It was just past midday when we reached the merciful half-shade of the scrub oak. It was a relief to be out of the blazing sun, my t-shirt was drenched in sweat and dust. We had been walking since dawn, before the sun surmounted the eastern wall of the canyon. We must have looked quite a sight, fourteen filthy, pack-laden gringos winding our way up the wall of the canyon. We had just stopped for a water break when from somewhere behind us, we heard a light thump-thump, thump-thump and saw a figure running along the trail. A smiling old man came trotting up, greeted us, scanning our sprawl of packs and equipment. He had only a small bundle with him, and a pair of flat sandals on his feet. He said something to our guide Manuel and laughed, before running on. We later found out that he had started from further than we had that morning, and would reach the village where we were headed hours before we got there.
The Raramuri are a people indigenous to the Sierra Madre of Northern Mexico. Raramuri roughly translates to "runner", or "light-footed" in their native language. The rugged canyons of the Sierra Madre are speckled with rocky outcroppings, caves in which many make their homes. The river valleys at the base of the canyons are lush with semi-tropical vegetation. Some Raramuri build small, low to the ground dwellings in the valleys. The size and shape of their free-standing houses is indicative of their desire to spend as much time outside as possible. In the cities outside of the Sierra Madre, one can always tell where the migrant Raramuri population is by the sleeping blankets thrown up outside the houses. In recent times, however, more houses even out in the remote mountainside villages are being constructed of more permanent material such as wood, and cinder block. Many families who live in the villages also have at least one temporary dwelling further out which is used seasonally with the rotation of crops or animal grazing needs.
The Raramuri are farmers, traditionally growing corn and potatoes. Corn served as a food staple and also the base of their infamous maize beer known as tesquino. They also herd goats, which are particularly well adapted to the rocky canyon walls. Since colonial times the Raramuri have also raised cattle, sheep, chicken and mules.
While the rugged terrain in which they live is better suited to small family dwellings, scattered across the canyons, the Raramuri place a high value on the community as a whole. They will frequently gather for occasions of work such as plowing a new field, or constructing a dwelling as well as religious occasions. The religion of the Raramuri is a complex mixture of their Father and Mother deities and many spirits/souls view of the world and the Catholic influences brought in by missionaries.
While running is a necessary form of transportation for the Raramuri, (it is still in many areas the only way to get from one place to another) it is also featured in a game played by all Raramuri children and adults alike. Rarjiparo is a game involving a wooden ball about the size of a baseball that is tossed from one runner to another entirely with the feet. One game of Rarjiparo can last for days.
Like most indigenous people, the Raramuri are struggling to maintain an independent lifestyle in the land of their ancestors. Historically they were displaced due to mining in the Copper Canyon region. They have done an amazing job of taking parts of Mexican culture that are useful, and leaving the rest. Many of the women have become master weavers of blankets and rugs that are sold in the cities. In the last few years drought has driven many into the cities for work and food.
In the past twenty years, when mining was no longer their greatest threat, a new industry threatened the Raramuri. It was only a matter of time before the drug cartel realized how ideal the steep canyon walls were for growing marijuana. A plane, flying directly overhead, would have a difficult time identifying a small field of marijuana, or even poppies. Leveraging the drought as a means to manipulate Raramuri farmers, the drug cartel sent out “recruiters” who told farmers to grow marijuana in exchange for food and clothing. Recruiting local farmers protected the people behind the scenes from possible raids by the government, as the farmers would take the blame. Farmers received payment in goods, and rarely knew for whom they actually worked. Many farmers agreed, as it allowed them to stay in the Sierras rather than moving to the cities. Others, knowing the danger involved refused. The ones that refused often withstood violent repercussions from the drug cartel. In 1997, when I was traveling through the Sierra Madre, most of the violence in the area had dissipated although we were told that many farmers were still pressured to grow illegal crops.
The contrast of Raramuri in Ciudad Juarez and those living in the Sierras is sharp. In the city they are known as the poorest of the poor. The women can be seen in their brightly colored dresses and headbands begging in the street, or selling baubles to passing tourists.
In the mountains, life is difficult, most families also live at the poverty level, unlike the tourist brochures, they don't live a "Tranquil life free from modern technology". Yet to a certain extend, they do still live free. Like any indigenous people their struggle to maintain control over their lives is constant, but their spirit has survived this far, I expect it will continue to. I would like to think that were I to return in twenty years, I would be greeted again by an old Raramuri man, sprinting along the trail.
Personal notes, Sierra Madre, 1997