In the Sierra Madre...

A close friend of mine, Jeff Biggers, has written a fascinating book, "In the Sierra Madre," published this fall by the University of Illinois Press. The Sierra Madre in Mexico is one of the world's best known mountain ranges; books and movies have been written about it, most famously by B. Traven ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre").

Jeff spent a year on the western side of the Mother Range (the Sierra Madre Occidental) where some 80,000 Raramuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people live in the stark, craggy, and pine-infested canyons known as La Barranca de Cobre (The Copper Canyon). He was there with Carla Paciotto, his long-time girlfriend, and now wife, who was studying bilingual processes with the Mexican educational system and the Raramuri.

This book is a well-written, engaging, and respectful account of that year in Jeff's life. Many explorers, mostly from Europe and the US, including luminaries like Carl Lumholz, Antonin Artaud, and others, have written extensively about their time here for more than 100 years. Jeff's contribution to this literature should stand as a compelling modern-time update.

I first met Jeff through my friend Priscilla Aydelott when he directed the Flagstaff Literary Festival. Priscilla first brought me into the Navajo rez to talk to students, activists, teachers, and spiritual guides in 1996. At first, I spent most of my time in the Monument Valley area and surrounding communities. I've been coming to the rez every year since, including now with my teacher/elder Anthony Lee and his family in Lukachukai.

Then in 1999, after Jeff and Carla had already spent a good period of time among the Raramuri, I went down there to find my indigenous roots. My mother's family is from Chihuahua. Her mother and grandmother were Raramuri women who left the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican revolution and ended up in Chihuahua City. I still have a photo of my great-grandmother in a Raramuri-style long print dress, taken in the 1920s.

I wanted to see if I could find out more or less where my grandmother and great-grandmother had come from. I felt compelled to connect to this part of my history and ancestral waters.

Jeff and Carla were the perfect hosts for my ten days in the Sierra Tarahumara; Erik Bitsui, a Navajo friend of both Jeff and I, also went along. They introduced us to some important Raramuri teachers, musicians, poets, and friends. We walked for hours in the 7,000 to 9,000 foot canyons. I received a hand-made chapareke, an ancient Raramuri stringed instrument, by one of the few masters still playing it. We even slept in one of the caves. Some of these encounters appear in Jeff's book.

The Raramuri, who are normally reticient to strangers (whom they call chabochis) began to embraced me when I told them I was looking for my roots. One woman said, rather sadly, "that's good -- for those Raramuri who have left, hardly anyone ever comes back."

I visited the cave dwellings of many of these people, as well as their log and stone huts near the isolated and sparse corn fields that most live by (without government support, in many cases they are literally starving).

I hope to write about this experience in the future. But for now, you'll get wonderful background material, a kind of cultural travelogue, and literary/historical lessons about the region in Jeff's book.

The most moving story of my trip involved an old couple, hidden far into the canyons. One man began to see a resemblance in my face (darkened by hours in the sun) to a family he thought might be related to my grandmother and great-grandmother.

We drove a long time, in a four-wheel drive vehicle Jeff owned, to this wood-log house. The old man and woman who lived there greeted us in Raramuri. Inside their home, they offered us seats. Through an interpreter (the couple did not speak Spanish), they heard my story about looking for "family." They might have thought I was homeless. Just the same, the old woman looked at me, with a sweet smile, and said, "we'll be his family." Those words brought me to tears.

I recommend anyone in the LA area to visit with Jeff Biggers this Thursday, October 26 at 6:30 PM at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, the bookstore/cafe/cultural center I helped created in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. For more info go to our website at or call 818-362-7060.

You will be in for a great story of witness and change among the Raramuris.


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