Published: November 2008

A People Apart



The Tarahumara of Mexico evaded Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century. But can they survive the onslaught of modernity?

By Cynthia Gorney
National Geographic contributing writer
Photograph by Robb Kendrick

Each star in the night sky is a Tarahumara Indian whose souls—men have three and women have four, as they are the producers of new life—have all, finally, been extinguished. These are things anthropologists and resident priests tell you about the beliefs of the Tarahumara people, who call themselves the Rarámuri, and who live in and above the canyons of northern Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, where they retreated five centuries ago from invading Spaniards. The Spaniards had not only firearms and horses but also disturbing beard hair; from their presence came the Rarámuri word chabochi, which to this day means anyone who is not Tarahumara. Chabochi is not an insult, exactly, just a way of dividing the world. Its literal translation, which goes a long way toward evoking the current relationship between the Tarahumara and the rest of 21st-century Mexico, is "person with spiderwebbing across the face."

The Tarahumara are reticent and private people who live long distances from each other, in small adobe or wood houses, or caves, or homes partway under outcroppings so that the rock itself provides the roofing. They brew an alcoholic beverage from corn, which they grow in small fields they plow by hand, and on celebratory occasions they gather to pass the drink from person to person, taking swigs from a hollowed half gourd, until they become voluble or dreamy or belligerent and lie down on the ground to sleep it off. They are extraordinary endurance runners, having lived for generations amid a transportation network of narrow footpaths through the canyons; Rarámuri means "foot-runner" or "he who walks well," and they've been known to irritate American ultramarathoners by beating them while wearing huarache sandals and stopping now and then for a smoke.

They regard work as necessary for survival but lacking intrinsic moral merit of its own, and secondary to spiritual obligations and other matters of the soul. Their traditional economy is conducted by means of barter, not cash; they have a word for sharing that doesn't translate directly into Spanish or English: "kórima," a Tarahumara woman may say, opening her palm for what a chabochi would call charity. There will be no thank you for the proffered coin, though, as kórima implies the obligation to distribute wealth for the benefit of everyone.

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