Celebrating the Tarahumara Indians' Spring Ritual of Semana Santa in Mexico's Copper Canyon
I stopped our two-SUV caravan just as we were about to round the bend outside the village of Kírare and head into Batopilas Canyon. A more practical person might have assumed it was to check the brakes, but no, I just wanted to ensure that each vehicle had the proper music queued up.
Batopilas Canyon is one of five canyons that together make up what is popularly known as Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and the descent—around hairpin turns and between verdant walls and ribbon waterfalls—is one of the most scenic anywhere. I needed to be sure my group had the proper musical accompaniment for what they were about to experience.
The brakes wouldn’t have been a bad idea either.
The trip to the bottom of the Canyon is as harrowing as it is beautiful, and not one you want to make too quickly. Around here, the locals keep old doors on hand for hauling out the bodies of those who try—all too frequently—to negotiate these blind curves after consuming a six pack—or so—too many cervezas.
I had been here before—many times—but it was a first for my traveling companions. “Hold on to your hats,” I told them, “because you’re about to experience time travel.”
That’s how it feels, anyway.
Some three-hundred miles south of the U.S. border, the wild and untamed Copper Canyon is the last refuge of animals such as the jaguar, gray wolf, thick-billed parrot and other rare fauna. It is the last refuge of a rare people too—the Tarahumara Indians. The least-assimilated people in North America, the Tarahumara are teetering on the brink of cultural extinction. Opposite our Western culture in nearly every way, these Stone Age people measure time in seasons, not hours; dreams deliver messages; rainbows foretell tragedies. Some anthropologists have suggested they may be the last telepathic people on Earth.
The Tarahumara’s name for themselves is Rarámuri, “the footrunners,” and tales of Tarahumara running prowess are the stuff of legends. Reputed to be able to run down a deer, the Tarahumara generally steer clear of the steel deathtraps on the roads, preferring to walk—or run—to their destinations.
Background and History
Over the years, the Tarahumara Indians suffered many of the same atrocities as native peoples everywhere. They lost much of their land and were subject to enslavement and forced “spiritual conversions.” But for them the result was different. By retreating ever deeper into those inaccessible, forbidding canyons, they have managed to maintain their traditional lifestyle and culture. However, recent long-term drought, combined with the effects of deforestation, pollution, and drug trafficking by outside interests, has made their continued existence increasingly difficult—and questionable.
We made the rest of the drive without incident and arrived at our destination, Hacienda del Rio Batopilas, a palatial hotel embedded—impossibly it seemed—in the canyon wall. The hotel is located a few kilometers up the road from the historic town of Batopilas, once the site of a major silver mine, and now a generally quiet little village, fragrant with kumquats, and vibrant with colorful bougainvillea and poinsettia.
Now we could relax, take in the view, and finally safely enjoy that cold beer. As we sat on the patio, the sound of a drum echoed across the river from some hidden Tarahumara village. I felt a thrill run through me. The drums resonate powerfully with me and have somehow always done more to awaken my own spirituality than all of those confirmation classes combined.
This was what we had come for.
Semana Santa History and Customs
The Semana Santa ritual is the Tarahumara’s spring celebration, which coincides with Christian Holy Week. Although they ostensibly converted to Catholicism in the 17th century, over the years the Catholic rites have been interwoven with their native beliefs and prayers for rain and a bountiful harvest. The general idea is for God or Tata Dios to awaken slowly and see his children—the Tarahumara—behaving as they should. Then, they believe, Tata Dios will wake happy and send rain to the earth for their crops. As a sort of divine “alarm clock,” the Tarahumara begin beating their drums at select intervals in early February, building to a crescendo at Easter.
Semana Santa With the Tarahumara
When we arrived at the village church the next day, things were still in the preparation stages. Wooden crosses were being placed in the churchyard as the Stations of the Cross, while the colorfully dressed women gathered to prepare food and stir large pots of tesgüino, the corn beer that is a vital part of Tarahumara life and culture.
I hadn’t been here for too many years, and I was eager to see my friends, but a little apprehensive of the reception I would receive after such a long absence. There’d been a lot of changes—the birth of my daughter, a divorce, and a whole new career for me.
I needn’t have worried. As we greeted new babies and old friends, the smiles that lit the faces of the generally shy and reticent Tarahumara people convinced me they were genuinely happy to see us and that we were welcome. But then, maybe the passage of time is experienced differently by a people who live today much as they did a century ago, which in turn, wasn’t all that different from the century before.
We waited all afternoon for the festivities to begin. Periodically someone would march through beating a drum and we’d get excited, but then things would quiet down again. Almost certainly, something was happening, but we didn’t know enough to understand exactly what.
We had come as part of an aid mission, bringing food, blankets, and jackets, which we’d distributed earlier. And yet, I realized that the lessons the Tarahumara have for our own culture of excess are always much greater than anything we could give them. And one of these lessons is patience. To sit and do nothing—not read a book, not work a puzzle, not make a quick call to someone—was difficult, almost unbearable, for us multitaskers.
Finally Patrocinio Lopez, a local leader and an old friend, took pity on us. Realizing that we’d probably miss the whole thing if someone didn’t clue us in, he came to tell us that they were painting the Pharisees down by the river.
As a part of the celebration, various groups of dancers will interact with one another. The Pharisees symbolize the chabochi, or children of the devil, as they refer to non-Tarahumara people, and are covered head to toe with thick, white clay. The soldados or soldiers, who will portray the Tarahumara themselves, are not painted, but wear beautiful native clothing and feather headdresses.
From our vantage point high above, we watched the remainder of the painting process with the dancers spread out across a large, flat rock in the river. When the painting was complete, Patrocinio played the violin as he led the dancers and drummers up from the river, past us, and into the center of the waiting crowd.
And then it began, dancing and drumming, and twirling around. The groups became opposing “teams,” representing the struggle between good and evil. Hours passed unnoticed as the dancers crossed and intersected one another, weaving back and forth. I caught the eye of a friend, but no words were needed. The power of the ceremony had engulfed us all. It was religious and at the same time passionate and primal. The Tarahumara had candidly opened their lives and their hearts to us, offering us a window to their world.
The dancing and drumming would continue through the night and into the next day. It would have been nice to have stayed—to sleep by the river amid the glow of bonfires on the narrow canyon walls, lulled by the steady rhythm of the ceremonial drums and the sound of soft laughter. But it was time to go; we had to return to our own reality. Yet none of us would ever be quite the same. For the experience had brought about a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift in our own hearts, forever aligning them with the beating drums and joining us in concert with the Tarahumara’s world.
If You Go:
There are a number of tour operators that offer trips to the Copper Canyon. Many follow the route of the scenic Chihuahua al Pacifico rail line. Travelers on these tours will have a chance to see the Tarahumara Indians who bring their wares to sell at the stops along the route.
A more in-depth and genuine interaction with the Tarahumara people generally means going with a smaller “eco-tour” type operator. It will also require giving up some of the more common travel luxuries and creature comforts. Semana Santa celebrations occur at virtually all traditional Tarahumara villages and there are a few companies that have the necessary relationships to be able to bring their groups to the festivities. One such company is Fiesta Tours International.
Owners Cathy and Marshall Giesy have many years of experience leading small groups into some of the more remote areas of the Copper Canyon.
Note: While I am acquainted with the owners of this company and feel confident in the quality of the experience they offer, I do not receive any commission or other financial compensation in exchange for recommending them.
You should also be aware that in recent years, there has been increasing drug-related activity in the area. While tourists are not usually targets, it is always possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
© 2019 Kitty Williams Fisher