Running for Life - Page 3
The Tarahumara's multi-purpose tire-tread sandals or huaraches. Photo by David Clifford.
During the week I spent in Copper Canyon, I was able to sample a variety of trails. While the ground and surroundings changed character according to the altitude and climactic zone, the trails remained copious. These people had cut and maintained trail systems all over the place. Some of the best-preserved trails, marked with high cairns or pine trees pruned high up their trunks, ended abruptly at the edge of some precipitous drop-off. Others wound through strange rock towers and mushroom-shaped boulders or ascended stairways cut from solid rock. One morning we passed a friendly Raramuri family living in a cave. Smoke from their breakfast fire billowed into the blue sky as we exchanged a “Buenos dias.”
Most of the good trails serve as foot highways that link different quintas or farms. The homes are typically rocked-in caves or cabins built out of pine logs, with peaked roofs and open lofts that serve as attics. Goats, sheep and dogs roam about as the women, dressed in bright skirts and shawls, shyly offer woven belts, wraps, baskets and wooden dolls for sale. Cats peer from the hay lofts and the men, if there are any about, typically remain to the side, uncommunicative and at times, a bit surly.
The Raramuri are a proud and fiercely independent people, and they have largely resisted the homogenization that has beset native cultures all over Mexico, America and the rest of the world. This resistance to change is apparent in the resiliency of their culture, which has retained a number of unique features including distinctive costume, a widely spoken language and an emphasis on running in the form of a hugely popular game called Ralajipame.
Ralajipame is a race run by a number of competitors representing different villages. The object of the race is to kick a ball, typically carved from madroño wood or the root of an oak, across a predetermined finish line. John G. Kennedy in his study of the Raramuri, Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, offers this description of the game as part of his analysis of a 21-mile race that took place on the mesa of Inapuchi. “A number of runners begin for each team, but it is only necessary to have one runner take the ball across the finish line. The hard wooden ball is not actually kicked, but it is lifted swiftly in the air with the toe in a motion so rapid that it looks like kicking. The runners are not supposed to touch the ball with their hands. Most Tarahumara boys gain great proficiency in this as they practice it from a very young age while out herding.”
Ralajipame is not only a diversion for the Raramuri. The entire community turns out to support the runners, with spectators running long distances, five or six miles, alongside their hometown favorites and supplying impromptu massage or pinole, an energy drink made of roasted corn, milk and raw sugar to help keep the men peppy. Betting is prodigious, with everything from a bar of soap to a crop of corn wagered on the outcome.
Chokeames, or referees, oversee the races, which often take place spontaneously, as an offshoot of a Tesguinado, or drinking party where the warm corn beer loosens inhibitions and can cause the normally reserved Raramuri to act out. Fouls, such as runners tripping each other, tearing off each other’s loincloths or grabbing the ball, are common. Men of all ages compete. The oldest competitor in the race at Inapuchi was 55 years old and the youngest was 14.
I was hoping to see some runners or at least catch a match of Ralajipame, but when we were in Copper Canyon most of the men were in the fields, plowing and planting. The occasional heartbeat of drums echoed across the canyon walls to scare off the devils and bring on spring rains. Although every Raramuri man I asked said he runs and plays Ralajipame, nobody would tell me where I might see a runner or a competition. In fact, while I was in the Canyon, the only Indians I actually ran into on the trails were either drunk, riding a bike or looking to hitch a ride, at times all three. Whether we were several miles into the backcountry or in the old city of Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon, nobody was really interested in talking about running. Instead the Raramuri were interested in asking for money or tipping back a bottle of Viva Villa, the $1-a-liter rot-gut grain alcohol that is fast replacing their traditional corn beer.
I asked Don Bush, an 18-year resident of La Bufa in Copper Canyon, and intimate of several Raramuri runners, if running was on the decline and he seemed to think that the culture was, in fact, in a period of transition. “The women don’t grind corn anymore,” he said, “they buy Maseca. Starving? I’ve never seen it. We had a drought in the early ’80s and the government was right on top of it. A big truck showed up with corn and the Indians were drunk on the tesguino they made with it for months.”