Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Time of Drought, Mexico's Tarahumara Turn to Tradition


Tarahumara women stand in line to receive aid from volunteers with a local non-profit that is working to provide relief to residents of the drought-stricken region. Photo by Mike Jimenez.


CARICHI, Mex.- “Córima.”

For the more than sixty thousand Tarahumara Indians living in the high Sierra’s of northern Mexico, the expression connotes sharing, a tradition borne more of necessity than charity. It is also a subtle reminder of the ongoing drought that is proving to be one of Mexico’s worst dry seasons in recent memory.

In Tarahumara society, those who have must share with those who do not. Far from humiliating, roaming the streets of the Chabochis -- non-Indian mestizos living in the towns and cities below -- asking for a few coins to ease their hunger is a natural tendency that has ensured centuries of survival in this unforgiving terrain.

But times are harder now.

As years have passed without substantial rain, even those who once smiled at Tarahumara children requesting córima outside convenience stores across Chihuahua are now clinching on to their coins more tightly, less willing to share.

“We fear the worst is yet to come,” says Antonio Rodriguez Quinones, chief of staff for Carichi’s municipal administration. “If we don’t get enough water this rainy season, next winter is going to be an uphill battle in terms of feeding these people.”

The city is working with the non-profit Angeles del Desierto – which normally focuses on locating would-be migrants to the U.S. who become lost in the California-Arizona desert – to deliver some 12 tons of winter clothing, food and water to the Tarahumara.

“We have been trying to help them with aid from the federal government, but it is not enough,” says Mayor Ignacio Leonel Ortega, as he carries a casserole of black beans and pork tripe to a crowd of about a thousand Tarahumara, who stand waiting outside the local Catholic church.

The Long Run

Famed for their long-distance running and the focus of a recent bestseller on the topic, Born to Run, the Tarahumara retreated to the canyon-filled mountains high above Chihuahua upon the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Anthropologists believe running and their tradition of córima both grew out of the environment they found themselves in.

Today that environment is in the midst of a brutal drought that according to reports has wiped out millions of acres of farmland this winter, caused 15 billion pesos ($1.18 billion) in lost harvests, killed 60,000 head of cattle and impacted millions more, pushing food prices higher.

The government has already allotted some $2.65 billion in emergency aid, while the water authority estimates it will need an additional $24 billion in investments in order to recover. Most believe current conditions are signs of worse to come.

For residents in the area, the scarcity that has driven the Tarahumara into the cities in search of food has exacerbated an already ingrained sense that they are lazy and unwilling to work.

“They might be hungry as hell, but if you tell them that you will give them food in exchange for cleaning the plaza, they won’t do it,” says one local police officer who declined to give his name. Like others, he insists córima is simply an excuse to get out of work.

But considering the thousands of Tarahumara who run sometimes hundreds of miles in search of food or water, laziness is not a term easily applied. And neither is charity.

When in need, the Tarahumara turn first to family, then neighbors and finally outward in concentric circles that ultimately lead to the cities below. In their view, reaching out for aid is simply a part of the tradition of sharing.

Denying córima, likewise, is cause for shame. Living in close proximity to one another, those who refuse to share in times of plenty gain a reputation for stinginess and can often find themselves excluded from the community.

It is a centuries-old social safety net that, according to Jose Alvino, is based on the notion, “If you suffer, I will eventually suffer.”

As governor of Chincachic, a community of about three thousand Tarahumara, Alvino is concerned about the future of his people, as they are increasingly driven into closer contact with a population that rejects both their way of life and their social values.

Today, however, he is celebrating as volunteers with Angeles del Desierto arrive with much needed aid. For the next few weeks, at least, there will be food and “tesguinadas,” family and community celebrations that revolve around “tesguino,” a beer-like beverage made of fermented corn.

As for the future, he is optimistic.

When asked about rumors that hunger has driven some Tarahumara to suicide, he shrugs the question off, answering in florid Spanish that he doesn’t know of anyone who has succumbed to that level of despair.

Si, tenemos hambre, pero tenemos córima,” he says. “Yes, we are hungry, but we have córima.”

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