Where: Sierra Tarahumara mountain range, Chichuahua state, Mexico
When: Major feasts every Easter and Christmas, and harvest celebrations weekly
What happens: strange fusion of christian and tribal beliefs, much corn alcohol, dance, sacrifice and music.
Remember to: Respect the Indians. They distrust white men and are shy people.
There are about 50,000 Tarahumara Indians, Mexico’s second largest native group, who are still living in the mountains of Mexico, some in caves, all totally isolated from the modern world. Walking deep into the interior if you are lucky to may be invited to attend a traditional feast.
The Tarahumara don’t like outsiders or white men, who they call chowachas, and they resent any invasion of their culture. Because of their horrendous experiences with the Spaniards and the missionaries, the Tarahumaras have a very low impression of the white man, distrusting them as ones who steal their lands and impose on them their alien beliefs. They are fiercely religious and reclusive people who need their privacy at festivals. Ask permission before taking photos or entering Tarahumara land.
The main Tarahumara festivals are Semana Santa at Easter and the Fiesta Guadalupana in December. Harvest is also a time of great celebration, with much tesguino (corn alcohol) being drunk. A harvest celebration is a little like a Saturday night, celebrated every 8 – 10 days. In recent times, many of the Tarahumara have had problems with alcoholism.
The Easter celebration is a strange collision of cultures. Christian prayers mixed with the slaughter of a goat and music, the soul of life to Tarahumara, is played to any of gods who could hear. A ceremony is performed at the Lost Cathedral before Easter. Nobody knows why the Lost Cathedral was built, who built it or when but it is now the most important church for the nearby Tarahumara Indians who have found Christianity. The four corners of the church are blessed then a symbolic act has a man clear evil spirit from the path of the cross with a rattle. Teams of Pharisees and soldier re-enact a timeless battle of evil v’s good, as the protectors and destroyers of Jesus.
Christianity found its way into all of Mexico’s Indian communities, even the most remote like the Tarahumaras. They were left alone throughout most of the 18th and 19th century to interpret the threads of Christianity which the Jesuit missionaries forced upon them, mixing the bible with their own tribal beliefs. The celebration at Christmas of the Virgin of Guadalupe consisted of much drinking, dancing and feasting, though many of them really have no idea who the Virgin Mary is.
The Tarahumara typically wear white shirts and trousers or wrap skirts with colourful belts and red headbands. The tribes people live in the Chihuahua State in a number of mountain towns and villages. These villages are all situated on one of the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the Copper Canyon, also known as the Sierra Tarahumara.
The oldest skill of the Tarahumara is running, and they call themselves “Raramuri” which means “those with light feet”. They are masters at long distance running and have won many international events. Running is a necessary for survival in the mountains as there is no transport and villages are many miles apart. They hold racing competitions known as Rajiparo which is like a football relay race and can last for days.
They are also skilled farmers, living mainly off corn, beans, potatoes and apples with a little fish, small game, herbs and goats. Famine has been a problem for the Indians in recent years.
Sharing is seen as a principle of their life, which is why white men were so easily able to steal their land. Tarahumara marriages and partners are also sometimes fairly “interchangeable”.
It is thought that the Tarahumara Indians ancient ancestors arrived from Asia, crossing the strait of Bering around 20,000 years ago. Weapon like the famous Clovis spearheads were found in the Sonora State dating back a phenomenal 15,000 years.
White men in the form of missionaries first made contact with the Indians in the 17th century, and soon after Spanish farmers invaded the Indians land, trading it for them with soap, salt and trinkets. Some Indians became badly paid and treated labourers of the Spaniards, others fled to the mountains. The mountains were soon discovered to be rich with copper and minerals, so the Tarahumara were forced into the most remote and inaccessible canyons.
The Tarahumara belief that the world began with the sun and moon, who were two children who dressed in palm leaves and lived in shacks. The only light that shined on earth was the morning star. The moon swallowed the lice from the head of the sun and the earth was plunged into total darkness. The Tarhumara Indians healed the sun and moon by erecting redwood crosses soaked in tesquino alcohol and the sun and moon began to shine. Like Christian mythology, there was then a flood, and one Tarahumara boy and girl hid in the Lavachi Mountain, and after the storm they returned with three corn kernels and three beans which they planted in a rock which soon yielded a rich harvest. This boy and girl were thought to be the ancestors of all Tarahumara Indians.
Main image: Barrancas del Cobre, Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua, Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones, Flickr Creative Commons