The Copper Canyon development plan is full of uncertainty and controversy—the airport construction has already been delayed many times, and environmental arguments continue, especially since the whole Sierra region suffers from periodic drought. (Promises of ecological sensitivity weren't going over well last spring, when everybody I met, including government officials, knew that one already existing hotel had for years been dumping its raw sewage into the nearest canyon; the owner, who insists septic repairs are under way, happens to be a former state tourism director.) But there's a wider, more universally familiar drama taking place throughout the Sierra Tarahumara, as the territory is also called. With or without the airport, modern Mexico is arriving, permeating an indigenous culture that managed for a long time to keep outsiders largely at bay. Every impulse to imagine that this makes things simple, though—a once harmonious native people, defiled by invaders with misguided notions of what it means to be civilized—is yanked away in short order by the people who actually live in the canyons.
The clinic nurse in the Sierra Madre town of San Rafael, a 35-year-old half-Tarahumara woman named Lorena Olivas Reyes, says her Tarahumara patients are sufficiently chabochified—that's the term in the Sierra, chabochiado—that she doesn't have to invent a new Rarámuri construction for the phrase "high blood pressure," which does not exist in Rarámuri. She is able to use Spanish when she explains to her patients that they, like chabochis, are now suffering from alta presión. Lorena has high, sculpted cheekbones and thick, waist-length black hair, which is wound into a tidy chignon while she's at work in San Rafael. Whenever I've seen her at the clinic, she's been in her nursing whites, looking regal and severe as she moves efficiently among the Tarahumara women in their glorious long skirts.
Lorena first migrated from the place where she grew up, a canyon-walled Tarahumara settlement called Guagüeyvo, when she was 13 years old. She climbed out, literally—there was no road then, and the exit trails head right up the canyon slope—because she loved learning, and the next available grades were in a school too many hours away for even a foot-runner child to navigate every day. I learned this the day Lorena and I convinced a San Rafael carpenter to drive us the five hours to Guagüeyvo in his pickup truck, along with Lorena's three sons, an old bicycle, a tub of lard, a wheel of cheese, a bag of foil-wrapped chocolates, and two rose plants for her mother's garden.
It was the Thursday of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the pre-Easter days that mark the most sacred time of the Tarahumara year. Jesuit priests first brought Christianity to the Sierra Tarahumara during the 1600s, but they were thrown out a century later, when political tensions prompted the Spaniards to expel all Society of Jesus members from New Spain, and by the time the Jesuits returned in 1900, Tarahumara religious practice had morphed into an intensely held juxtaposition, Catholic liturgy combined with ancient faith, that prevails now in much of the Sierra Madre. Things happen in the canyons during Semana Santa that would startle most Christian outsiders coming upon them for the first time—there's a Judas-in-effigy part a newcomer might fret about allowing a small child to watch; and the Pharisees, the pious Jews of the biblical era, assume primary roles in a pageant of running, drumming, dancing, drinking, and battle. It makes for powerful spectacle, the men sometimes painting their faces and torsos in fierce pointillist arrangements of white against skin, and every spring the weeklong ceremonies attract thousands of visitors to the Sierra. They don't come to Guagüeyvo, though, as it's not even marked on some maps. The whole community is a scattering of dwellings around a brushy concave place in the cliffs, and inside Lorena's family's kitchen we sat around a long table at dusk, eating hot tortillas, which her mother, Fidencia, kept lifting off the stove top and dropping onto a plastic plate.