It was what I call my first National Geographic experience, when you are really off the beaten path in a world so completely unlike your own, the only Western traveler type, and you feel like you are treading through documentary footage. This was 1997. I had already traveled to Mexico a couple times on package tours to Cozumel, but this volunteer trip into a small town in the state of Chihuahua was a real life changer and eye opener as we spent time working in an orphanage and a co-op and learned about a community’s members’ efforts to help each other improve their lives in sustainable ways.
At the end of the week, our group of mostly college students and two trip organizers from a Lutheran ministry ventured by train, the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico or ChePe, from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua up over the Continental Divide at Divisadero and then got off for a motion-sickness-inducing pickup truck ride down endless steep switchbacks into the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre). This collection of canyons goes as deep as 6100 feet, deeper than the Grand Canyon, and covers over 28,000 square miles. It’s here where you’ll find the Native Americans known as the Tarahumara. They claim to have never been conquered by the Spanish, though in truth they were driven farther into the canyon as the Spanish went conquistadorian on everyone in their lust for silver mining. In a village, down by the river(!), we pitched camp in a friendly resident’s backyard and bore witness to their Semana Santa celebration. Mind you, this was completely a village event. There were no adventure tours or tour buses coming to see this. (I can’t say if that’s still true or not.)
What you see here is what happens when Catholicism and the original mythologies of a local people have a love child. It’s no coincidence that Easter is in the spring. It coincides with fertility rites of many “pagan” cultures, and resurrection jives with the rebirth of the seasons quite well. So here in the Canyon what was once a celebration of the beginning of growing season featuring an anthropomorphic representation of fertility is now a Holy Week procession with an effigy of “Judas” being paraded through the streets with a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a big red phallus. The men are drunk on tesguino (corn beer made by first chewing corn kernels then spitting them out so that the saliva enzymes release the sugars and the beer ferments using natural airborne yeasts – yum!) and they have painted themselves up with mud to look like skeletons. This is not your ready-for-TV New York Easter Parade down 5th Avenue. This was the real deal.
One thing that reminded us of just how real it was came later in the middle of the night. We awoke as a few men had gathered outside our host’s yard for a rather loud discussion. The group of us was about a dozen, just more than half female. We lay uncertainly in the dark of the two big tents whispering to each other. The tone outside was quite serious. But after a drawn-out, terse exchange, the tension dissipated and everyone wandered off. Our hosts and our group leaders explained that the men were a bit drunk and had been inquiring about the women. (‘Inquiring’ is probably not quite the right word.) That shook us up a bit, but we were young and perhaps a little naive, and we just chatted some more about how weird it all was and went to sleep. Years later I wonder just how close we were to something very, very ugly happening if not for the intervention of our hosts.