It had taken us two-and-a-half hours to drive a 15-mile road, and we still hadn’t arrived. My wife, Myra, was concerned. ”Do you think we’re going to be able to get out of here?” she asked.
“If we have to go back up the way we came, I think it might be easier than it was coming down,” I told her. “It couldn’t be any harder.”
Maybe she heard the doubt in my voice. “Let’s just pray there’s another road out of the town, like that man told us when we could still turn around,” she said.
There are many reasons to visit the bottom of Mexico’s Copper Canyon—the deepest canyon on earth. Yosemite-sized waterfalls crash down the sun-bleached walls. A railroad that’s one of man’s greatest engineering triumphs clings impossibly to the sheer cliffs. Yet despite all its scenic grandeur, Copper Canyon remains one of the harshest and most remote places on the planet.
Almost none of the millions who visit the vastly more accessible Grand Canyon in Arizona—roughly 450 miles due north—thinks to come here. This despite the fact that Copper Canyon is four times larger than the Grand Canyon and in some places deeper by a thousand feet. The few who do venture here rarely leave the Chihuahua al Pacifico tourist train or the villages it winds through.
We came to Copper Canyon to hike and explore its scenic grandeur, but we soon realized that what entranced us the most was the Raramuri—the purest and best-preserved ethic group on the American continent. The long drive across arid north-central Mexico was worth it the tourist train’s brief stops would have never allowed us to visit long with the people.
The Tarahumara, as they’re more commonly known, have maintained their tribe (numbering around 60,000) and its unique culture in large part due to the geographic isolation of Copper Canyon. In addition to this, the Sierra Madre’s perfect climate of cool winters and mild summers allowed the Tarahumara to resist the infectious diseases of European settlers that decimated other native tribes across the Americas. And their fundamental rejection of technology in favor of a simpler life—similar to the Amish of the United States—provides a strong enough layer of ethnic preservation to keep the global village out of the local village.
But what makes the Tarahumara most interesting is their ancient moral and ethical code. Tied closely to their religion, the code is so strict that some believe them physically incapable of telling a lie. Some psychologists have even theorized that over the centuries this system of values became so ingrained that it caused actual physiological changes in the brain that made dishonesty virtually impossible. Cheating or failing to help a fellow tribesman are also anathema.
When Jesuit missionaries stumbled onto the tribe in the early 1600s, they found the people very open to Christian conversion. Indeed, the morality was already in place. All that remained was for the “black-robed ones” (as the Jesuits were known) to fine-tune it and replace their gods with Christianity’s God. Now, four centuries later, the children that grew from this strange union are some of the most fervent and unique Catholics in the world.
The Tarahumara first lived in the desert valleys of what is now the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. But after a series of disastrous attempts to resist Spanish colonization, many of the indigenous people chose to retreat to the mountains and canyons of Copper Canyon. If they couldn’t defeat the Spanish settlers, they would isolate themselves. In this, they were more successful. The rugged terrain provided an almost impenetrable physical barrier.
The Jesuits had equipped them well for their journey. The Tarahumara used metal axes to clear the terrain and chop timber for firewood and primitive but sturdy houses, fences, and barns. They also brought herds of goats that provided milk and meat and whose dung they used to fertilize the soil.
In addition to tools and agricultural know-how, the Jesuits gave them Catholicism. Richard Fisher, whose many guidebooks on Copper Canyon and northern Mexico include a history of the Tarahumara, says that unlike many Native Americans, they immediately accepted the Jesuits. To a great extent, this was because of the compatibility of the two belief systems. “The Tarahumara have always been a unique group who are very accepting of new ideas and Christianity fits very well with Tarahumara goals,” Fisher says.
He further notes that compatibility extended beyond morality, entering even the realm of dogma. “The Tarahumara already believed that their bodies would be raised in perfected form from the dead. In addition, they liked the Jesuits’ violins, churches and services they introduced.”
It’s amazing how quickly the two groups integrated. The Jesuits abandoned the crucifix for the cross when they realized it terrified the Tarahumara because it reminded them of Apache human sacrifices. They encouraged the Tarahumara, who were almost entirely nomadic, to adopt tighter-knit communities so that they could create churches and parishes. The Tarahumara agreed, and the Jesuits for their part did their best to protect them from slavers, opportunistic miners, and the Apache.
Sadly, the two communities proved too prosperous, and both eventually fell victim to the Spanish. Before the Jesuits could follow the fleeing Tarahumara into Copper Canyon, they themselves were expelled from the land.
But the Tarahumara would not forget the black-robed ones.
We almost missed the sign. Hand-printed and so small we passed it three times, it read “Tonchi” and had an arrow pointing the way. The dirt road was more like a drainage ditch, strewn with rocks and hanging dangerously close to the canyon rim. We bounced and weaved, trying to keep boulders and ditches from doing too much damage to the underside of our van.
With a final, metal-scraping lurch, we landed in the valley some 4,000 feet below where we’d started. To our distress, the only sign of civilization was a small, rickety bridge that shuddered under the van’s weight.
As I drove, I tried to distract myself by thinking about the Tarahumara’s much earlier descent along the same route. When they arrived for the first time on the valley floor, they discovered a land beautiful beyond their dreams. Lush, green valleys shaded by thousand-foot cliffs; verdant streams crashing over a series of picturesque waterfalls, filling perfect pools beneath them.
With such beauty surrounding the Tarahumara, it’s understandable that they wanted little to do with the outside world. Even in Mexico they seem strangely foreign. Indeed, when they do venture out of their home environment, they often find the world confusing, harsh, and hypocritical.
Nevertheless, the Tarahumara take great pride in their hardiness. One of the only peoples never conquered by the Aztecs on the Mexican peninsula, they’re most famous for their prowess in long-distance running. For decades it was whispered that the world’s athletes would only win long-distance races so long as the Tarahumara remained on the sidelines. The legend isn’t hard to understand. They play a sport called rarjiparo, or “foot throwing,” where a small wooden ball is kicked down a path in a race that ends when one of the runners drops out. For the Tarahumara, that can mean days and well over 100 miles without a break in the action.
A full hour after Myra and I were positive we had taken the wrong road, we rounded a blind bend and Tonchi appeared. We took a few moments to rejoice at the sight of jumbled houses and women carrying children in the multihued blankets of Mexico.
But as happy as we were finally to see the village, we were equally disappointed to see the road end at a large river. A lone, concrete pylon in the middle of the water was the only sign that a bridge once stood there. Beyond the deep, clear river, gleaming in the sun like Oz’s yellow brick road, was the only other way out of Tonchi.
“Well, technically that guy told us the truth,” I offered. “There is another road out of the canyon.” Myra gave me a disapproving look.
We got out of the van and walked through the village, where we were quickly taken by its charms. Tonchi had grown as organically as its natural surroundings, seeming to twist and bend with the river. The houses were individually decorated and randomly placed along the dirt street.
As isolated as it is, the place could be considered somewhat modern by third-world standards. El Saltito, Tonchi’s main waterfall that divides the village down the middle, has a modest hydroelectric capacity. And like the American Amish, different Tarahumara communities have different levels of technology they find acceptable. Tonchi, like many communities in Copper Canyon, is a mixed habitation of modern Mexican loggers and miners living side by side with the darker-skinned Tarahumara.
We passed a jacked-up four-by-four truck used to carry groceries and supplies for the town. Just beyond that, we came upon a modern-looking school with a paved basketball court— hard evidence of the new missionary work being done.
Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, I left my camera zipped in my backpack. But as we passed a group of schoolchildren walking home, we quickly realized how impossible it would be for us to fade into the background. Myra leaned into me. “They’re terrified of you,” she whispered.
Sure enough, I looked down at tiny, trembling hands and for the first time realized how big I must appear to them. At six-foot-five, 185 pounds, with blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, I towered over the biggest adults we’d seen and looked like no one they’d ever encountered.
The children cleared a path for us on the road and I returned their nervous looks with a smile. In that moment, feeling their distrusting eyes, I partially understood how difficult it must have been for the Jesuit missionaries who first encountered them.
Soon after the Tarahumara fled, the Jesuits also fell victim to the Spanish—but for different reasons. In 1607, they arrived in “New Spain” with little more than their ingenuity. They quickly built a massive series of more than 100 missions, around which they organized efficient communities of agriculture and mining to go with their religious instruction. These Jesuit settlements were self-sufficient and prosperous. Since Jesuits obeyed only the pope and not the Spanish king, they were perceived as threats and expelled. Those missions that were not given over to Spanish Franciscans were secularized into small towns by Spanish-appointed bishops.
Meanwhile, the indigenous people spent the next hundred years in self-imposed isolation free of European settlers and missionaries. Having their ties to Catholicism cut off so completely, the Catholicism that developed among the Tarahumara was a unique hybrid of their own native beliefs and the Christian doctrine the missionaries had taught them.
When the Jesuits were finally allowed to return more than a century later, they found a new kind of Catholicism waiting for them.
The Tarahumara’s hybrid faith is most apparent in the way it links the physical representations of Christian figures with native gods. I encountered this first when I asked a young Tarahumara girl about markings on two dolls she was trying to sell me. “Jesus is the Sun, Mary is the Moon,” she explained in Spanish, pointing to the objects hand-sewn onto the dolls’ clothes.
Instead of uprooting the Tarahumaras’ faith, the Jesuits transformed it. The sun is not God, they taught, it’s a symbol of God. Similarly, they adapted Tarahumara ritual. A traditional greeting became an especially reverent way making the sign of the cross. In a similar way, rain dances became prayer dances, during which they ask God to ward off evil. Colorful festivals were merged with Italian tradition to create beautiful and moving celebrations for Christmas, Corpus Christi, Epiphany, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Myra and I experienced firsthand the Tarahumara’s deep reverence in a Sunday Mass we attended. In Tarahumara society religion is not just something preached but lived long after the church doors are closed. Every person present sang each note of every hymn, and song reverberated through the church.
The Jesuit presence in the villages continue today in the person of Rev. Luis G. Verplancken, a tireless and imaginative benefactor. When he arrived here more than 30 years ago to reestablish a permanent Jesuit presence, he was staggered by the state of the people. The Tarahumara tribe was on the verge of extinction. Clean water was as scarce as disease was rampant, and 80 percent of Tarahumara children didn’t live past the age of five.
Knowing well the connection between the physical and the spiritual, he set out to address both. Driving the canyon’s treacherous roads each day, he created a traveling health care facility that operated out of the back of his Jeep. While modest, it was the Tarahumara’s first experience with modern medicine. And their first experience of hope.
Before, even minor diseases would grow unchecked to cause physical deformity, brain damage, and death. But much could be overcome with simple antibiotics and vaccinations. Word of his success spread quickly, both among the Tarahumara and in the outside world. In 1964, Father Verplancken received funding from private donors to build a small clinic inside an abandoned railroad warehouse. Women walked for as long as three days carrying sick children just to wait in line for his services.
But his activities didn’t end there. Clearing the land by hand, Father Verplancken built a four-mile pipeline through the mountains to bring clean water to Tarahumara villages. U.S. engineers who later visited were amazed at the complexity of the handmade pipeline, which included three separate pumping stations.
In 1974, Father Verplancken began the process of building—by hand—a new hospital with a design his nephew, an architecture student, supplied. They constructed it from wood they cut from the forest and dug the foundation with hand shovels. Furthermore, they filled the hospital with donated equipment such as X-ray machines and operating tables. Now a full-service hospital staffed with nuns and volunteers, more than 90 percent of its services are provided free. And with the help of the Tarahumara Children’s Fund, run out of New Orleans by his friends George and Pat Irwin, they’ve made significant progress in preventing infant mortality. Indeed, infant deaths are one-tenth of what they were when Father Verplancken arrived.
“There’s no question Father Verplancken has helped the tribe survive,” Pat told me. “In my opinion Father Verplancken is a male Mother Theresa,” George added.
But Father Verplancken is himself grateful to the contributors and volunteers around the world who have helped the Tarahumara survive a more than decade-long drought: “All are a part in the mission’s endeavors and share in every child’s life saved, every child being educated, every water well providing water and every family sharing food.”
While he came as a missionary, Father Verplancken has learned a great deal from the Tarahumara. He once told Fisher that the Tarahumara are better Christians than Christians are. Fisher himself concurs: “In their society there’s less divorce, fornication, lying, murder, rape, and cheating than anywhere I know.”
There’s also no waste in Tarahumara society. Whenever they eat fruit, for example, they take great pains to gather each seed for replanting. Their homes are full of items that others have discarded; the Tarahumara have developed ingenuous uses for them (old oil drums used as boiling pots, for instance). They even use what the forest discards, such as pinecones to comb their hair.
Myra and I wandered the village, enjoying the greetings, smiles, and genuine kindness the people showed us. These are people who can teach the world the great difference between “want” and “need.”
As the sun sank over the canyon rim, it was time to begin the trip back to our world.
“I guess we need to start up the road soon,” Myra said. “Not that this would be a bad place to spend the night.” “The tent’s in the van,” I suggested.
She paused for a moment, and then shook her head. “I feel like we’re invading their privacy just by visiting. Imagine pitching a tent in the middle of town.”
I smiled and nodded. We walked back to the road through a gathering evening breeze. And before we got back into our van, I took one long last breath of herbs and flowers.