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About the Author:
Jeff Biggers has worked as a writer, radio correspondent, and educator across the United States, Europe, Mexico, and India
The Sierra Madre. No other mountains in the world possess such a timbre of intrigue and wonder. Sure, there are greater chains of snowcapped peaks; I have trekked along the boundless sweeps of the Himalayas, the Swiss Alps, the glaciers of New Zealand, and the Rockies and Appalachians in the United States. Still, only the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico has conjured up a world unlike anywhere else with its labyrinth of canyons and legends.
The range stretches in a network of chasms and rivers that is actually more immense, even more "grand" in its undulating range, than the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. It doesn't bother with pristine splendor; the barrancas of la Sierra loom inaccessible, dangerous, otherworldly.
Despite their inhospitality, these canyons have lured a fabulous procession of prospectors for centuries. Argonauts or accidental travelers, they have all come in search of some sort of treasure, real or imagined, ranging from Spain, Morocco, France, Russia, Norway, Germany, China, Poland, South Africa, Croatia, Italy, and Japan; there have been writers, filmmakers, utopians, Confederates, and Buffalo Soldiers, Boerand Irish war deserters, Mormons and Mennonites, Yaqui rebels and Apache renegades, Chinese laborers and Bohemian missionaries; their ranks have included Antonin Artaud, Geronimo, George S. Patton, Black Jack Pershing, and Pancho Villa.
Like the mercurial American prospectors in John Huston's film version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, most of these travelers have left the mountains empty-handed but ultimately transformed by their illusive ventures. In the process, the fascinating motives and machinations behind their searches have been forgotten. The very treasure that Alfonzo declared was hidden in the Sierra Madre has been left behind.
Not that the Sierra Madre has ever been uninhabited. Watching over these canyons like guardians, more than eighty thousand Rarámuri (or Tarahumara, as they are more commonly known by Mexicans and outsiders) carry on as the last remnants of a pre-Columbian Mexico spread out over miles of barrancas and mountain forests. They are the second largest indigenous group, north of Mexico City, in North America. Since the first invasion of Europeans in the early 1500s, they have shaped a culture of resiliency, more than resistance. Living on precarious homesteads, with their plots of corn positioned on faraway ledges, they are now dealing with the latest round of treasure hunters wrapped in the guise of mass tourism, drug trafficking, logging, and evangelism. Unlike almost every other indigenous group in the Americas, however, the Rarámuri have somehow managed to ward off the worst of the desperados, absorb the influx of contemporary influences, and continue to cultivate their corn and traditional way of life.
The Rarámuri are not the only indigenous people in the Sierra Madre, of course; smaller communities of the Pima, Tepehuane, Huichol, and Guarojio dot the canyons and lowlands. The question of existence for all of these indigenous communities-the maintenance of their unique ways of living in the twenty-first century-has compelled them to disperse further in the remote canyons, adapting to an even more hostile reality.
Remarkably, the Rarámuri have continued to thrive. I wanted to discover the secrets behind their extraordinary stories of survival. Their interactions with these elusive gold diggers over four hundred years were, as Alfonzo inadvertently noted, personal maps of the unforeseen treasure I sought in another Sierra Madre.
On September 17, 1998, a rather sedate day after the nation of Mexico had clamored into its plazas with the anniversary cry of independence, "Mexicanos, Viva Mexico!" Carla Paciotto, my companion, and I ventured across the U.S.-Mexico border and journeyed to the Sierra Madre Occidental. We had planned to stay in a Rarámuri village for the school year. In preparation for our sojourn, we had made a quick trip to the region earlier that summer; Carla had toured the area extensively three years before. She was carrying out her field research for her doctoral dissertation on the bilingual education programs of the Rarámuri.
The cornfields on that first day stretched across the canyon basins in withered stalks; the entire region, from the Chihuahuan deserts to the eight-thousand-foot pine ridges of the Sierra Madre, was ailing from the worst drought in Mexico's history.
Nature, of course, always has a way of anticipating our human changes. Mexico was in the throes of a dramatic political and social upheaval, which would eventually result in the toppling of the one-party institution for the first time in over seventy years. As the heart of the logging, drug cultivation, and tourist industries in northern Mexico, the Sierra Madre was embroiled in its own historic period of rapid change. Like the gold diggers in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, pernicious elements in these industries pumped with a voracity for quick wealth. The number of military roadblocks along the way spoke of some mysterious fortune that either needed to be protected or found.
There was an air of uncertainty on the other side.
We arrived, like all adventurers, on the Gran Vision. We made a final turn onto a dirt road to Mawichi, a Rarámuri village, leaving behind the paved road that had crawled across the valleys and ridges of the Sierra Madre for the last several hours. The turn seemed symbolic. Winding through the dense forest, bumping over rocks and ruts, we felt as if we had finally entered the backcountry of the Rarámuri, severing ourselves from the zones of transit and commerce of Mexico. As we would learn, the canyons deceived easily.
Completed less than a decade ago, the paved road through the sierra had been optimistically designated the Gran Vision by the Mexican government. The vision didn't refer to the Rarámuri or local inhabitants; it had been shaped to guide the holy trinity of modern-day prospectors-tourism, logging, drug-trafficking-in the Sierra Madre. The vision had simply consolidated the past, paving a loose network of narrow dirt roads, lumber access routes, mule and wagon trails, and foot paths. At each mile marker, I had a vision of mestizos (the common term used in the Sierra Madre for "mixed race" people or Mexicans) and Rarámuri work crews on their knees, scaling the mountain for nearly thirty years in a mission to lay over six hundred kilometers of paved road from La Junta to Parral.
The first view of our adopted village broke through the forest with a brilliant patch of blue sky. From there we mounted an overlook of a ridge that peered into the canyon. Bound on either side by towering rock bluffs, with stands of pines etched along the craggy faces, the valley stretched along a narrow creek for over a mile, covered in winding plots of corn. I saw a strand of smoke rising from a chimney on a cabin perched on the side of the canyon walls like a solitary tree. My eyes then shifted to more waves of smoke drifting from a cliff dwelling.
There were so few cabins in view; the apparent emptiness of this "village" had stayed with me since our first visit earlier that summer. Everyone had always spoken of Mawichi as if it were a Rarámuri version of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Dots on a map in the Sierra Madre made for a wonderful guessing game. As I would learn, a reference to a "village" might only signal a single shop or a mission, or a road crossing.
Following the rough dirt road, which had been carved into the rocky slope of the canyon, we finally saw a smattering of cabins. The village proper was no more than a 250-year-old mission, a boarding school, a clinic, and a cooperative shop, plopped into the basin of a creek-forged valley of steep rock faces. A disparate cluster of a dozen or so log cabins, caves, and wooden chicken coops laced the valley with lines of laundry, which hung from fences and boulders like colorful lines of modernity. A couple of girls herded small flocks of goats by the bend in the creek, where several young women in colorful skirts and scarves stooped, slapping their wash on the rocks. They all stopped their work and stared as our old Bronco rumbled up the road.
"We're home," Carla said, grinning.
Our home was a two-room decrepit log cabin near the mission, which we had arranged on an earlier trip. We felt quite lucky. There were so few cabins and houses in the valley. Most of the cave dwellings had even been claimed.
Our neighbors were an elderly couple, Maria and Bernabé, whose extended family more or less populated the rest of the central valley basin of the village. After building a new adobe home, the couple was using the old log cabin for corn storage. In front of our cabin was a dilapidated one-room stone dwelling, squat and disheveled, which functioned as the tesguino corn beer brewery and dirt-floor parlor room in the colder months.
Appearing from behind the cabin, standing with a goat kid in one hand, Bernabé greeted us on our arrival with a gleam in his eyes. In his early sixties, the Rarámuri elder was a short, barrel-chested man, clad in jeans, a buttoned shirt, a straw sombrero, and tire-soled huarache sandals. You realized at once that his soiled hat never left his head.
"Maria is out of the village," he said in Spanish. "Anything I can do for you?" He looked at our loaded Bronco, as if we were missionaries ready to dump our goods.
"We arranged with Maria to live here," Carla said.
Bernabé's expression became blank. Then he recovered, as if recalling an old prophesy of doom.
"Oh, Maria did mention something," he said. "It's her house, I suppose." He widened his grin. "Do you want to move in now?"
The log cabin was in disarray. We immediately started cleaning up the place and unloading our supplies. I could barely stand up straight in the cabin; the low ceilings reminded me of my visits among the ancient cane roof huts of the Danes, which were easier to warm during the rough North Sea winters. Curious and discreet, Bernabé made periodical visits, dropping by an oil lamp and a box of matches. I handed him a dead rat in a shovel, which he took by the tail and flung into the garden. Most of the back room was filled with corn, which would later be fermented and boiled into tesguino.
"Do you know what tesguino is?" Bernabé asked.
"You'll learn soon enough," he said.
We changed the metal pipes of the calenton, a barrel that served as a woodstove and heater. We were thrilled to have a pipe of running water. We swept the floors. We stuck rocks and kindling into the most visible holes between the mud-chinked logs. Bernabé returned at one point and took down a fox skin that had been drying on the wall, and then pointed out the stone mano and metate to grind our corn. He noted that the tables, shelves, wood plates and bowls, and clay pots and cups had all been made by him or other villagers. The invasion of our backpacks and boxes of books and supplies, in fact, along with our computers and solar power equipment, seemed like an intrusion in the sparse cabin that first night.
Bernabé stiffened for a moment of nostalgia. "Four of my kids were born in that corner over there."
I think Carla and I both felt a conflicting sense of welcome and trespassing. Bernabé's natural smile and assistance quickened our intimacy, but it also reminded us how much our residence was going to be an imposition on his own life.
"What's that?" Bernabé said, pointing at a case in the corner. "A guitar?"
"It's similar," I said. "It's a round guitar. A banjo."
"Pancho?" he said, raising his eyebrows.
He shrugged his shoulders. My banjo had been renamed.
The novel's (and film's) title was inescapable. B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre always came up when I spoke to American and European friends about our plans. While more than a few were familiar with sunset images of Copper Canyon, most had trouble imaging the layout of the region. Due to the daily reports on the rebellion in Chiapas, many assumed we were heading to a tropical area. Then they'd adjust the map. "Oh, you mean where that movie with Humphrey Bogart was filmed."
I never got around to mentioning that the film and novel were actually based in the Sierra Madre Oriental, untold miles away. We were heading to the Sierra Madre Occidental. But geography didn't really matter in this respect; the film gave birth to the Sierra Madre in our modern vocabulary, real or invented. It placed the range on our literary and film map, that imaginary atlas in the minds of absentee voyeurs and delighted book readers and film viewers. It reminded us that the Sierra Madre was an invention as much as a place.
In the end, like all the rest, we were not heading to Mexico, but to the Sierra Madre.
The slow, rhythmic noise of a woman grinding corn on the stone metate outside our cabin woke me the first morning. I rose quietly and watched her from one of the cracks along the front wall. She knelt in a blossoming skirt and top in front of the metate-a huge block of stone-and methodically crushed the kernels of corn with the mano, a six-inch slab of rock. She used both hands until the basin of the block filled with powdered corn, which she then scooped into a wooden bowl on the side.
There was a high-country chill in the cabin. Bernabé had left a small amount of firewood. I made a fire in the calenton to warm the cabin and heat our water. The stack dwindled quickly. I realized at once that wood, after corn, was one of the most important necessities in village life.
Bernabé came by later in the morning, carrying a stack of blue corn tortillas.
"Como amaneció?" he said, quietly.
His morning greeting in Spanish literally means: How did you begin?
"With corn," I said.
Bernabé smiled. He volunteered to escort me to pick up some wood that morning. I assumed he was referring to the sawmill run by the ejido cooperative.
"How much do I need?" I asked, standing by the Bronco. I was referring to pesos.
"A few hours," he said, climbing into the passenger's seat of our Bronco.
Bernabé chatted in the truck. Having lost his mother as an infant, he had started herding goats alone at the age of five, deep into the remote canyons. By his early teens, unable to attend faraway boarding schools, he was offered the chance to serve as an apprentice carpenter and jack-of-all-trades through the agency of a Franciscan priest. He eventually ended up in Guadalajara. Bernabé had even considered the priesthood for a short while, until he decided he didn't have the calling. Returning to the Sierra Madre, he found work in the nearby mestizo town of Creel, where he met Maria at a Catholic mass. Fluent in Spanish and the ways of modern Mexico, the two of them formed the most cosmopolitan couple in the village, functioning as a great source of both initiative and controversy.
We left the village on the dirt road, turned onto a logging access road, and climbed a plateau that overlooked the canyon. Our road evolved into a wide trail until the four-wheel-drive jumped into gear and I found myself bushwhacking through the forest, throwing the elder increasingly frantic looks for direction. Bernabé patted the side of our rattling Bronco as it narrowly slid through the tall pines.
"This is much easier than taking the horses," he said nonchalantly. He gazed out the open windows. "Los broncos."
The term bronco amused Bernabé.
"That's what the Spanish and Mexicans called us."
For the Spanish intruders, these Rarámuri were "wild, untamable, intractable." They ran from strangers like spooked horses. In keeping with the caballero, or horseman-gentlemen, culture of Don Quixote, as anthropologist Jerome Levi has noted, the Spanish never failed from viewing the world from horseback.
Excerpted from In the Sierra Madre by JEFF BIGGERS Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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