A Visit with the Tarahumara in Ciudad de Chihuahua

(to view a larger copy of an image, click on the photo)

Labor Day weekend arrived as I was enroute to visit ASENTAMIENTOS TARAHUMARES, A.C. in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua Mexico.  Originally this trip was to deliver earthquake relief to the people of Concepcion Chile, but unfortunately the ability to organize the trip and find a charity to receive the donation became nearly impossible.  As an alternate plan the youth of Heritage Hills Baptist Church voted to divert the funds they collected during their Disciple Now event in the Spring of 2010 to the Tarahumara of Chihuahua.  My job during this trip was to validate the credibility of the charity and to deliver the collected donation.

We became aware of this group through a colleague of mine named Carlos S.  My initial inquiry to this colleague (suggested to me by yet another colleague) included an email searching for a reputable charity.  Carlos recieved my email inquiry following an extensive prayer workshop in Mexico where he decided to support the efforts in Chihuahua to serve the Tarahumaras.  I believe with all my heart that the door to Chile had been closed, and God opened yet another door to meet the Tarahumara.

The Tarahumara are an ingeniousness people of Mexico.  Historically they have resided in what is now the state of Chihuahua, pushed back into the mountainous region of the Sierra de Tarahumara by Spanish settlers.  Today the Tarahumara still live in the Sierra, but many have left this area due to hunger or oppression by drug lords in the region.

The decision to migrate by a Tarahumara family is a difficult one.  They have not adapted to modern culture and many find themselves even further oppressed in the metropolitan areas they tend to migrate to.  It is common for them to travel great distances, following the rivers, and set up camp under highway bridges or in culverts along city highways.

The options the Tarahumara face when arriving in the city are very limited.  Most end up begging on the streets and are perceived by some locals as a lower class, rude and dirty.  Most Tarahumara speak their own native language (Uto-Aztecan) and arrive in the cities of Mexico unable to effectively communicate.  In addition to the language barrier, the lower class perception is then perpetuated by the Tarahumara according to their reaction upon receiving a donation.  It is common for a Tarahumara not to say thank you or acknowledge the giver because they believe the giver is a vessel used by God to provide for them.  They offer their thanks to God directly, as opposed to the giver.

If a Tarahumara family is fortunate, and is able to learn of other options by word-of-mouth, they can reside in public housing units or land granted by the government.  In addition, those even more fortunate may find housing with private entities like Asentamientos Tarahumares, A.C.

Public housing is a very basic provision.  Communities (or locally known as ‘settlements’) provide very basic needs like a roof ,walls, possibly heat/cooking and some basic plumbing.  Most will have a community room where the Tarahumara can practice a vocation (commonly crafts or sewing), attend religious ceremonies and receive some basic elements of training by committed volunteers.  During my trip to Chihuahua we visited several of these settlements and were able to see the contrast between government operated locations and privately run settlements.

After visiting the inner-city government run settlement, we ventured out to a more rural settlement of Tarahumara.  Other Tarahumara choose to live in more rural settlements where the government grants land, but not necessarily housing.  Most of these settlements have a chosen governor who serves as a contact between the Tarahumara and the locals.  These governors may also be called to help resolve conflict amongst the people of the settlement, or help to lead their vocation efforts.  Here we met Epitacio, the governor of his settlement.

Epitacio was kind enough to show us his home.  His family lives in a three room shack, put together from scrap wood and supplies.  The kitchen also serves as the parents bedroom, and the children sleep in adjacent rooms.  The dining room is outdoors and the bathroom is an outhouse.

The more rural Tarahumara commonly participate in a vocation that helps support their families and community.  The one we visited were especially skilled at brick making.  The average income per family a year is about $1,200.  From this they must also subtract funds to buy the ingredients for the bricks and other materials like wood for brick molds and materials for the overall operation.

The bricks are then dried for several days and then baked in large hand made ovens.  Unfortunately it is nearly impossible for these people to work year round due to the rainy season.  During the rainy season the bricks left to dry outdoors can become damaged.  This is why it’s critical to work when possible and as much as possible during the dryer seasons.

We also took the time to visit other settlements where depravity has taken hold.  These settlements have leaders who have adapted to live in the city and engage in organized crime, drugs and other activities that trap the Tarahumara in a life of danger and further oppression.

Fortunately, there is hope!  The work of the Asentamientos Tarahumares, A.C., founded by Fr. Oscar Raynal, creates settlements for the Tarahumara where they can be safe, develop skills and preserve their heritage.  Even though these people have been displaced from their homes in the Sierra, the decision to live in Asentamientos Tarahumares, A.C. sponsored settlements requires them to adopt certain rules including not begging in the streets, health, hygiene and training which includes the preservation of their culture and evangelism.

Currently the Asentamientos Tarahumares, A.C. manage two locations (more than 30 families in one and 60 families in the other).  Each settlement provides clean housing and a multi-purpose community center.  Each unit includes heat, a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom.  Each settlement has a local missionary who attends to the Tarahumara and works with the chosen governor to make sure the Tarahumara needs are met, and that the Tarahumara are living up to the requirements to live in the settlement.
Example of settlment unit.

It was during our visit to the last settlement of the day (Arroyo) when I met two children who moved into the settlement only two-weeks prior.  Neither of the children spoke Spanish, but we enjoyed our time with them.  The little girl was fascinated with our cameras and wanted to take pictures.  She took a picture of Carlos, me and her little brother.  The picture at the top of this page is also of her brother.

The biggest impact on me from this trip was the stark contrast between government run locations to the privately managed settlements.  The people living in the privately managed locations were happier, more engaging and living lives with a hope and purpose.  It was clear to me the desire of the organization to maintain dignity in the Tarahumara people is a key priority.

Currently Asentamientos Tarahumares, A.C. is providing housing for more than 100 families, as well as providing other support functions in government run facilities.  There are an estimated 1,000 families residing in Chihuahua leaving almost 900 families not reached.  There is a lot of work still to do.

If you are interested in helping, you can mail donations directly to:

ASENTAMIENTOS TARAHUMARES, A.C.
CALLE COMANCHE NUM 16 COL. LOS NOGALES
CHIHUAHUA, CHIHUAHUA,  31150, MEXICO.

Your donations may not be tax deductible if you mail directly to the organization.  We are working on a US based charity where donations can be sent and will be tax deductible.  Once that is complete we’ll post the information up on the blog.

View all of my photos from my trip to Chihuahua at my Picasa web album.

l-r: Arturo, Scott (me), Carlos, Luis and Fr. Oscar