When I saw this woman in Tarahumara dress selling Tarahumara crafts at the Feria Maestro del Arte in Chapala, I knew there had to be a story here.
That woman is Elizabeth Townsend, or Libby, whose connection to the Tarahumara is through the heart. Libby founded the Tarahumara Project, which she began in the United States but now is under the auspices of the Complejo Asistencial Clinica Santa Teresa A.C., which runs an indigenous school, hospital, food program for over 500 children and more… with almost nothing more than donations.
Her work supporting the Tarahumara people has led to her acceptance by them, allowing her to wear their dress and deal with the outside world in their name. At the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, she was there to sell and otherwise promote Tarahumara handcrafts. While somewhat popular in the Southwest United States, they do not have the visibility that other handcraft traditions d0 in Mexico. Part of Libby’s work is to bring this visibility, becoming a regular at the Feria.
Originally, the Tarahumara dominated what is now central and southern Chihuahua. Although officially part of New Spain then Mexico, there was little serious disruption of their way of life until the discovery of gold and silver in Parral in 1631. The arrival the Spanish in numbers and the practice of forced labor in mines pushed most Tarahumara into remote, relatively inhospitable areas, or to missions. European intrusion continued into the forests and other areas, especially from the end of the 19th century. This has forced a split in the community, between those who choose to maintain the old ways, living in the most inhospitable areas of Chihuahua, and those who have migrated to cities and towns.
Handcrafts play an important role for those who wish to maintain traditional ways as much as possible. However, the marketing of these goods is problematic as traditional Tarahumara do not like to be among outsiders. Libby says “…they are afraid to getting screwed… and they do.” However, though the Tarahumara Project and similar initiatives, these artisans can get more money for what they make, and be better appreciated.
One important aspect is that the Tarahumara are ecologically minded. The traditional Tarahumara use what the Earth gives them but they do not cut down trees, and use only dead fall. Real traditional dolls are made of bark and are dark. These which are not made traditionally are lighter because they are carved from pine wood.
Another important craft is small baskets made with pine needles, and larger baskets of a succulent grass called “sotol.” These can be single or double woven, but are not coiled. Many still use traditional dyes, such as walnut for brown, and cochineal for purple and pink. However, as raw materials become scarce, some artisans are turning to commercial dyes.
The Tarahumara are well-noted for running, with their name for themselves being “Raramuri” which can be translated as “fleet of foot.” Libby says they will literally chase down a deer after shooting it with an arrow, basically to wear it out. However, she also says that they live to dance, as it “keeps the world going for them.” For this reason, the making of musical instruments, especially drums, is quite important. Several varieties of drums were among her collection, including authentic flat ceremonial drums, which can be made of up to a meter in diameter, allowing five to play it at once. They also make violins and flutes, but Libby did not have any of those when I spoke to her.
There are several deposits of good clay in the Tarahumara region. Both men and women do pottery but generally not together. Most pots are made by pressing a base, with the sides built up through coiling. These sides are then smoothed. There are generally not painted or etched, but are often distinguished by the use of rawhide strips which are stretched over the finished pieces, similar to a net. The addition of this rawhide is done while wet, and must be done carefully as its shrinks while drying, and if it is too tight, the pot will break. The original purpose of this is to give the pot added strength.
First contact with the Tarahumara was when she was traveling in Chihuahua with friends and their Jeep broke down in the middle of nowhere, in a bad thunderstorm. A group of Tarahumara men appeared and between gestures and a few words of Spanish, the men promised to get help. Some time later “the world’s oldest logging truck” appeared to pull the Jeep into the next town, and from there to Creel. Stuck there for two weeks trying to get needed parts for the Jeep. Despite not being able to get money from the ATM machines, the townspeople all gave them credit. After that experience, she told herself if she could do anything for these people she would.
Several years after that, she happened to be watching television at 3am when she saw a report about the Tarahumara and the bad winter they were experiencing. The most traditional of the Tarahumara do not have houses; instead, they live under rock outcroppings, which are blocked with rocks and deadfall. On the broadcast she said, half crying, that there were two girls about 11 or 12 who were walking barefoot in the snow to go to school. The reporter asked why not stay home for a few days and the girls said that they could not as one wanted to be a teacher and the other a doctor to help their people.
And in her head she heard the voice of her grandfather saying“Be somebody.” This grandfather grew up in Montana during the depression who had to live under a bridge in the winter because it was too far to walk between his family’s ranch and school in the winter. He also had no shoes to wear for his graduation.
So she started asking people to donate stuff, but wasn’t getting very far. A musician came to where she was working and told her to come to her gig and see if she could get something. As his name was Montana, she took that as a sign, went down to the event. She not only received money, but the next day a women who had been very skeptical came with a carload of clothes, food, candles, etc.
Since then it has snowballed. The original idea was to do it once, with two vans filled with items for the Tarahumara. However, while she was gone on the first trip, people kept bringing stuff to her house and by the time she returned, there was enough for another trip. So the next task was to figure out how to raise funds to transport the donations down to northern Mexico, 1000 miles away.
The idea was to do a yard sale, selling donated items that were not needed by the Tarahumara. This sorting of donations has kept going since and has branched out into school supplies for the indigenous school, where children are taught in their native language first.
Her mom helped with the project for about nine or ten years, but died before having a chance to travel to Mexico. The school supplies project is named after her.
She always says that she will not take down another load, but still does, because “I cant not help.” Her work led to this encounter… in her own words…
On one of the trips we were unloading blankets etc at the hospital, the people who run the hospital were there helping us was my driver. A man approached with a little girl with him and he said something…no one responded to him…I had recognized the word for hello, so I answered him with hello. He spoke to me some more, all I understood was the word for gift, so I repeated it in an affirmative manner. He then took my hands in his, and put his hands on my forhead and then mine on his while talking the whole time in raramuri…he doesn’t speak spanish. I got all tingling. It isn’t common for the traditional Tarahumara to speak to outsiders, much less a man to a woman who isn’t related. Usually they look for a relative and go through them. … He let go of my hands, smiled, took the little girl’s hand and walked away. The people who work at the hospital were dumbfounded,…it turns out that he said I was good for his people, a blessing to them, good medicine. He said he would consider me to be a member of his hearth. (loosely translated). The hospital staff explained that it was like making me a member of his family. I don’t know if that was his intention, but I was floored, and felt very honored. I later found out that he was the head spiritual leader.
Libby can be reached directly through email@example.com
All photos courtesy of Libby Townsend and Alejandro Linares Garcia