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The Long Struggle of Mexico's Tarahumara Tribe to Hold on to Its Last Bit of Land

For centuries, Mexico's Tarahumara have been chased into the mountains by conquistadors, missionaries, and mining operations. Now real estate developers want some of the last rocky land the tribe has left and the priceless view that goes along with it...

by Weston Phippen
Mar 19 2014, 11:00am

Modesto Cruz Batista, a Tarahumara man who guided me to Mogotavo, points across the ridges of the Copper Canyon. Photos by Pavel Tarin and Weston Phippen

Last year, in February, about 20 Tarahumara Indians gathered inside the Best Western hotel conference room in Creel, a small town in the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. Aside from the taxidermied wildcats and deer heads mounted to the walls, the space was unremarkable, the sort that could host a company sales retreat or a quinceañera or a gathering of stamp collectors.

The Tarahumara men wore baseball caps snugged to their brows and jeans stained with earth from the fields. Despite the winter wind outside, the women appeared in traditional flower-patterned headscarves, blouses, and dresses that bloomed outward at the bottom to reveal their sandaled feet. On the other side of the banquet tables sat a group of state government representatives, lending the gathering the look of a familiar tableau—natives facing colonizers at the negotiating table. A screen in front of the table glowed with the latest scheme to profit from the land the Tarahumara had lived on for centuries: an adventure theme park in the space now occupied by the ancient village of Mogotavo.

The government representatives rapped for hours about water treatment and renovations to Creel’s pint-size airport. But no one mentioned the relocation plans for the villagers––even though the homes where the Tarahumara would be forced to move had already been built. A federal judge had ordered the two groups to hold this meeting in order to find common ground, but so far it felt like a lecture.

A state representative leaned into the microphone: “We are going to continue this talk, following…”

When he heard the motion to delay the meeting, an American named Randy Gingrich, who was sitting on the Tarahumara’s side, jerked up in his seat like he was going into a seizure.

Señor, excuse me!” Randy yelled. The 56-year-old runs Tierra Nativa, a nonprofit that fights mining and deforestation in the Sierra Madre and advocates on behalf of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. All day he’d listened to representatives avoid discussing Mogotavo. He’d be damned if he let them talk in circles any longer.

“The subject of consultation is the most important matter here today!” Randy yelled. “It’s a plain violation of their fundamental rights!”

And though everyone in the room had undoubtedly heard it before, he launched into the story of Mogotavo, the impoverished village with a priceless view. About 200 Tarahumara live there, spread out across an inhospitable mesa that's nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, in isolated huts and inside caves pocking the canyon’s edge. The soil is difficult to farm, and the Tarahumara live in poverty, removed from most of Mexican society. At the edge of the village the mesa gives way to the Copper Canyon, a system of sheer valleys that’s larger, and in some places deeper, than the Grand Canyon. It’s the type of vista that makes a person realize he’s tiny compared to the magnitude of nature. But a group of developers felt something different—they thought it would be the perfect spot for a golf course.

Six years ago, ownership of the mesa landed in the hands of a development group made up mostly of former politicians who, entering into a partnership with the government, formed an organization called the Copper Canyon Trust. On the mesa where the Tarahumara struggled to raise their haggard goats and corn, the Trust envisioned an unlikely tourism hotspot complete with hotels, a casino, bungee-jump platforms, and, yes, a golf course.

At the meeting, Randy denounced the Trust, condemned the investors for buying the land beneath Mogotavo, and derided the state for rubber-stamping the deal. He yelled that all involved were “extremely corrupt and dirty!”

The Tarahumara didn’t applaud, or even register that they approved of Randy’s outburst. In their culture, squaring your shoulders during a conversation can be considered confrontational; they were unused to this level of direct aggression. The natives’ collective gaze fell to the hotel carpet. If this meeting was another marker on the long road to their tribe’s extinction, they seemed content to bear it in silence.

The villagers' homes are spread across the Mogotavo mesa, as the Tarahumara relish privacy. Some live deep in the canyon, inside caves—habitations that date back to the time of the conquistadors.

The Tarahumara are an ancient, relatively unknown people who predate the Aztecs. If you’ve heard of them at all it’s likely because of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best seller, Born to Run, which chronicled their ability to run hundreds of miles over cragged mountains in leather sandals—an appropriate talent for a tribe that’s perpetually chosen flight over fight. For centuries, they fled from the Spanish conquistadors and mostly avoided the Jesuit missionaries who sought to convert them. In the 1870s, when the Mexican government invited companies to mine the Sierra Madre, the Tarahumara took refuge atop peaks too rugged for pack mules to climb and in valleys only birds knew.

The tribe seems predestined for persecution—in their creation myth, the Devil plays guitar and wears a beard, just like the conquistadors who chased the Tarahumara into the mountains. In that legend, God made the Tarahumara using pure clay, and the Devil made everyone else from clay and ash, meaning other peoples’ inherent greed is their unavoidable heritage and hence not really evil. Myths aside, the Mexicans have been taking land from the Tarahumara almost as long as there have been Mexicans. Even the name Tarahumara is a Spanish bastardization of the tribe’s real name, Rarámuri, which in their language means something like “the Fleet of Foot.”

About 70,000 Tarahumara live in Mexico today, alongside Mexican ranchers in mountain towns, in small villages, or deep in valleys cut off from the outside world, as Mogotavo was until recently.

The village’s present difficulties started after World War II. The US economy was booming, and Mexico was eager to export silver, gold, iron, and timber to American factories. The Mexicans extracted these resources from the Sierra Madre, and as they continued to encroach, the Tarahumara retreated. In 1961, rail workers finished laying more than 400 miles of track for a train that linked Chihuahua with Los Mochis, a coastal city to the southwest. It had taken 86 tunnels and 37 bridges, but finally the Sierras were open for business. Midway between Los Mochis and Chihuahua city, Mogotavo was now just a 30-minute walk from the train station.

If you make that walk from the station to the village today, you can look out past the rim of the mesa, which drops nearly a vertical mile. Below the mesa the Urique and Recowata rivers join together, and behind them the pine forests climb rust-colored ridges, and beyond those ridges is another valley, then another, then another—a seemingly endless series of peaks and valleys climbing and fading until they merge with the blue horizon. More than 110 years later, the view still looks as Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz described it in his 1902 book, Unknown Mexico: “From where I stood looking at it, the country seemed forgotten, lonely, untouched by human hand.”

It was this unspoiled country that attracted a man named Efraín Sandoval. As legend has it, Efraín arrived in the late 1960s with two bottles of tequila, which he’s said to have traded to a Tarahumara man for five acres on the canyon’s rim. In 1973, Efraín opened Hotel Divisadero Barrancas on that land; it had ten guest rooms, a restaurant, and a bar. His father was a civil engineer who supervised road construction in the area, and Efraín had strong ties to the government. Ten years later, his holdings grew substantially when the state of Chihuahua denied the Tarahumara’s petition to recognize Mogotavo as a communally owned plot of farming land. Instead, it granted nearly 1,500 acres to Efraín and his two daughters, according to a report by Tierra Nativa, as well as a study by Horacio Almanza Alcalde, a researcher at the National Institute for Anthropology and History. The Sandoval family soon owned more than 3,700 acres surrounding the train station, including the entire town of Mogotavo.

Locals told me Efraín kept an armed retinue to keep an eye on the villagers, as if to remind the Tarahumara they were now trespassers on private land.

“Every week came at least six soldiers to watch us,” said Luis Batista Vidal, a middle-aged Tarahumara man. “And the soldiers would stay at the hotel.”

Villagers said Efraín once showed up with a gun as they dried adobe bricks to add onto the local school. A mestiza woman (part Tarahumara, part Mexican) named Lola said he torched her family’s ranch house. Don’t get comfortable, he seemed to be saying; this land belongs to me now.

As the decades passed, sightings of Efraín grew less frequent. Eventually his daughter, Ivonne, took control of the hotel. In 2008, the Sandoval family sold the mesa where Mogotavo sits to the five-person development group, which would later form the Copper Canyon Trust. With this newest parcel, the developers had now purchased nearly all the land surrounding the canyon, having spent $2.25 million for it, according to a 2012 report from Tierra Nativa.

After the sale, men employed by the developers drove up to Mogotavo in a white truck, the villagers told me. They surveyed the land and warned the Tarahumara to pack up and get out, or else they’d be back with the military. The tribe had been hounded by Mexico’s march into modernity until they ended up on land no one else wanted—and now, hundreds of years later, it turned out that someone wanted it after all.

“Their assimilation may benefit Mexico,” Lumholtz wrote of the Tarahumara a century ago, “but one may well ask: Is it just? Must the weaker always be first crushed, before he can be assimilated by the new condition of things?”

Modesto Cruz Batista, his wife, Guadalupe, and their son. Their adobe home has only one room, heated by a wood stove.

The month of the meeting in Creel, I hitched a ride to Mogotavo with a short 41-year-old Tarahumara man named Modesto Cruz Batista. He wore jeans, the traditional leather sandals with soles cut from an old tire, and a bright green baseball cap with devil’s horns and wings sprouting from the word Chihuahua. It was a 30-minute drive from the train stop to the village, much of it over a dry creek bed of rounded stones that jostled the truck and scraped its undercarriage. “It’s just as fast to walk,” Modesto told me.

The land Mogotavo sits on is so rocky it seems like one boulder, as if the villagers live on the back of a giant turtle shell. About 90 percent of the Mogotavo is communal property—traditionally, the Tarahumara have no concept of land ownership—with small patches of arable soil where villagers raise beans, squash, and corn. The only fence in town surrounds a pasture in the center, which they had built to corral the 70 goats they once owned. In the last few years a combination of coyotes and Mexico’s worst drought in seven decades killed most of the goats, and the remainder plummeted over a canyon precipice. Such is the Tarahumara’s luck lately.

There’s no doctor in the village, and when someone needs medical care he or she has to get a ride to a nearby town in Mogotavo’s only truck. Not long ago they had two, but a few years back Modesto and his friend were fixing the battery and drinking tesgüino (a homemade corn beer) when the truck jolted forward and pinned Modesto beneath it. Believing it to be cursed, his friend sold the bedeviled machine. “Now we only drink in our homes,” Modesto told me.

Like many other villagers, Modesto has a lot of children; his newborn makes six. His home is a 15-feet-long, square, single-room hut with a cement floor. When I visited, his family had placed buckets on the beds and tables to catch the raindrops that snuck through the rusted metal roof—in Mogotavo they pray for rain, but even their blessings harass them.

Modesto’s family survives on government aid for indigenous mothers, the $5 a day he makes picking apples on commercial orchards during harvest season, and the money he earns—around $100 a month—selling trinkets at the train shop, a common occupation for the villagers. His wife, Guadalupe, makes baskets from pine needles, and from local wood Modesto carves violins that he admits probably don’t work.

“The gringos don’t know how to play violin either,” he said. “They just like them made by hand.”

It’s undeniable that the village has a scenic, remote, indigenous appeal that charms a certain type of tourist. While I was visiting Modesto, a Mexican couple who looked to be in their mid 40s roared up on a pair of four-wheelers in front of the family home. The woman wore trendy black tights, a ponytail, and a black coat with a fur trim. The man held a camcorder. They smiled at each other. Guadalupe, clutching her son in her arms, offered the woman a woven pine-needle basket.

The woman inspected the basket while the man held his camcorder a foot from Guadalupe’s face, moving the camera about as if he were recording every inch of some odd endangered species for a nature documentary. The tourists pointed at Modesto’s house and at his children with their runny noses, clearly appreciating the authenticity of the moment. Then the couple smiled at each other again and roared off toward the mesa’s edge.

Villagers still construct many homes and buildings from adobe, as they have for hundreds of years. The Tarahumara are extremely taciturn, and these men stood and sat for more than an hour with barely a word or glance between one another.

The next day, I met the villagers in front of their church. The building is made of crumbling adobe and has no cross, because villagers are still saving to buy one. I asked them whether there is there anything good that will come from the village’s development.

“Tourists will pay us to take them down the canyon,” said a woman named Marcia Lora Cruz.

“The last year it almost never rained,” said another villager, clearly thinking about a transition to a tourism-based economy, which wouldn’t be so devastated by droughts.

I asked if they knew the whereabouts of the houses that had been built for them to relocate to. One man said they were over the hill, but then, after some discussion, the villagers agreed they didn’t know.

The developers had already constructed the 12-by-15-foot concrete huts half a decade ago as they plotted to take over the land. The hovels stood about two miles away—close as the bird flies, but a world apart from the village’s priceless view, and on land less inhabitable, and even rockier, than the mesa. The huts are a part of the government’s Copper Canyon Tourism Master Plan, a ten-year project announced in 2009 that had an estimated cost of almost $370 million, according to the study by the researcher at the National Institute for Anthropology and History.

The government promised to set aside funds to make improvements to Creel’s airport, pave roads, and construct hotels—essentially transforming the mesa into prime real estate. It was a huge windfall for the shrewd, politically connected developers. The plan called for eight zip lines suspended 1,500 feet above the canyon floor, bungee jump platforms that would be the second highest in the world, hotels, restaurants, an RV park, a casino, Latin America’s longest aerial tram line, and an 18-hole golf course.

Development in the area would affect at least three other Tarahumara communities besides Mogotavo, either because their land would be taken from underneath them or their lives would be interrupted by pollution and construction. Some of these attractions have already been built, and today you can take a short walk from a hotel near the train station and pay $20 to stand in the tram’s carriage—a simple windowed box—as it crosses the three and a half miles to the other side of the canyon. This is where the original development plans called for an “ideal” Tarahumara village, a kind of living-museum display where tourists would be able to photograph the Way Things Once Were, when the land needed only to provide for the Tarahumara of Mogotavo.

(I’ve been told developers have made adjustments to the original plans because of budget shortfalls and the ideal village may have been scuttled. The lawyer for the Copper Canyon Trust declined to let me see the current plans.)

The only problem with this grand vision to attract tourists was that the very real-life Tarahumara village of Mogotavo was inconveniently placed upon the mesa’s best view—and no one had bothered to inform the residents that the changing world now required things like titles that granted land ownership. In the sale contract, the Sandovals mentioned the presence of the villagers but said they resided there under a temporary arrangement. (The villagers told me they were unaware of this state of affairs.) It was the new owners’ duty to evict the Tarahumara, according to the contract, “preferably in a voluntary way.”

In 2009, the villagers realized a change had come when workers arrived to erect a fence to keep the Tarahumara away from the overlook near Efraín Sandoval’s original hotel (which now has 52 rooms and a gift shop). The Trust also built a new train station to handle the impending tourist explosion, along with the aerial tram line, the crown jewel of the development project.

“Copper Canyon Disneyland,” Randy Gingrich calls it derisively. The American activist got involved with the Tarahumara of Mogotavo when the tribe came to him for help shortly after it realized its village was being threatened with development.

Randy studied watershed managementat the University of Arizona in the early 90s; along the way, he hung out with environmental activists of varying degrees of militancy. He met his Mexican wife, a dance instructor, while researching his master’s thesis on deforestation in the Sierra Madre, and the two have lived in the state’s capital, the city of Chihuahua, ever since. For more than 20 years, Randy has battled corporations seeking to take advantage of the Sierra Madre’s resources, in the process acquiring the nickname “Randy the Red” because of his fiery beard and quick temper. Once, he told me, he filed a lawsuit against a logging company that responded by posting an SUV outside his office at night—an omen, in Chihuahua, of a kidnapping to come. In 2007 he founded Tierra Nativa with two other activists in order to focus on fighting for the rights of the state’s indigenous people.

On the nonprofit’s website, Mogotavo’s cause is described in dramatic, strident terms: “[In 2009] 19 families were threatened with forced relocation by a group of investors in tourism development including powerful national and state politicians. Without consulting with the community, the investors were planning to forcefully relocate the community into tiny brick homes on a desolate ridge without soil or water.”

“This is a representation of how the Tarahumara have been subjugated all throughout the Sierras,” Randy told me.

The difficulty is that, the rightness of their cause aside, historically the Tarahumara haven’t fought against colonialism or development through the courts or public forums, and their inclination is to avoid conflict as much as possible. “They’re not equipped culturally to deal with outside threats,” Randy said.

But they are trying. The Tarahumara have met with Randy regularly at Mogotavo’s church to discuss solutions and how to resist the government’s tourism project. They also elected their tribal governor, Miguel Cruz Moreno, in part because he speaks and writes Spanish and they feel he can best reason with outsiders.

Tierra Nativa helped bring the villagers’ cause to the courts, and in April 2011 they won a victory when an agrarian tribunal ordered construction to be halted temporarily until the dispute could be sorted out. The ruling specified that the Tarahumara would have to be consulted on any relocation plans.

Horacio Lagunas Cerda, the lawyer who helped file a lawsuit on behalf of Mogotavo, told me that, despite this victory, the villagers have no power to control the conversation about what happens to their land and no leverage with the government or the developers. Worse, the hold on construction was only temporary, and it expired in February 2012. As long as the Trust continued to host meetings between the two sides like the one at the Creel Best Western, they could build as they pleased. So the meetings where nothing was accomplished continued, and so did construction.

“A bunch of political bullshit” is what Randy called the meetings.

Complicating matters is that the Tarahumara don’t simply want to stop all development on Mogotavo. None of the villagers wants to be forced out of his or her home, but most would welcome more sources of income, and it’s been suggested that some tourist attractions would be fine as long as the Trust gave the village a percentage of the profits. Other villagers want nothing to do with such a scheme. Randy has culled the disparate ideas into a plan that allows some development projects to be built a respectful distance away from the village. His idea is to swap the garish golf courses and bungee jumps for groomed hiking paths and small sustainable cabins. If he had his way, Mogotavo would be designated as the villagers’ private property, to be used or preserved as the Tarahumara see fit.

For its part, the Trust has repeatedly denied that development would affect the Tarahumara and claimed that the villagers will benefit from increased tourism because they’ll sell more of their trinkets. But after the new train station was built, the Tarahumara were barred from setting up booths or selling inside. The state Ministry of Economy’s head of legal services told me that the Trust would not comment, “as we have in the past accommodated interviews from foreign media, only to find the actual report to be a biased account of Mr. Gingrich’s allegations.”

Then, using opaque wording, the head of legal services suggested I trade him information about Tierra Nativa in exchange for answers to my questions. I respectfully declined.

The Tarahumara are known for their great long-distance running ability, and they’ve run from nearly every threat to their land. So when they protested against the real estate developers in Chihuahua city it didn't come naturally to them.

Inside the Government Palace of Chihuahua is a mural of Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico’s answer to George Washington, who helped start the war for independence against the Spanish. Hidalgo fomented the mostly peasant-based rebellion largely because of the Spanish rulers’ neglect and mistreatment of the poor. For his efforts, Hidalgo was killed by a firing squad in the city of Chihuahua, so the palace now hosts his shrine.

Last winter, about a hundred farmers and ranchers rode horses for days to the palace to demonstrate against crooked government dealings over their water rights. Others came to call attention to the drug-war deaths sweeping the state (Chihuahua is home to Ciudad Juárez) and the shoddy and corrupt police work that’s led to fewer than 5 percent of the homicides being solved.

Protesters brought a brass band, and around 500 people in total shouted along to the music beneath the governor’s balcony at the palace. When this failed to attract enough attention, some passionate demonstrators stormed the building on horseback. Their animals pissed in the atrium, leaving golden pools beneath the mural of Hidalgo.

On the perimeter, maintaining a leery distance, huddled the Tarahumara of Mogotavo. Randy had helped organize the demonstration partly to draw attention to their cause, and 50 of them had dutifully shown up. Amid the dusty tans and denims worn by the protesting farmers, the Tarahumara women looked like flower-patterned peacocks. A few villagers clutched a cloth banner on which they’d painted a paragraph explaining their plight; it was nearly impossible to read as it folded upon itself in the wind. Randy dashed back and forth from the Tierra Nativa office, carrying flyers and posters and shouting for the Tarahumara to raise them high.

For the Tarahumara, the protest was a completely new concept, and they weren’t particularly good at drawing attention to themselves. But after centuries of running from encroaching greed, they were finally sticking up for themselves—Miguel Cruz Moreno, Mogotavo’s tribal governor, even delivered a speech on stage in front of the entire protest.

Miguel seemed uncomfortable, though, when a woman handed him the microphone. He slid his hand in his jeans pocket. His face disappeared in shadow under his baseball cap. As he scanned the crowd, he seemed to shrink.

“They continue to take advantage of the land,” he said in a weary voice. “We have to be in the fight.”

The view from Mogotavo.

In the months after I left, Randy said the state police banged on Tierra Nativa’s door and demanded to look through his files.

“I conceded when they pointed automatic weapons at my head,” Randy wrote to me, adding that the state returned the files and nothing more came of it.

Randy said the Trust appealed the judge’s order to consult with the Tarahumara about their relocation. If it’s overturned, the villagers, too, will appeal. Meanwhile, the Trust has built a metal stage on the mesa, presumably to entertain future tourists.

When I last spoke to him, Randy believed that the Tarahumara would win the right to stay in Mogotavo now that more local organizations and the Mexican media have raised awareness about their plight.

But what will Mogotavo look like if the Copper Canyon theme park sprouts around it? And even if the Tarahumara win some concessions from the developers in this battle, have they already lost the war?

A century ago, Karl Lumholtz visited a very different land. The views were as majestic then as they are now, and the Tarahumara lived in comparable conditions, but when I read Unknown Mexico, one line in particular jumped out at me: “In the country of the [Tarahumara],” Lumholtz wrote of the terroritory where he stood, “that is to say, the State of Chihuahua…”

Weston Phippen is a journalist currently writing for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on Twitter.