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Friday, 03 July 2009

The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People

Written by Habeeb Salloum
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The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum 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.

 

The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum 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.

 


 

In Tarahumara culture, healing has a magical-religious touch. A great variety of curative plants are used to take care of their medical needs. Peyote, a powerful herb which has a narcotic affect, is considered to have supernatural qualities and is only used by medicine men.

 

In religion, the Tarahumaras practice a kind of Catholicism mixed with their original beliefs. They think of themselves as the sons of God and believe that to sin is not to dance enough. Social gatherings are held in churches. Their two special events are the Semana Santa (Easter Week) and the Fiesta Guadalpana.

 

In their complex celebrations Tarahumaras sacrifice animals as offerings to God while dancing to the musical rhythm of their traditional instruments. These consist of a flute made from bamboo, drums made from rawhide and violins inherited from the Spaniards. Today, Tarahumara men hand-carve and cement the violin pieces together with glue made from the bulbs of certain lily plants and wild orchids. For outsiders, there is not a more haunting feeling than to listen to these drums, which have a religious significance, reverberating across the canyons.

 

The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum Tarahumara customs and dress give an essential touch to these celebrations - colorful costumes contrasting with dark skins, or, in the dancers' case, painted skins. During these mystic-religious ceremonies, they drink tesgüino - an alcoholic drink made out of fermented corn and grasses - good for only a few days after it has been brewed. It is drunk in great quantities - many times until the drinker has passed out.

 

Besides religion, the Tarahumaras have other special customs and beliefs. During the dry season, they burn their fields and parts of nearby forests, believing that the smoke will make clouds that produce rain. The women, calm and discreet, give birth alone in a squat position or holding their body from a tree with their belts until the baby is born.

 

Above all, the Tarahumaras are known for their running ability and endurance, often competing successfully in long distance races. Their excellent physical condition - some being able to run for over 20 hours - is a result of their adaptation to the most extreme situations in their natural environment.

 


The men's favorite sport is foot races, known as rarjiparo. It consists of kicking a wooden ball, then running to the place it lands and kicking it again without touching it by hand until they get to their goal. During the races, which can last up to 125 hours nonstop, people gather and bet on their favorite runner.

 

The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum Scientific studies have determined that the reason the Tarahumaras are able run such great distances, at times outrunning a deer until it is exhausted, was that their heartbeat is slower than normal. Tarahumara runners in events such as the 'Leadville 100 Mile' in Colorado surprised many by running in their tire-soled sandals and winning some of the long distance races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum The Tarahumaras have inherited a rich variety of arts and crafts that they hand-manufacture and sell to tourists. Women are highly skilled at weaving their own multi-colored clothing and knitting heavy woolen blankets. They also make finely decorated purses, ties and hats as well as attractive baskets. The men are skilled wood carvers, always adapting to what tourists might want in souvenirs.

 

 

 

Creel, the main town, is the heart of the Tarahumara Indian's territory. Its shops overflow with artisan’s products, from necklaces to woven belts. The streets are filled with colorfully dressed Indian women and young girls offering their handicrafts for sale. The Proud Tarahumara: Mexico's most Authentic Indigenous People, Divisadero, Copper Canyon, Mexican state of Chihuahua, Creel, Tarahumara Indians, Semana Santa, Fiesta Guadalpana, Habeeb Salloum Humble and considerate, the older women never push their products on visitors.

 

 

 

The story of the Tarahumara's survival and adaptation during the colonial years and later under the Mexican Republic is a fascinating saga. Even though the majority still live as their ancestors did, a good number have become skilled workers, employed in construction and the railroad industries.

 

The government has built them boarding schools where they are taught both Spanish and their own language. Many are quickly joining the Mexican mainstream but, at the same time they retain pride in their unique history, culture and folklore.

 

©Habeeb Salloum

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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