HUISUCHI, MEXICO — He runs as if the wind were carrying him, as if his body had no weight. His green shirt billows; his feet, clad in sandals made of recycled tires, barely touch the ground. He calls to mind a deer: alert, fast and cautious.
Silvino Cubesare Quimare spends much of his life in motion. All Rarámuri people do: In their native language, Rarámuri means “runners on foot.” The indigenous community is based in the canyons of the Sierra Tarahumara, a mountain massif in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which borders the United States. Running is how children play; it is how everyone survives.
Rarámuri are constantly on the move, harvesting corn, herding goats. For about a dozen men and women, including Cubesare, running itself provides income, and a passport to the world. They compete primarily in ultramarathons in Costa Rica, the U.S., England, Japan, France, Austria and Brazil, and win frequently enough that, in running circles, the name Rarámuri carries a certain cachet.
Cubesare huffed through more than a dozen races a year — the longest sprawling 154 kilometers (96 miles) across Spain. His earnings provided clothes, shoes, medicine and food for his five children. That is, until 2020 brought twin plagues to the canyons. First, a virus sidelined the world. Then, a severe drought scorched three-fourths of Chihuahua. “With the drought and the suspension of the races, we were left with nothing to eat,” says Cubesare, a trim 43-year-old with legs as sturdy as tree roots.
It was too much for even the Rarámuri, who are renowned for their toughness. With between 57,000 and 85,000 people, the community is the largest indigenous group in Chihuahua, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Cubesare lives in a hamlet of about 30 families in Copper Canyon, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon in the U.S. Bright sky, piney air, scattered adobe homes. The nearest town is a four-hour drive away by truck — the road is too rugged for cars.
Few Rarámuri own vehicles; just visiting a relative can require panting up steep trails. Children as young as 5 herd goats; as adults, many farm as their ancestors did, weeding fields and picking crops by hand. Researchers who tracked the steps of a group of Rarámuri found that they clocked about 15 kilometers (9 miles) a day, according to a study in Current Anthropology, a journal published by The University of Chicago Press.
Even play is a test of endurance. Like many boys, Cubesare grew up running footraces called rarajípare, in which teams kick a baseball-sized wooden ball through rocky terrain. (The girls’ version is called ariweta and involves a hoop, usually made from yucca and colorful fabric.)
It’s a hard enough life that thousands of Rarámuri no longer live in the canyons, says Horacio Echavarría, director of the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies in Intercultural Research in Chihuahua, the state’s capital.
José Cruz Cleto Mancinas grew up in the canyon community of Urique. One of seven siblings, he recalls a childhood of scrounging for dinner. “We would go looking for roots or something to eat, or sometimes we would eat nothing but water,” the 60-year-old says. He eventually moved to the city of Chihuahua.
Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico
The Sierra Tarahumara has been parched since 2011, resulting in less bountiful harvests and chronic malnutrition among indigenous communities. Last year, the National Water Commission declared a natural disaster in the state of Chihuahua. A farmer as well as an ultramarathoner, Cubesare says he harvested less than half the maize, beans and squash he had in years past.
Margarita Franco is a 53-year-old Rarámuri woman who lives in Batopilas, another canyon community. Mango trees were less fruitful, willows less green. The Batopilas River ran lower. “Some of us started planting late, and we didn’t get enough rain. We harvested very little corn and no beans. We were eating nopalitos that grew in the bush,” she says, referring to a type of cactus.
In seasons past, Cubesare would have found solace mid-stride, but the coronavirus wiped out even the community races. These are more than just social events, according to the Current Anthropology study, for which Cubesare was a co-author: “Running is spiritually meaningful, a form of prayer, a symbol of the journey of life.”
And the professional races are a means of survival. Every year, each Rarámuri who participates in a race in the city of Guachochi gets a food voucher worth 1,250 Mexican pesos (about $62). The money is equivalent to a week in the apple orchards where some Rarámuri work as day laborers. The 2020 Guachochi race was canceled, while the orchards scaled back hiring.
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For Cubesare, running is his primary income; he could bring in as much as 50,000 pesos ($2,500) a season. Quarantined in the canyons, his fellow distance runners were equally broke. “Most of them don’t have a salary,” says Juan Francisco Lara, president of the Association of Indigenous Games and Sports of the State of Chihuahua. “They don’t have any help from where they can earn more than what they earn in the races.”
Cubesare lives with his partner and their 11-year-old son. Before the pandemic, he was building his family a brick-and-cement house, but with his funds depleted, there is no paint, no floor. It is the least of his woes. He also helps out his ex-wife and their four children, who live in Guachochi. She worked as a cook at a school until it closed due to the pandemic. The entire clan gave up sugar, coffee, eggs, sausage, cheese and cookies, and survived on cactus.
Cubesare’s children in Guachochi also strained to pay for the cellphone and internet service they needed to attend school online. At one point, he begged a teacher visiting his hamlet to take them money he’d scraped together. Because of travel restrictions, he couldn’t go himself, couldn’t see them or hug them. That weighed on him.
Eventually, the travel limits eased, though the Rarámuri’s hardships did not. Cubesare eked by, toiling in the apple orchards. But in July, a bright spot: The Guachochi race returned. Cubesare bounded past jagged cliffs and dense forest, wind caressing his face. He placed second in his age group.