Since the 16th century, the Tarahumara or Raramuri have been living in the alpine valleys of the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico. The name Raramuri roughly means “those who run fast.” Author and journalist Christopher McDougall popularized the tribe’s tradition of long-distance-running in his 2009 best-seller, “Born to Run.” The ethnography follows the search for a mysterious man nicknamed Caballo Blanco, who people said had spent many years living with the Tarahumara runners. McDougall’s book helps the Raramuri gain international recognition as a culture centered on running. Every day Tarahumara villagers traverse steep rocky paths to grow crops, herd goats or attend school while wearing thin leather sandals called huarache. However, the on-going spread of drug violence, mining, malnutrition and extreme poverty in the region threatened their livelihoods.
High and Dry in Copper Canyon
Some 60,000 Raramuri reside in Sierra Madre and many of them live in extreme poverty. Their lack of resources comes mainly from the community’s isolation. Most of Copper Canyon is still inaccessible by 4×4 vehicles and helicopters. This makes travel by foot and horseback the only reliable source of transportation in many parts of the region.
With limited access to economic opportunities or primary education, 60 percent of the Tarahumara remain illiterate. In addition, many suffer from malnutrition. In 2011, a severe drought combined with an especially cold winter ruined villagers’ crop harvests. As a result, a health clinic in the small town of Creel treated 250 Tarahumara children of malnutrition, including 25 severe cases. Along with the spoiled crops, the slow response in sending aid from government officials may have worsened the famine conditions as well.
Caught in Drugs and Mining Disputes
The Tarahumara runners have also experienced difficulties due to Mexico’s ongoing drug war and mining disputes. State and Catholic Church authorities have blamed cartel gangs as the main problem from getting aid into the region. Drug traffickers will extort Raramuri villages into growing marijuana or poppies by threatening them with violence and land theft. Additionally, mining operations in the area have displaced the Raramuri.
Some suspect that Canadian corporation Minefinders displaced 60 families to open a silver and gold mine in the small town of Madera. Corruption likely played a role in the Raramuri’s exploitation. Consequently, the community has limited options in seeking relief and support from local governmental authorities.
The Silver Lining
The Mexican federal government is planning to set up a new education system in Copper Canyons that teaches Spanish. In addition, the Mexican federal government is planning to preserve the Raramuri indigenous language along with expanding schooling in the area and implementing a $95 million road-improvement plan that the World Bank cosponsored. This plan intends to connect the Tarahumara to nearby towns and to help them utilize their forested lands.
Nonprofit organizations are also joining the effort in helping the Raramuri. NGOs like GlobalGiving distributed food packages of corn, rice, beans, sugar and oil to 542 families in 2012. The extra food is essential during the region’s drought period and can act as a backup meal supply for up to 2 months. In addition, GlobalGiving delivered prenatal vitamins to pregnant women and new mothers to help prevent infant and maternal mortality. With the aid that the nonprofit gave, the Raramuri can continue to live healthy lives and inspire the globe with their ancient tradition of foot races.
Those Who Run Fast
The Raramuri live to run. A story exists that states that they escaped the Spanish conquistadors by running into the Sierra Madre mountains over 400 years ago. Additionally, they have run ever since. Lorena Rameriz, a 24-year-old Tarahumara ultra-runner, is the focus of a new Netflix documentary titled, “Lorena, Light-Footed Woman.” The film consists of Lorena’s homeland Copper Canyon. Also, the documentary features how her family and rural lifestyle have pushed her to become one of the top winning indigenous athletes of the era. She stands out from other runners because of the traditional skirt and sandals she wears while racing in 50 and 60-mile marathons. Lorena Rameriz is taking the running world by storm while embracing her Raramuri heritage.
Extreme poverty threatens the Raramuri still living in the high mountains of Mexico. But, government development programs and charity work are helping to make a difference. The people who “run fast” have inspired a new global sporting trend of minimal footgear and barefoot running. The Tarahumara runners continue to dominate in 90 km races. Hopefully, their villages will begin to win battles against poverty as well.
– Henry Schrandt