We had a couple of hours on our own to explore Cerocahui before our “official” introduction, but honestly, we only needed about 15 minutes. The town, nestled in a fertile valley on the edge of the Urique Canyon, is very tiny. It is home to maybe 900 people. A few small, independent grocery stores surround a central plaza. A cluster of homes are located just off the main area. In spite of its size, there are three local schools. Formerly a mining town, forestry, farming (orchards and vineyards), and tourism are the primary sources of employment and income today.
The Jesuits arrived in 1679. Slowly, they introduced Christianity to the Rarámuri Indians, the indigenous peoples of the Copper Canyon. (Tarahumara is the name given to the indigenous people of the Sierra Madre by non-Indian peoples. The correct name is Rarámuri, meaning “light feet”.) The Jesuits stayed until 1767, when they were expelled by the Spanish king, who much preferred using the Indians for free labor in the mines.
Cerocahui does not appear in any history books again until 1937, when a Jesuit priest, Padre Andres Lara, returned to the area. Padre Lara built the first roads making travel into and out of Cerocahui easier, though horses and mules were used up until the 1970’s. The Pacific Chihuahua Railroad, completed in 1961, was truly the first public transportation in the area. Long distance telephone service and electricity were slow to arrive, owing still to the isolation of Cerocahui due to the geography of the area (late 1990’s-early 2000’s).
The roads only made it easier for the Rarámuri people once they arrived in town. Even today, access to their homes high in the Sierra Madre or deep in the canyon is granted via nearly invisible pathways. Many of the Rarámuri prefer to remain separated from the modern community. They do not speak Spanish or possess official documents like birth certificates. They do not own cars or telephones. They do not have electricity. Distances are covered and messages communicated by moving up and down the canyons on foot. As a result, the Rarámuri are strong and gifted runners. Some men, identified from an early age with the gift, compete in and win long distance races around the world. Any money earned is shared among the members of their communities.
Unfortunately, they have not remained as separate as they would have liked. The isolation of the Copper Canyon appeals to others for more nefarious reasons. The Rarámuri have been forced by drug cartels to grow illegal crops instead of the food that sustains them- -or their land has been stripped from them. They are forced to move to areas where the earth is not as suitable for farming. Their children are threatened, harmed, or even taken from them. As if that is not enough, the Rarámuri are suffering from a decade long drought. Many of their children have died from starvation.
Rarámuri families may have 14-15 children. The boys work with their fathers learning skills in the fields and around the homes. Some are chosen and trained as runners. Typically, it is the women who have more interaction with the outside world. They sell their beautiful woven baskets, carved walking sticks, and copper jewelry to the tourists who come through the Copper Canyon on El Chepe. An education grants the women an opportunity to learn the Spanish and math skills they will need. However, the truth remains that many families choose to enroll their daughters, aged 4-13, in the Virgin of Guadalupe/Tewecado Boarding School in Cerocahui to keep them nourished and safe more than anything.
Our “official” tour began at the Tewecado (“Place of Girls”) Boarding School. The school was established in the 1941 by four sisters from the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor. It is a private school and receives absolutely no government support. Incidentally, the school receives no financial support from the church either. Day to day operations and maintenance costs are covered by private donations only. Nuns care for the nearly 100 boarders, providing them with three daily meals, safety, and an education. Yes, this is the order of importance, as the Rarámuri live very much in “today”. Parents bring their daughters on foot from as far as 4-5 days away; therefore, visits with family are often infrequent. The site is also a day school for as many as 250 students within walking distance.
The students in residence were playing in the center courtyard when we arrived, enjoying a bit of downtime before afternoon Mass. The girls drew, played soccer, and ran races across the courtyard. Their skirts and blouses were a riot of bright colors, designed to reflect the Rarámuris’ joy of living. Most of the girls kept their hair covered at all times, and all covered their hair upon entering the church for services.
Learning responsibility is also a focus at the school curriculum. The girls wash their own clothes and own dishes. Immediately after eating, they reset their places at the table for the next meal. In their homes, the girls sleep on the ground. The Devil lives underground, and the Rarámuri believe that by sleeping closer to him, their troubles will go down, leaving them. At the boarding school, everyone has her own bed in a dormitory. And every single bed was made!
Donations recently paid for a new, modern kitchen area- -a necessity for sure, with so many mouths to feed. We left candy with the nuns to distribute to the girls as a treat, and many of us made monetary donations as well. So much good was being done with so very little.
The girls began lining up for Mass, so we hurried to the church before their arrival. Padre Lara completed reconstruction of the mission as well. The entrance into the grounds is as large as it is to provide room for dancing, as the Rarámuri always danced when they came to Mass. The alter area and supports for the center dome are all that remain of the original mission building. And today, the Cerocahui mission serves as the center of Easter season celebrations for the Rarámuri people; many walking great distances to participate.
Cerocahui is a small town in the center of an enormous landscape. How easy it might have been to pass it by, not ever knowing it was there. But what gifts its discovery held- -a rich history, a resilient people, celebration, and hope- -shining brightly in the eyes and smiles of the Copper Canyon’s future.
If you would like to make a donation to the school, you may do so here.