One early autumn morning in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico, Martina, a young Rarámuri woman born and raised in the region, knelt in the dirt of her small garden and whispered her thanks to the squash, jalapeño, and bean plants, praying that under the leaves there would be vegetables she and her family could eat. The past two summers had brought no rain. She and her husband, Luis, had seen their children’s growing bodies impaled by hunger. Now her baby, Manolo, sat beside her, and toddlers Oliver and Julissa played in the dirt.
The Gutierrez family’s small wooden house and garden plot stood in a clearing partway down the Urique canyon, one in a chain of more than twenty canyons that make up the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madres. Millenia ago, six rivers—the Urique, the Tararecua, the Batopilas, the Verdes, the Chinipas, and the Candamena—carved out the Copper Canyon. Rarámuris, famed for being long distance runners, have lived in the Copper Canyon since the Spanish Conquest, in the early 1500s. Originally a people from the Chihuahua Desert, the Rarámuris sought refuge from the invaders in these mountains. Now they live dispersed throughout the Copper Canyon—the Gutierrez family lived a half-day’s walk from their closest neighbors—in wooden houses, sometimes in caves, always with carefully tended gardens where they grow their own food.
That morning, in her garden, Martina showed her children how to look for the squash leaves wide and soft. After greeting the leaf, she traced the edges until she found the stem. She followed the winding stalk through other garden vegetables—corn, chiles, beans. At the base of the plant, she found a small, unripe squash. She felt the disappointment first in her chest, and then in her throat. For a moment, she couldn’t speak.
Her children, watching, reminded Martina of her role as culture bearer. So she gave thanks to the squash plant and the Creator Onorúame, who lives in the plant.
Give thanks even when you find the smallest gift. Give thanks even when you find a stalk with only a bulb at the end. Remember: Sometimes promises take time to reach us. Remember: All our lives are in the hands of Onorúame, who gives us blessings but also takes them away.
The Copper Canyon has always received intermittent rainfall, but the last fifteen years have seen a drought so extreme that Rarámuris’ gardens no longer provide enough food. The pine trees and cacti covering large swathes of these mountains suffer thirst with the Rarámuris. Rivers, streams, and lakes, rarely full, nourish the landscape with what they have. Where the canyons reach deep into the earth, the air becomes humid and the fertile dirt hosts tropical plants, though lately the soil in this portion is also dry. This is the homeland of the Rarámuri people, or, as Martina describes it, la tierra que Onorúame nos dió a los Rarámuris. This land is a gift from Onorúame to the Rarámuri people.
In the beginning, Onorúame formed the Rarámuris out of clay. He named them Rarámuri—light-footed ones—because their purpose is to run, to touch the earth and Onorúame who lives in the earth. Running is one expression of reciprocity, the ancient indigenous philosophy that means endless giving—giving between people, the earth, and the Creator. The Rarámuris call their version of the philosophy korima. Soon after her children were born, Martina began teaching them what it means to be Rarámuri, just as her mother taught her.
That evening, a black, star-dotted sky spread across the mountains. The children fell asleep inside their house, the three of them nestled in a bed of wool and deerskin blankets. Martina sat beside a campfire with Luis, discussing what to do. This year, the garden provided four squashes, seven jalapeños, and a handful of beans—enough food for five days, perhaps ten if they ate only once per day. The first frost was due soon, and it was too late to try again with new seeds.
“This is the fourth sparse harvest,” Luis said in his language, also called Rarámuri. In his quiet way, he chided Martina for refusing to leave the mountains for Chihuahua City, where Martina’s sister María José lived. The year before, when their harvest gave food for only a few weeks, Luis suggested they follow María José to Chihuahua City, a four-day walk out of the mountains. Martina and Luis hadn’t seen her in the two years since she left. Luis and Martina had never visited Chihuahua City; the only town they knew was Creel, a day’s walk from their home.
Other Rarámuri were leaving the mountains, they’d heard, and walking across a flat, gray landscape, bare of pine trees and water. They heard Chihuahua City was ugly with concrete and cars, but nobody, not even Rarámuris, starved. The chabochi government gave houses and food to Rarámuris who petitioned. There was a place where some of their friends found housing, an asentamiento, or government-funded settlement, called Oasis. The Chihuahua state government began building asentamientos on the outskirts of Chihuahua City in the early 1990s, when Rarámuris began leaving their homeland. Oasis was the oldest and largest asentamiento in the city, housing more than five hundred Rarámuri people in seventy two-room houses equipped with electricity, plumbing, and running water. Luis and Martina didn’t know what an asentamiento was, but they imagined a place with enough food for all of them. They would stay in Oasis only until spring, Luis urged, then return to the mountains to plant new seeds. It was the best choice for their children, he begged. They grew too thin that summer. They stopped playing.
But Martina believed leaving the homeland was akin to abandoning Onorúame. To abandon the land was to lose all hope for a future. She urged Luis to wait another year. She wanted to raise her children in the wooden house she and Luis built together. Oliver was born inside the house one year later. When Martina felt the first labor pains—squeezes around her middle that quickly grew tighter, more insistent—she called the baby to join her in the sacred mountains. Martina wanted her children to play in the nearby stream, just as she played in the lake by her own childhood home. She couldn’t imagine leaving her garden, the mountain air, the pine trees that provided soft strips of bark perfect for weaving baskets.
“Maybe your cousin received a better harvest,” she said. Luis’s cousin Antonio lived further down the canyon with his wife and children, a half-day’s run. In times of drought, Rarámuri families in need often visited one another to ask for korima. Because they lived dispersed throughout the Sierra, the drought often affected a handful of families. Visiting a Rarámuri family whose garden thrived in another part of the mountain meant that all Rarámuris had enough food to carry them through winter. For more than five hundred years, the system of korima ensured that all Rarámuris ate and maintained close bonds with one another, Onorúame, and the land.
“I will visit Antonio tomorrow,” Luis promised.
The following morning, Luis rose before the sun and ran. Luis estimated a full-day’s run through the pine forest and halfway down the Urique canyon to reach Antonio’s house. It had been a long time—since before his youngest child’s birth—that he had traveled to his cousin’s home, but he remembered the loose rocks on the steep slope, the way his foot paralleled the edge of precipices.
As he ran, Luis wondered why Onorúame withheld blessings. He asked this question as he listened for the tread of deer hooves on pine needles during his daily walks in the forest. He heard his wife teaching the children to give thanks to the parched earth, but Luis could no longer give thanks, not when he saw his children’s sunken eyes and sensed death in their silence. For more than a year, he had thought of little else but leaving for the city, where he believed he could find wage work. But he couldn’t go against Martina’s wishes. She had once been inside the general store in the mestizo town of Creel. She had felt mystified, then appalled, by the practice of exchanging money for food. Why invent an intermediary between people and the land? So Luis continued to walk in the forest and pray for deer.
Luis had been running for two hours when the sun’s first rays shot out of the eastern mountains.
“We have no korima to offer you, Luis, other than water to drink and our home.” Antonio sat at the mouth of the cave, his wife Esperanza beside him, their four children collecting sticks scattered at the base of the pine trees. Luis accepted a bowl of water.
Antonio’s family kept a garden just beyond the entrance of their home, a plot which once grew enough beans, squash, corn, and chiles. Luis noticed the same wide squash leaves with veins extending like tributaries. They, too, offered no blessings.
“When did you last eat?” Luis asked. He noticed the children smaller than his own. The youngest one, who should have been propelling his chubby legs after his siblings, lay on a blanket, gazing at the sky.
“Days ago,” replied Esperanza.
“A chabochi man has been coming,” began Antonio, using the Rarámuri word for non-Rarámuris. “He wants us to plant marijuana, but we tell him our own food is failing to grow. He says we can carry water from the stream to the plants. He doesn’t believe me that there are weeks the stream is completely dry.”
Every morning, Antonio walked about an hour to fill two clay jugs with the family’s drinking water.
“The man promised baskets of food for the winter, but he hasn’t brought any. The last time he was here, he collected the marijuana and poppies. I told him I couldn’t grow more. He held up his gun and told me he would shoot us if we had nothing to give next time he returned.”
“What will you do?” Luis asked.
“We might leave,” Antonio said. “I think we have to. We might try to find Chihuahua City.”
Now, as he listened to Antonio, Luis worried the drug growers would find them next.
When the sky darkened and stars glowed like distant campfires, Luis prepared himself to run through the night, to return to his family by morning. As he said goodbye to Antonio and Esperanza, their children now asleep inside their family’s cave, he felt a growing resolve to leave for Chihuahua City. He would persuade Martina with the story of drug growers threatening Antonio and his family. He didn’t want to detail to his cousin the tension with Martina over whether to go or stay, whether leaving the homeland meant abandoning Onorúame or caring for the family. It seemed Antonio and Esperanza saw what he saw: There was nothing left in the Sierra for the Rarámuri people. No rain, no harvest, no deer or rabbit.
“Maybe we will see you in Chihuahua City,” Luis said.
“If we go, we will look for you,” Antonio promised.
When Antonio returned to his family, he asked Martina to sit with him and let the children play just out of hearing range. He told her about their nieces and nephews more starved than their own children, the lack of water, and the drug growers threatening their lives.
During the five winters in her house, Martina had spent her afternoons with a blanket across her lap, weaving baskets made of bark she had stripped and braided like hair. Her children played with pinecones and told stories about animals enchanted by the snow. Luis made fires outside and boiled squash for the family. On hot summer afternoons, the family rested in the patch of shade cast by their house. Martina welcomed the days as gifts, never believing the land and the sky might forever punish her family or the Rarámuri people. Now, as Luis spoke to Martina, the sun seemed to scorch the trees. Instead of falling rain, Martina imagined guns pointed at her own family, at the mountains.
“We need to leave,” Martina finally agreed.
“Yes,” Luis said.
The following morning, the family looked at the fur-soft squash leaves, the pointed leaves of jalapeño plants, the buds that should have grown into bean pods. Julissa and Oliver memorized the garden, while Manolo, the baby, slept in the traditional rebozo tied across Martina’s back. Luis carried everything they would take in another rebozo: two blankets, a small clay jug, a bunch of jalapeños, a few stems of edible weeds.
In the evening, after Martina and Luis had walked for an entire day, the forest opened as if releasing them. There was a road, the first the children had seen. There was a cluster of houses, a bell tower in the center. The mountains surrounded the town, tall, silent protectors. “We’ll rest here, in the forest,” Luis said. “I’ll find something to eat.”
The family had reached the mountain town of Creel, the entrance to the Sierra Madres. In the early 1900s, Creel was a resting place for miners searching for silver in the Copper Canyon. Over the past two decades, the town has advertised itself as the official base for day-long tours to the Copper Canyon, where visitors can marvel at the canyons deeper than the United States’ Grand Canyon. Some tourists observe Rarámuris tending the last of their gardens. Creel is also a stopover for drug traffickers traveling from a Rarámuri’s home to Chihuahua City, Ciudad Juárez, and American cities beyond.
Luis had been to Creel once before, to visit a clinic for a deep gash in his leg. That had been years before, when he was a child still learning to run. He had fallen on a sharp rock. In the clinic, the nurse had wrapped his foot and told him not to walk for two weeks. That same afternoon, he and his mother had walked half a day to their house. Luis remembered too that the nurse had told him to unbind and wash the wound every day. But the stream near their house was dry, and he did not want to waste the family’s drinking water on cleaning the wound. So he waited until it rained, then unwrapped his binding. Maggots crawled on his leg. His mother killed them by pouring a pot of boiled rainwater over the wound.
Now, in his second visit to town, Luis walked down a sidewalk looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with chabochis as his parents had taught him on the single trip he had made to Creel as a boy. Chabochis might see the directness of a look as a challenge, they had explained to their young son. It was best for a Rarámuri to look straight ahead or at the ground; this way, they could avoid conflict and continue moving, unhindered. Luis looked for a store or a restaurant, where he hoped a chabochi would, even without being given coins, share food. He passed adobe houses painted white, blue, pink, and yellow. He passed an inn built of logs and a yellow-haired man who pointed a camera at him. Other than that man, no one seemed to care that Luis was there, and he did not know whether to feel relieved or worried. How could he return empty-handed to his children, who had walked without complaining of hunger, fear, or exhaustion?
Finally, close to the center of the town, he found a store. The door swung open as chabochis entered and exited, and Luis could see shelves with food inside. He entered, but remained by the door, unsure what to do.
There were no customers inside, only a young man who sat behind the counter, staring into his lap. Luis wondered whether he should attempt to speak Spanish. He knew a few words—hola, adiós, gracias—but not more than that. He waited a few more minutes, and the young man did not look up. Luis left.
The bell tower he saw from the edge of the town now rose before him. Luis had reached the town center, a small square with a few trees, park benches, and the church. On the church steps, he saw a Rarámuri woman. Her floor-length skirt draped over the steps, a rainbow against the gray. She wore a kerchief around her head, like Martina did. Four children played on the steps while she sewed.
Before he could greet her, the Rarámuri woman reached into her cloth bag, took out a bottle of water, and offered it to him. Luis wondered if she could see his thirst, if she knew he had three children and their mother waiting for him to return with food and water. He drank.
The Rarámuri woman asked him if he was on his way to Chihuahua City. “ Yes,” he replied. She told him that over the past few months, she had seen hundreds of Rarámuris stumble into Creel, barely able to walk. She had seen babies arrive dead in their mothers’ rebozos, a few hours too late to receive water. She had directed all of them out of the mountains and to the settlements in Chihuahua City. Follow the road out of the mountains, she now told him, but walk in the forest. Sometimes chabochis throw rocks or try to hit Rarámuris with their cars. Follow the road for one entire day until you arrive at the town of Cuauhtémoc. Rest there, then follow the same road out of town and into the desert. Walk another day. Luis would know they had reached Chihuahua City when they walked among gray buildings standing close together.
As he returned the bottle with still a few sips left, she dug further in her bag and pulled out three small bags of Sabritas potato chips. She gave them to Luis and said, “Korima for your journey.”
Beyond Creel, the family began the descent from semi-arid mountains into the Chihuahua Desert. They followed the winding road, making sure to stay in the trees, hidden from view, as the kind woman had instructed.
The landscape shifted from dense pines to desert plants: ocotillos, nopales, lechuguilla, mesquite. Martina tried to admire the curve of their leaves, their pale green, their perfectly straight spines. Once in a while, a car sped past, entering or leaving the mountains. They saw no other Rarámuris along the way.
Luis wondered if Antonio and his family had left for Oasis. He wondered whether they would find Martina’s sister settled into a home containing shelves stocked with food. He didn’t doubt they would welcome his family and offer what they had.
He glanced at his children, who trailed after their mother. Manolo slept, soothed by the motion of his mother’s steps. Oliver walked with his head high, gripping his sister’s hand. Julissa dragged her feet slightly. She stared straight ahead, into her mother’s back.
At midday, the family walked along a narrow stretch of highway cutting through the desert. They were exposed to the road. As the sun lowered himself into the edge of the earth, he bled orange and purple and pink into the sky. The colors faded, the sky became night, and the Gutierrez family still walked.
The lights inside houses were on when the family reached Cuauhtémoc. Home to chabochis and a Mennonite colony, this town was famous for apple orchards. Luis and Martina stopped to rest in front of the first closed storefront they found. The two of them slept sitting up, Manolo in his mother’s lap, Julissa and Oliver huddled between their parents.
In the morning, as they followed the road out of town and into the desert once again, they passed a Rarámuri family standing at a crosswalk. A Rarámuri man wearing jeans instead of the traditional hand-sewn clothes approached Luis with a bottle of water and a few apples. He also gave him a few coins—the first Luis had ever held. “Keep these safe,” the man said. “You’ll need them.”
It was early afternoon on their third day of walking when Chihuahua City came into view. First, the mountain called Cerro de la Cruz with houses crawling up the side. An hour later, the family caught their first glimpse of the city’s one- and two-story buildings, the roads crowded with cars and buses, the telephone poles with wires criss-crossing.
They passed storefronts selling items none of them had ever seen: televisions, stereos, high heels, rotisserie chickens turning slowly over a flame. Twice, when a car emitting exhaust drove past, the children gasped that their throats burned. Here, like in Creel and Cuauhtémoc, the chabochis barely glanced at the Rarámuri family. Again, Luis wondered whether remaining invisible kept his family safe or ushered them closer to starvation.
One mile into the city, the family reached a roundabout with a bronze statue of an indigenous woman standing at the center. Her hair flowed in the wind as she gazed over the rows of adobe houses, towards the mountains. When the traffic stopped flowing, Martina and Luis noticed two Rarámuri women walking up and down the row of cars. They approached the drivers’ windows and held out an open hand. Sometimes a chabochi dropped a few coins into their palms. When the cars began moving again, the women made their way to the base of the statue to rest.
Soon, the women greeted Martina and Luis with a soft swipe of palms. They offered the family water and apples. As the children took turns biting from an apple, the women listened to Martina and Luis tell their story. The stoplight turned from green to red and back to green, and cars holding chabochis and their coins sped away. The women listened until Martina and Luis completed their story. Then they spoke.
“Walk down this road, past the chicken restaurant and the grocery store. You’ll pass many houses. Then you’ll reach a long cement wall, and there will be an open gate. This is the asentamiento called Oasis. Go inside and you will find korima.”
The children woke to the sight of María José standing over the two-burner stove, smoke rising. For a moment, Oliver and Julissa weren’t sure where they were. They looked at their four cousins lying on blankets donated by a church. Every item of clothing, furniture, home goods, and canned food in María José’s new home came from monthly donations. The children started at the sound of the refrigerator’s whir and at the pop from the frying pan as María José added more oil. Then, Julissa turned and saw her parents and the baby sleeping in the second room. Martina held the baby’s feet, aware even in her sleep of his small body, his steady breathing and whimpers.
María José, Martina’s sister, took a stack of plates from a shelf and began serving breakfast. She set each dish on a wooden table. Every item in this house had been donated or subsidized by the government, except the food inside the refrigerator.
When María José and her husband, Eduardo, first arrived at Oasis, they slept on the pavement outside the chapel. Rarámuris greeted them and gave them food, but nobody offered their house for sleeping—a breach of korima which deeply hurt María José and Eduardo. In the Sierra, korima requires all Rarámuris to offer each other shelter, even if it is a blanket beside a campfire. The family slept on the pavement for two months, listening to cats and mice scouring trash barrels, until a government official, notified by a Rarámuri living in Oasis, arrived with keys to a house. The official told María José and Eduardo that his agency, created to promote the well-being of indigenous people living in the state of Chihuahua, had recently completed construction on a new set of houses. Oasis was overflowing, he said, but more Rarámuris kept arriving. María José and Eduardo were assigned one such house. They needed only to buy their own food.
María José remembered the shame of not having enough money that first month, then the second, and the third. Neighbors taught them to approach standing cars at an intersection and say “korima,” in the hope that the chabochis inside would give some coins or, better yet, a pastel-colored piece of paper. But María José and Eduardo never gathered enough money this way.
So, every morning before sunrise, Eduardo began joining other Rarámuri men at the Oasis entrance. Chabochis came to Oasis most mornings to hire day laborers for projects throughout the city. At first, nobody hired Eduardo, possibly because he still wore traditional clothing—a linen wrapped around his waist, and a bright shirt his wife had made. He picked up his first job the day he wore jeans and a button-down flannel shirt another Rarámuri man loaned him.
María José vowed the Gutierrez family wouldn’t endure the same confusion and humiliation. She would guide them in learning how to “korimear,” the word that Rarámuris living in Chihuahua City use to describe the practice of asking chabochis for money. María José remembered the sadness she felt when she realized that living by reciprocity, by korima, is adapting to chabochi standards. “Korimear,” a verb, connotes working and industry—the antithesis of giving and receiving simply because one exists, and because one is loved.
But María José realized that to “korimear” is also to infiltrate the system of money with the possibility of boundless giving and receiving. This is what she most wanted to impart on Martina and Luis—their way of life is changing, but it is not over.
The sounds of the children lining up for their breakfast woke Martina and Luis. María José spooned fried tortilla and vegetables onto two more plates and delivered them to her sister and brother-in-law. They thanked her, then ate.