The Tarahumara People

The name 'Tarahumara' actually came from the Spanish. The name they use for themselves is Rarámuri, which is loosely means "those who run fast". Nowadays, they mostly live in the canyons of the Sierra Madre range in North-East Mexico, including Copper Canyon.

History

Not much is recorded about the history of the Tarahumara people before the arrival of the Spanish. They are thought to come from the Mogollon culture, a group of people located in southern Arizona and New Mexico, and northern Mexico.

Originally from the area of Chihuahua they retreated into the mountains when the Spanish came in the 16th century and have stayed there since.

Copper Canyon

© Ali Eminov - View of the Copper Canyon, home to the Tarahumara people

When the Spanish did come, they began mining in the region of the Rarámuri and took slaves from them to work in the mines. They also actively began building Jesuit missions in the area. The Spanish presence only increased as more valuable mines were discovered.

In response, the Tarahumara people attacked the Spanish in the mid 1600s. Although the attack was not particularly successful, those in the lower regions began to assimilate the Spanish, while those in the upper regions managed to rid the area of their influence. Many small unsuccessful wars continued with the Spanish, but the Rarámuri continued to maintain a separate identity.

Currently, the Tarahumara are still a fairly large ethnic group in Mexico. According to the most recent government census, there are around 106,000 people that identify as Rarámuri.

Tarahumara Community

© Ali Eminov - Tarahumara Community

Culture and customs

Long Distance Running

Tarahumara Clothing

© AlejandroLinaresGarcia -
Traditional Tarahumara Clothing

The Tarahumara people are best known for their incredible tradition of long distance running. It's been the basis of scientific studies, and it inspired the barefoot running movement. The Rarámuri don't actually run barefoot — they wear huaraches, a type of flat sandal. Running 200 miles is average for them, with many able to run upwards of 400 miles. And unlike Western culture, where running is seen as a form of exercise (and for some, torture), running is fun for the Rarámuri.

This intense running started because many of the settlements were far apart. To keep up communication — and also transportation — between the villages, they began the long distance runs. This becomes even more impressive when you realize they aren't just running on flat land, but rough, mountainous country.

The running wasn't just used for transportation though. They often would run down animals for hunting, essentially running them to death by having a higher endurance. They also still play a game, called rarajipari, which consists of runners kicking wooden balls in a relay. The other teammates would then run on ahead for the next relay point. These competitions can easily last a couple days with no break.

Religion

The Rarámuri religion is a fascinating mixture of Christian and previous beliefs. It is monotheistic, with Catholic areas referring to God the Father, while original belief referred to the Sun. Another version of this belief holds that God lives in heaven with a wife and their children.

With a belief in God comes a belief of the devil, but unlike Christianity, the devil is not seen as necessarily evil. They believe the devil and God are brothers. God created the Rarámuri while the devil created everyone else, or the chabochi.

The Rarámuri belief in the afterlife is not consistent across the board. Some believe it's a mirror image of our world now. Others believe the soul goes through a series of heavens, where we are reincarnated each time we die. We go through three lives, and then reincarnate into a moth on Earth. Once the moth dies, the soul also dies, though it is not considered a punishment.

Food

The traditional diet of the Tarahumara consists of corn, beans, leafy greens, and squashes. In areas that are more Mexicanized, chile, potatoes (both regular and sweet), and tomatoes also make an appearance. They are not big meat eaters, though they do occansionally eat it. Fruits and wheat were introduced with the arrival of the Spanish, but even today they don't make a big part of their diet. What little fruit they do eat might include things such as oranges or figs.

Popular dishes include many corn based meals. Pinole is a specialized corn flour used in cereals or baked goods. Tortillas and tamales are both common. Esquite is a dish where the corn is toasted. Atole is a corn based drink that is sometimes mixed with chocolate. And, of course, beans are their major source of protein.

 

Tarahumara Meal

© Krista - Tarahumara Food

 

Celebrations

Whenever the Rarámuri gather together for a celebration, tesgüinadas are guaranteed to happen. Tesgüinadas are basically the Tarahumara version of a beer bust. Just about any celebration is a reason for one. This can include races, religious holidays, or even just a community event. Tesgüino, a fermented drink made from corn, is served, and the party often includes dancing.

These celebrations will usually include neighboring settlements, and are often considered an extremely important social event. There is also a strong religious aspect to the tesgüinadas. Both shamans and chanters are required for healing and ceremonies that are performed. And the tesgüino is dedicated to God (or the Sun) before it can be drunk.

Contemporary Struggles

Mining

The Spanish were the first to take advantage of the excellent mining in the Sierra Madre. But now the continued existence of mining is threatening the homes of the Tarahumara. With mining usually comes severe landscape changes, including deforestation. Contamination of the and disappearance of animals in the surrounding areas are also results of mining.

Aside from the environmental effects, mining has brought in many foreign companies who are vying for the ownership of the land. The Rarámuri are having a difficult time protecting their lands from these people.

Tarahumara Man Gathering Wood

© Czajko - Tarahumara Man Gathering Wood

Drug Trafficking

While mining is proving to be a serious environmental threat, an even bigger social threat to the Rarámuri is the drug trade in Mexico. The Sierra Madre range is an extremely productive area for the growing and making of drugs. Drug lords oftentimes force local farmers to grow their drugs instead of crops for food. In response to this, the government will take actions to kill the drugs, usually with herbicides. These same poisons will also destroy any food and crops of the Rarámuri.

Many of the Rarámuri are also exposed to the violence the drug trade encourages. Even if they are not directly linked to the drug cartels, many Tarahumara are killed or tortured because of them.

Already a poor people, these contemporary struggles have a major effect on the Rarámuri, with the loss of their land and often their income.

Tarahumara Women Selling Handmade Baskets

© Lance Fisher - Tarahumara Women Selling Handmade Baskets

Facts about Tarahumara people

  • They call themselves the Rarámuri, which means "those who run fast".
  • They currently live in the Sierra Madre range in Mexico, especially the region known as Copper Canyon.
  • The Spanish drove them from their original homeland in Chihuahua. They later began mining the in the Sierra Madre as well.
  • The Rarámuri fought with the Spanish on many occasions, but were mostly unsuccessful in driving them away.
  • The Rarámuri are still a large ethnic group, with around 106,000 people.
  • They are probably best known for their long distance running. The average Rarámuri can run 200 miles without stopping.
  • The running tradition began as a way of communicating, but has evolved into something many Rarámuri love to do.
  • Their religion is a mix of Christain and traditional Rarámuri beliefs. It is monotheistic and includes a devil.
  • The Rarámuri belief in the afterlife varies. Some believe it's a mirror image of Earth now, and others believe you reincarnate through three different lives.
  • The traditional food of the Rarámuri includes beans, corn, squash, and leafy greens. They eat very little meat, fruit, or wheat.
  • Tesgüinadas are the parties the Rarámuri give for special occasions. They center around a corn-based alcoholic drink called tesgüino.
  • Mining has become a serious threat for the homeland of the Rarámuri. Many different companies are trying to buy up the land from them.
  • Drug trafficking is another major threat to the Rarámuri. They are often forced to grow drugs instead of food, and sometimes are caught in the middle of the violence related to the drug trade.