writing as devoted to giving such a thorough background of an area. Any history buff would be equally interested in this book as us adventurers and travelers.
He describes in great detail the legacy of treasure hunters, missionaries, and colonizers and their impact, or lack thereof, on the indigenous people. Telling was one story of a Chiricahua chieftain who leads a Spanish doctor to an ancient gold mine in payment for saving his son’s eyesight, saying, “gold makes no one happy”. In true prophetic nature, the doctor was killed due to his greed and the gold, and, after more mining under his wife’s supervision, she disappeared.
We are brought into his personal life as well when he receives a letter saying his own grandfather’s home was destroyed in a ‘hilltop removal’ by a coal company; he laments: “In the end, I probably knew more about the Raramuri than about my own family in southern Illinois, because I had taken notes, listened to interviews, read their history, played my banjo at their corn beer fiestas, and worked by their sides in the cornfields and forests. This was something I had never managed to do with my own kin.”
Biggers seemed to find his own treasure in the Sierra Madre – although it was not gold.. Rather, it was living in a land-based culture: “Our sojourn had evolved into an indulgence we had often dreamed about: a year of study, reflection, and respite from the modern rat race.”
If you are considering a journey into the Sierra Madre, this is a must-read book. If you’re not, you just may re-consider after finishing this book.
In the Sierra Madre, Jeff Biggers, University of Illinois Press, 2006.
To read an interview with Jeff Biggers, click on 'interview' in the left menu.
©Christina Kay Bolton