Feb 162010

“A giant walked around and the ground cracked” (a Tarahumar legend explaining how the canyons were formed).

Mexico’s Copper Canyon is narrower, deeper and longer than the US Grand Canyon. The train ride from Los Mochis and El Fuerte to Divisadero, Creel and Chihuahua traverses the Western Sierra Madre with its imposing peaks and pine forests. This area is home to Mexico’s Tarahumar Indians, an indigenous group whose distinctive lifestyle has, thankfully, resisted many of the supposed allures of modern living.

This partial bibliography offers a varied selection of reading, both fiction and non-fiction, directly related to the Copper Canyon region and the Tarahumar people.

Alvarado, C.M. (1996) La Tarahumara: una tierra herida. Gobierno del Estado de Chihuahua. Somewhat repetitive academic analysis of the violence of the drug-producing zones in the state of Chihuahua, based in part on interviews with convicted felons.

Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976. Classic anthropological work.

Dunne, P.M. (1948) Early Jesuit Missions in Tarahumara. Univ. Calif. Press.

Fisher, R.D. (1988) National Parks of Northwest Mexico II. Sunracer Publications, Tucson, Arizona. Fisher is the author of numerous well illustrated works about the Canyon region.

Fontana, B.L. (1979) Where night is the day of the moon. Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona. Very colorful and interesting.

Gajdusek, D.C. (1953) “The Sierra Tarahumara” in Geographical Review, New York. 43: 15-38

Johnson, P.W. (1965) A Field Guide to the Gems and Minerals of Mexico. Gembooks, Mentone, California.

Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996. – interesting account by an anthropologist who lived in one of the more remote Tarahumar areas for several months, accompanied by his wife and infant daughter. Kennedy also co-authored with Raul A. Lopez Semana Santa in the Sierra Tarahumara. A comparitive study in three communities. Museum of Cultural History, UCLA.

Kerr, J.L (1968) Destination Topolobampo: The Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad, Golden West Books, San Marino, California. Difficult to find account of the railroad itself.

Lartigue, F. (1970) Indios y bosques. Políticas forestales y comunales en la Sierra Tarahumara. Edicions de la Casa Chata # 19, Mexico.

Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish. Fascinating ethnographic account from the last century.

Merrill, W.L. (1988) Raramuri Souls – Knowledge and Social Progress in North Mexico. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Nauman, T. (1997) “Tala ilegal para la siembra de mariguana y opio en Chihuahua” p. 50 in El Financiero, May 12, 1997. Describes the Arareko project.

Norman, James (1976) “The Tarahumaras: Mexico’s Long Distance Runners” in National Geographic, May 1976. pp 702-718

Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprinted by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996. Another classic account of Tarahumar life and culture. The reprint has additional color photographs, taken by Luis Verplancken, S.J., who has run the mission in Creel for many years.

Plancarte, F. (1954) El problema indígena tarahumara. INI. Mexico. Spanish language description published by National Indigenous Institute.

Robertson, T.A. (1964) A Southwestern Utopia. An American Colony in Mexico. Ward Ritchie, Los Angeles. This describes the early history of Los Mochis and surrounding area.

Roca, P.M. (1979) Spanish Jesuit Churches in Mexico’s Tarahumara. Univ. of Arizona.

Salopek, Paul (1996) “Sierra Madre – Backbone of the Frontier” in National Geographic, August 1996.

Schmidt, R.H. (1973) A Geographical Survey of Chihuahua, monograph #37 Texas Western Press.

Shepherd, G. (1938) The Silver Magnet. E.P.Dutton, New York. The story of Batopilas mining town.

Shoumatoff, A. (1995) “The Hero of the Sierra Madre” pp 90 – 99 of Utne Reader (July-August, 1995), reprinted from Outside (March 1995). An account of the determined efforts by Edwin Bustillos to prevent further environmental destruction in the Copper Canyon region.

Spicer, E. (1969) “Northwest Mexico: Introduction” in Handbook of Middle American Indians vol.8, Ethnology part II. Univ. of Texas Press.

Vatant, Francoise. La explotación forestal y la producción doméstica tarahumara. Un estudio de caso: Cusárare, 1975-1976. INAH, Mexico.

Villaseñor, Victor (1992) Rain of gold. Delta. A Mexican-American novel based on family tale of dreams, mines and wealth and Revolution.

Feb 042010

Cover of The Tarahumar of MexicoThe Tarahumar of Mexico, Their Environment and Material Culture contains a wealth of valuable information about one of Mexico’s most distinctive indigenous groups.

Published by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, 1996. Soft Cover. Book Condition: New but appears lightly used with minor shelfwear rubbing. Only a few copies remain; this publisher is no longer in business.

This book has 33 b/w photographs, 12 full-color photographs (found only in this edition), and 4 fold out maps in the back pocket (Two maps show the historical boundaries of the Tarahumar country; one map shows mean annual precipitation, and the fourth map shows physiographic regions; all maps are 1:500,000 scale).

Dimensions (in inches): 8.6 x 5.75 x 0.6.  Price: US $20.00 [plus shipping; contact us for options]


The Tarahumar (more commonly, but less correctly, the Tarahumara) live in the Copper Canyon region of Northern Mexico. In many ways, their way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. This area has spectacular scenery, and numerous massive canyons. The main canyon – the Urique Canyon – is longer,  deeper and narrower than the US Grand Canyon, so ‘spectacular’ is definitely the right word! The famous Copper Canyon railway, linking Los Mochis and El Fuerte to Divisadero and Creel. passes right through this area.

One subgroup of Tarahumar Indians moves with the seasons from caves near the canyon rim in summer to camps near the canyon floor (at lower altitude where the weather is warmer) during the winter.

The Tarahumar are the subject of several anthropological classics, and this is definitely one of them. This study integrated available archeological data and historical material with extensive field work among the Tarahumar in 1955. The book includes a discussion of agriculture; gardening; tree culture; food preparation; hunting; gathering and fishing; animal husbandry; beverages; ceremonies; games; drug plants; leather, fibers, textiles and personal adornment; and household articles and habitations.

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Feb 032010

This review, by poet James Tipton, first appeared in MexConnect online mazazine.

Lake Chapala Through the AgesTony Burton’s passion is Mexico, and particularly Western Mexico. Most readers of MexConnect find his many articles on Mexico to be both fascinating and useful, articles with titles like “Guayabitos – the Family Vacation Spot,” or the four-part series, “Can Mexico’s Largest Lake Be Saved,” or “Butterflies by the Million: The Monarchs of Michoacán.” Burton currently puts together “Did You Know? Facts About Mexico,” a monthly MexConnect feature, offering answers to such questions as: “Did you know blacks outnumbered Spaniards in Mexico until after 1810?” or “Did you know the oldest winery in the Americas is in Parras de la Fuente” or “Did you know the birth control pill came from Mexican yams?” [Note: all of these articles are accessible in the Did you know archives.]

This man has a knack for searching out and then writing well about interesting places, people and events. Because I like to read what Tony Burton writes, Lake Chapala through the ages is one of those books I would buy sight unseen.

Many readers own his book Western Mexico-A Traveller’s Treasury (now in its third edition in English with a new edition well under way), which has taken us to off-the-beaten-path destinations. A geographer, Burton has also created the definitive street maps of the Lake Chapala area, maps that have been copied by others but which are original with Burton: Lake Chapala Maps – 2008. Obviously Burton is no stranger to our shores here at Lake Chapala.

Lake Chapala through the Ages is “a collection of extracts from more than fifty original sources.” In the Introduction, Burton tells us his book “includes extracts from every published book that could be located which makes more than a passing mention of Lake Chapala, and which was written (originally) prior to 1910. Most are first hand accounts.”

Burton selected 1910 as the cut-off because “that marks the end of Chapala’s first tourist boom.” “Later that year the Mexican Revolution erupted. Mexico, including the Lake Chapala region, was thrown into chaos for more than a decade.”

Lake Chapala through the Ages presents, then, historical accounts, beginning in 1530 when the first conquistador wrote about seeing the lake – and also the town: “The scout, going over the mountains found himself in a village called Chapala and in other places whose names were not known at that time….” Lake Chapala through the ages ends with a piece about “Holy week and the elite of Mexican society 1909-1910,” in which we discover:

“Chapala, the most frequented settlement of the lake of the same name, serves as a meeting place during Holy Week for the elite of Mexican society. Elegant villas line the edge of the lake, surrounded by colorful gardens, created at great expense on the rocky soil of the beach. One of the prettiest, “El Manglar”, belongs to Mr. Elizaga, the brother-in-law of ex-President Díaz, who gives, in this enchanting setting, splendid Mexican fiestas, where nothing is lacking: cock fights, balls and joyous dinners.”

In addition to the excerpts, Burton himself provides many historical notes. We learn that Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital in August of 1521, but only two years later, in 1523, two “well-placed brothers, cousins of Hernán Cortés,” were given the encomienda (the right to collect tributes and labor from Indians)” for a vast area that included the shores of Lake Chapala. The Spanish subjugation of the Indians in this area was “a relatively peaceful process, which enabled many indigenous customs to survive largely unchanged into much more recent times.”

Most of the early accounts were written by Franciscan friars. The Franciscans “saw the New World as an opportunity, not only to convert the pagan masses of native Indians to Christianity, but also to put their idealistic ideas of utopian society into practice, and demonstrate that natives and Europeans could live in peaceful and productive co-existence.”

Some of the excerpts are about those early relationships with the Indians: “Converting the barbarians” (mid-16th century),” but others are about geographical details – “Gathering geographic knowledge” (1579-1585) or “Lake Chapala… as large as an ocean?” (1600c). Still others are about a new paradise, filled with abundance, and with fascinating new fruits and vegetables: “Some roots that are called xicamas grow there, shaped like, and almost the same color as, round turnips, without any root hairs, so thick that each one weighs at least thee pounds…. It is a very delicious fresh fruit, marvelous medicine for thirst, especially in hot weather and in hot lands.” (from “Visits to the Lake Chapala friaries” 1585-1586).

We discover, through Burton’s notes, that Domingo Lázaro de Arregui (Fishing and farming” 1621) made the earliest known historical reference to the making and consumption of tequila: roasting the roots and bases of agave plants then “by pressing these parts, thus roasted, they extract a must from which they distill a wine clearer than water and stronger than rum.”

In earlier censuses taken by the Spaniards (“Early censuses 1768 and 1791-1793”) we discover that Chapala had 123 Spaniards, 451 Indians, 37 mulattos and 671 castes, figures that were particularly interesting to me because the castes (those of more mixed parentage than mestizos or mulattos) now significantly outnumber the Spaniards and Indians combined.

Throughout Lake Chapala through the Ages, Burton selects highly varied material that does not bore us with the weight of history and ponderous prose but instead actually delights us and even makes us long for more. Many passages are actually charming, and the historical notes provided by Burton are themselves illuminating and pleasurable.

In his notes to “Mezcala Island – scene of rebellion” (1824), Burton tells us the Italian author, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, was an “incurable romantic and inveterate roamer,” who among other accomplishments discovered the northern source of the Mississippi River. Beltrami describes his visit to Mezcala Island, which by 1824 was being used as a penitentiary, where the convicts, Beltrami notes, “are less harshly treated than in the penitentiaries of our World [Europe], the dictator of civilization.” Shortly after he visits “Oxotopec, ten milles from Axixis,” Beltrami, with his youthful eye, records that it is “the largest village of all those around the lake,” but that “it has nothing worth noting except for the pretty niece of the curate….”

Even as we move toward more recent times, when there are attempts to accurately determine the dimensions of Lake Chapala, we still find high imaginative descriptions of Lake Chapala. Felix Leopold Oswald in “A fanciful sketch of Lake Chapala” (1867-1877) announces Lake Chapala is “ten times as large as all the lakes of Northern Italy taken together, and four times larger than the entire canton of Geneva, – contains different islands whose surface area exceeds that of the Isle of Wight, and one island with two secondary lakes as big as Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine!” [The Isle of Wight, incidentally, is 23 x 13 miles, almost as large as Lake Chapala. Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest lake, is 24 x 5 miles.]

By the early 1900s, tourism comes into sharper focus. One early and popular traveller’s guide, Lake Chapala, a travellers’ handbook (1909) by Thomas Philip Terry lists rooms available in Chapala, e.g. Hotel Arzapalo, “facing the lake,” at $2.50 to $5 American Plan. In his note to this excerpt, Burton tells us that D. H. Lawrence, because of this handbook, was convinced to visit the lake; and of course Lawrence ultimately moved to Chapala in the mid-twenties and this is where he wrote The Plumed Serpent.

Those of us who live here, full time or part time, or who simply visit here have been relieved that the lirio, the noxious water hyacinth, seems at least for the time being to be well under control. I, like others, thought that the lirio problem originated only a few decades ago, but Burton tells us that it was introduced around the turn of the last century, and that by 1907, articles were being published about “the invasion of the terrible aquatic lirio,” which in some places “has completely blocked some docks, and in others it has appeared in such large masses that the Indians have been forced to suppress their trips, damaging trade, scared that they will be caught up in the wave of green.”

And so, there is something for everybody in Tony Burton’s, Lake Chapala through the Ages. Whether you are fascinated by the early history of the place where you now live or visit (or would like to visit), or whether you are interested in early accounts of the natural history of the region, or of the lake itself or whether you are fascinated by those votive objects found on the bottom of the lake, or whether you simply want to connect yourself more deeply to the place you now call home (or that is “home” in your imagination), this book is for you.

I think Lake Chapala through the Ages is terrific. Buy it!

Feb 022010

This book by Raymond Craib (Duke University Press, 2004) is one-of-a-kind. Craib combines archival analysis of mainly 19th century documents with perceptive comments on the relationships between history and geography in Mexico from the mid-19th century until about 1930.

Craib emphasizes the significance of map-making in post-Independent Mexico as a means towards furthering nationalism and as a development tool. He traces the changing motives of map-makers, focussing especially on the key area of Veracruz-Puebla which served as Mexico’s main gateway to Europe for centuries.

Craib considers why certain place names acquired more prominence than others, and examines a case study of a mining area where the granting of water rights hinged on precisely where a particular river flowed, and which tributary had which name, a case where cartographic ‘proof’ proved to be impossible and where a pragmatic solution was required.

This is an important study, with meticulous footnotes and bibliography.

Note: This book is not stocked by Sombrero Books, but can easily be bought via amazon.com