email a friend iconprinter friendly iconA People Apart
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They also eat a lot of Maruchan, the Japanese instant noodles that come in plastic-foam tubs. Foil-wrapped potato chips, too, and plastic liters of Coca-Cola, and Tecate beer in pop-top cans—you can spend six hours rattling in a four-wheel-drive pickup toward the deepest remove of a Tarahumara canyon, hairpinning around crumbling dirt roads hacked straight out of the cliffs, until the truck winds around the very last drop-off, and the sun is setting and the smoke is curling from distant chimneys and the sound of ceremonial drums is floating up from somewhere way below, and there along the footpaths are two empty soda bottles and a discarded tub of Maruchan. These are useful for holding the romantic chabochi imagination in check. By the most recent government count, 106,000 Tarahumara live in Mexico, making them one of the largest indigenous groups in North America; the majority still live in relative isolation in the area Mexico promotes as Copper Canyon, but both the place-name and the image of its inhabitants sketched by tourist outfits ("They live a simple life undisturbed by modern technologies," reads one online write-up) turn out to be fragments, understatements, misleading in the neatness of their packaging.

The Copper Canyon itself, for example, or Barranca del Cobre, is actually only one of a dozen massive canyons in this part of the Sierra Madre. Several of them are deeper than the Grand Canyon. And chabochi commerce, legal and illegal, is pushing hard into all of them. The narco industry is increasing its use of the canyons for marijuana and opium poppy cultivation, displacing Tarahumara families from their corn, bean, and squash fields. Government efforts to bring roads and schoolbooks into Tarahumara communities are also bringing cheap tequila, thugs with guns, and all the chatarra, as Mexicans call junk food, hardy enough to stack up in makeshift general stores with no electricity. Traditional Tarahumara men wear wide headbands and loin coverings that leave their legs bare even when it's freezing, but many more now wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, and pointy-toed boots in leather dyed to match their belts. Most Tarahumara women still wear multicolored head scarves and long skirts of flowery prints or deep-hued pleats or billowy pastels gathered into scallops like fancy window drapes. But some now wear blue jeans too.

The region's first commercial airport is scheduled to be built in Creel, the former logging center whose present-day economy depends on the scenic railway line that runs through town. Government planners envision a subsequent hotel boom to accommodate eventual jetloads of new tourists. Officials in Chihuahua, the Mexican state encompassing most of the Tarahumara territory, are courting private investors for a proposed canyon-rim complex—bungee jumps, a chasm-spanning gondola, more hotels, and an "Indian village" for the permanent display of "rituals, ceremonies, and clothes"—to be built farther west on the railway route, along what's now a tourist overlook crowded with Tarahumara vendors. The vendors are nearly all women and children, offering the baskets and weavings they have learned tourists like. Girls not yet old enough for school, or old enough but nonetheless spending their days hawking souvenirs, hold up fistfuls of braided bracelets while repeating the first Spanish they ever learned: "¿Compra?—Want to buy?"

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