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A Whiff of Holiness

Spending Easter with the Tarahumara Indians.


I made it to Socorro's rancho a little before nine, over a bumpy, stony track a few hundred yards from the main road going south from Palomas. The ranch consisted of two small adobe houses and a few outbuildings and pens for animals in a rolling sweep of scruffy desert studded with rough stones.

Our mutual friend Janet had said something about "200 people" being there for an Easter event that morning, but there were just two cars when I arrived. I'd forgotten that Mexico doesn't have Daylight Savings Time, so it was only about eight their time.

She'd said there was going to be "breakfast," but because it was Mexican time, psychologically, that didn't happen till 1:30 p.m. Another person estimated Socorro spent about six hours cooking, in big earthenware pots.

An Episcopal minister named Judith and her husband Chris had come from Alaska with two friends. The idea was that Judith would preside at an Easter service and also baptize four of Socorro's relatives, killing two birds with one stone, as they say.

Next, a long, used SUV arrived with about a dozen Tarahumara Indians who live in Palomas. We all stood for a while outside talking and looking at the chickens, three goats and a big, huffing, indignant turkey that strutted around making his feathers tremble with a sound like rustling paper.

The turkey would walk toward me threateningly, making that noise. Then I'd turn around and take a few steps toward him, and he'd walk sheepishly away, diagonally. When I'd turn and walk away again, he'd threaten again. Some of the Tarahumaras chuckled. Chris referred to him as "a macho turkey."

The 200 people never materialized. Some of Socorro's relatives and a few other Palomas residents arrived later, but there were never more than a few dozen people there. The gathering was about as big as a good-sized family reunion.

The Tarahumaras—or, as they call themselves, Raramuris—filled Socorro's dark living room with the glowing, even phosphorescent, colors of their clothes, their white smiles and the earthy comfort of their humility. The focus of the gathering for the Anglos present tended to be the Tarahumara people, as few of us had had the opportunity to get to know them so close-up.

It's hard not to think the word "innocence" when you're with them, despite the political incorrectness of the term. But I couldn't help it with the two adolescents, Mariano and Jose (who were probably the only literate ones among them), cracking shy, friendly smiles, with the mellow, sheep-like face of Javier, and the high-pitched giggle of Elena when I asked how to say some words in their language.

To people with unwritten languages, it seems silly that someone would want to learn what probably seems so mundane and private to them. Who would think that their language was important enough for anyone to want to learn?

For a while I sat among them on a couch. A toddler sitting next to me named Maribel, in a flouncy skirt and blouse, kept turning to me with a broad, humorous smile that lit up her face. Her outfit was a blue print. Her little friend Susana's skirt and blouse were bright red, with bright trim.

I talked for a while with Chris, who with his wife had worked for years with indigenous people in Alaska. He said, yes, the native people there have that innocence, too, and yes, they have the drinking problems and the social problems, too. That perennial paradox.


In the morning some people hid plastic eggs with chocolates in them, and before lunch we went out with a bunch of Tarahumara kids to find the eggs before the chocolates melted. We walked up a hill to a small swimming pool that was built up off of the ground about six feet.

The little Tarahumara girls, like their mothers, wore kerchiefs and broomstick skirts that fluff out like plump peony blossoms. Little Maribel put her sweet hand in mine as we trundled up the slope among the hostile stones.

When Americans walk by the Tarahumaras in the street or in a restaurant, the children force a charming smile and hold out their hands to get a few coins. They often neglect to say thank you. They don't seem interested in talking.

I've been in the habit of thinking that they're content to remain in the circle of their own culture because of their historical resentment against the repression of the Spanish in the 16th century. After that period they retreated to remote areas and lived in passive resistance to western ways. The Tarahumaras do stubbornly guard their language, clothes and way of life.

So I've pretty well left them alone, imagining I was respecting their culture. But I'm so glad I've had the occasion to get beyond that curtain of reserve, which seems to have been partly an illusion.

About three the Easter service took place in a small natural amphitheater between the swimming pool and an outbuilding there. Judith wore a white robe as a vestment. When they got started, the macho turkey wandered onto this stage and stood behind Judith and the translator, right between them, with his perfect fan of a tail upright and shaking and his loud huffing. At first the women didn't notice him.

He was the clown whose role was to poke fun at the liturgical garments and stiff ritual of this relatively laid-back church service. All the social strata present could laugh as one entity at this buffoon. Then one of Socorro's sons came along, grabbed the bird by the tail, and pushed it offstage.

When the words and translated songs got underway, there was a hush among the people as they stood in hopes of catching a whiff of holiness. The baptisms took place over a plastic rectangular basin, where Judith lifted water to the heads of the four initiates one by one. The spectators applauded each baptism.

To mark the end of the service, one of Socorro's daughters, newly baptized at age 20, pushed her brother-in-law into the pool with his shoes and clothes on. That signaled the start of a swim period, mostly among pre-teens.

I hung around for a while and decided to make my exit.

I drove to Palomas and saw Martin sitting on the sidewalk across from the Saguaro supermarket, and we exchanged words. Then a few other Tarahumaras came around the corner, with a squinting smile toward me: Wasn't that fun?

It crossed my mind I might not want to be anywhere else than at the border, at least for right now—at this crucial place in the world, this vital crisscross of classes and cultures.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.


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