GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

The Tarahumaras


At the time of first contact with Spanish missionaries in the early 1600s, the Tarahumara (or Raramuri as they call themselves) lived in widely-scattered dwellings in what is today the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Here they seasonally moved back and forth between their small “rancherias,” where they grew squash, corn, and other crops during the summer, to the more protected canyon sites they occupied during winter months. The dispersed settlement pattern of the Tarahumara and many other groups in the region complicated Spanish attempts to assimilate them.

Spanish Influences

Initially, Spanish attempts to convince the Tarahumara to move into permanent settlements near a church and to concentrate their agriculture land uses was not successful. Eventually, however, the Tarahumara complied with Spanish requests, because recent wars with their neighbors motivated them to take advantage of the additional security they could gain by living in Spanish villages.

Resistance to the Spanish

Despite their apparent willingness to alter their system of occupancy to a more concentrated village model, the Tarahumara did not immediately replace their traditional values, attitudes, and beliefs with those of the Spanish. Spanish missionaries insulted the Tarahumara by insisting that indigenous spiritual leaders practiced witchcraft, and the Tarahumara responded by revolting.

The Spanish Find Silver

In 1631, the Spanish found silver in Tarahumara country. Within a short time, they established immense mining operations for which they needed hundreds of laborers. To satisfy this need, despite the importation of many outside people, the Spanish enslaved thousands from indigenous groups including the Tarahumara. In some cases, the Spanish raided Tarahumara villages and carried away children, whom they forced into servitude.

Priests and missionaries often took the side of Indians who resisted Spanish cruelty. Nevertheless, they too were intent upon changing indigenous culture and, to some extent, were successful because thousands of Tarahumara and other native people were baptized in the Catholic faith.

As the missions and mines grew, so too did tensions between the Spanish and local native populations. Many Tarahumara left the lowland settlements and went to live in the mountains, and their anti-Spanish/anti-Christian sentiments grew in intensity. In 1648, various tribal groups joined forces in an unsuccessful rebellion. The rebellion failed in part, because many Tarahumara had become assimilated to the point that they were unwilling to fight the Spanish. This division of feelings among native people made it possible for the Spanish to maintain control.

Even though the Spanish were able to defeat native resistance on a case-by-case basis, they were never able to eliminate it. Throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the Tarahumara and other closely related native groups continued to sporadically fight the Spanish.

The Introduction of Cattle and Sheep

Initially, the Tarahumara learned about cattle and horses from Spanish missionaries. Later, in the early 1700s, Jesuit missionaries introduced them to sheep and goats. By the mid-1700s, these creatures had come to form the foundation of the Tarahumara subsistence economy. The cattle provided meat and leather, and the sheep and goats provided meat and wool. Since that time, the Tarahumara have continued to include cattle, sheep, and goat husbandry in their system of occupancy.

Waning Spanish Influence

Although the Highland Tarahumara increasingly disliked the Spanish, Catholic churches continued to be established throughout Northern Mexico. In 1767, however, the King of Spain expelled all Jesuits from the New World. This left many areas without priests. As a result, nineteen churches were left in the hands of the Tarahumara. For the next 130 years, these churches served as community centers for indigenous and Spanish residents.

After the Jesuit priests left the region, the Tarahumara were mostly left alone. As Spanish military power was diminished, raids by Apache warriors from the north intensified, and outside interest in the Tarahumara almost ceased until after the Mexican Revolution of Independence in 1810.

The Tarahumara and Mexico

With the founding of the state of Chihuahua, the Mexican government began to demonstrate interest in dealing with Indian tribes, including the Tarahumara. By this time, other tribal groups, including the Conchos and Jumanos, had been almost totally eliminated either through warfare or assimilation. The Apache, on the other hand, continued to regularly harass the people of Chihuahua.

In 1825, the government of Mexico, through the Law of Colonization, called for the distribution of cultivated land around depopulated towns to native people without charge. Few Tarahumara wanted to take advantage of this new law because they did not want to return to the mission-centered villages they had long ago abandoned under Spanish rule. Since the law also provided for the sale of land that Indians did not claim, and for the colonization of all uncultivated land, many non-Indians settled in traditional Tarahumara areas. This pushed the Tarahumara increasingly deeper into the mountainous regions they now occupy even in the modern era.

Sustaining the Culture through Isolation

The Tarahumara have maintained much of their traditional culture and life-style by seeking refuge in the Sierra Madre Mountains. As a result of their isolation, they live in poverty and deprivation. Until recently, they have been able to maintain vibrant, albeit economically depressed, communities in the isolation of their beautiful mountain homeland.

Recent Threats to the Tarahumara Culture

Drought Induced Migration

Over the last several decades, two major trends have eroded the foundations of the Tarahumara traditional way-of-life. Severe drought and substantial increases in the local population have forced the migration of many to leave the Sierra Madre Mountains in search of employment in the border cities and commercial farms of Chihuahua. Many have become migrant workers who move from crop to crop during the harvest season and then return to the mountains during the rest of the year. Often, entire families work in this migratory fashion, living in make-shift housing as they travel from farm to farm.

Others have moved to more permanent settlements, and find more permanent work. These people tend to settle in the colonias of cities such as Juarez and Chihuahua City, where they live in substandard homes that lack even the most basic amenities such as safe drinking water and proper sanitary facilities. Despite these deplorable conditions, they have adopted this lifestyle in order to survive.

The Impacts of Relocation and Migration

The relocation of many Tarahumara from their mountain homes and farms and the seasonal migrations of many others are now causing the destruction of parts of their traditional culture. Traditional Tarahumara families include several generations who live and work together in a social network designed to provide mutual support. When the younger generations are forced to leave the mountains, the extended family units are fragmented, and the fabric of the mutual support network is often damaged beyond repair. Increasingly, Tarahumara families living outside their traditional homeland consist of a mother, father, and children, while grandparents and great-grandparents have been left in the mountains to cope as best they can.

Different Views of Poverty

The Tarahumara, like many other traditional indigenous groups in the U.S./Mexico Border Region, tend to have a perspective of wealth and poverty that differs considerably from the view held by most citizens of the United States and Mexico. From a traditional indigenous point of view, a person without a family or a sense of community is poor. Moreover, material wealth does not necessarily bring respect. In many traditional societies, prestige comes from the mastery of religious ceremonies and cultural traditions. Given these customs, many who migrate from small native villages are not prepared to compete in a culture that values material wealth more than almost anything else.

Just Existing

When the Tarahumara and other relatively traditional indigenous people migrate to urban areas and colonias along the border, they can no longer rely on the social support networks of their traditional villages. Instead, they must attempt to compete within an alien cultural milieu in which human interactions are often governed by the “bottom line” of the profit motive. Many who migrate to the border area are never able to assimilate and adjust. For them, life on the border is merely an existence.


The Tarahumara and other similar indigenous groups often find the cities and colonias of the border area to be hostile environments. Moreover, the longer they remain away from their families and traditional villages, the more dysfunctional they become. Because the men lack the skills to compete in a market economy, they often vent their frustrations by turning to substance abuse, crime, and violence. The women also find it difficult to cope with life outside their villages.

Currently, some of the Tarahumara who live along the border have attempted to teach their children what it means to be a member of their culture. In some cases, they have established cultural centers through which tribal members can interact with people who share their traditions and cultures. They also strive to help each other cope with life outside their traditional homeland.