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Missionaries and Mines

The first Europeans to settle this harsh yet mesmerizing landscape were mining entrepreneurs and Catholic missionaries. Before the arrival of the Spanish, this mountainous land between the east and west arms of the Sierra Madre was home to several dozen indigenous groups numbering many hundreds of thousands. By the end of the colonial era, however, it was only sparsely populated. Introduced diseases like smallpox wiped out all entire communities, while a life of virtual slavery in mineral-producing mines claimed the lives of men and boys who worked deep within them. One of the last remaining indigenous groups is the Raramuri, renamed Tarahumara (Tara-hu-MA-rah) by the Spanish.

Those resilient souls who did survive had little use for the Old World missionaries who began to arrive in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But these perseverant and hardy zealots overcame many hardships to catechize the native people. When the Jesuits were expelled abruptly from the New World in 1767, the Tarahumara adapted their recently acquired Catholic rituals with time-honored celebrations of their own. Easter, for example, heralds the planting season, honoring life-giving maize as well as the resurrection of Christ.

The Tarahumara

The Tarahumara gather for community projects and to celebrate holy days, but otherwise prefer to live in far-flung rancherias instead of towns. Those who maintain a traditional lifestyle winter deep within the canyons, surrounded by streams, fields, and fruit orchards. During the intense heat and occasional ../flash floods of summer, families may move to simple wooden shelters closer to the canyon rim. Several generations ago, large, open-faced caves were the lodgings of choice.

Raramuri women today typically wear a colorful outfit of gathered print skirts, blouses, and headscarves, the men wear jeans and baseball caps instead of the breechcloths and billowy white shirts of their grandparents’ day. Known for their strength and stamina, Tarahumara men with no special preparation have won international endurance races, sometimes wearing the traditional leather and tire-tread sandals but more commonly Nikes or Reeboks.

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