Border Studies at EPCC
Tarahumaras Rely on Nature for Food
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Yvonne Carreon
Imagine living where the main course of the evening meal that night might be a crow, where the harvest of your garden will determine if you'll eat that coming winter, where extreme poverty is often a way of life.
Much to the surprise of many people, such a culture exists a lot closer than most of us would imagine.
Using the same ancient methods as their ancestors did, the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico still hunt animals and grow gardens for their food in almost the same way that their forefathers did.
Because the Indians live among the canyons and barrancas (ravines or gorges) of Chihuahua, Tarahumaran expert Campbell W. Pennington tells us that they hunt and fish for their food. They eat many animals, including squirrels, skunks and rodents.
Fowl are also utilized as food by the Tarahumaras. Pennington notes that turkey, crow and pigeon are to be found on the table, and golondrinas (swallows), or soweke as they are known to the Indians, can be either boiled or roasted.
Because reptiles are plentiful in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Tarahumaras utilize them as a food staple. For instance, skinned lizards may be roasted, cooked with beans or just simply added to stews.
The same methods of preparation used for lizards are also used for frogs. Pennington describes Indians catching tadpoles either by handfuls or scooping them up using small baskets. Since the tadpoles are too small to be roasted, they are usually boiled.
Besides this variety of meat, the Tarahumaras depend heavily on their gardens for their meals. Squash, beans and corn are the basic crops grown.
Squash is prepared in numerous ways. The vegetable is cut into small pieces and cooked for a long period of time, whether baked in a pit, baked in ash or boiled.
Another important source of food for the Indians is beans. Mrs. Josefina Vallejo, an El Paso resident who is familiar with the Indians' lifestyle, says, "The Tarahumara Indians live on a poor man's diet of beans and tortillas."
The beans are toasted for 10-15 minutes in an olla (pot or kettle) containing sand, used to facilitate even distribution of heat. The beans are then cooked for several hours and then carefully removed from the pot so that the sand is not eaten with the beans.
The most important food crop is corn. In researching a special report a few years ago in the El Paso Times, writers Edna Gunderson and Joel Salcido found that "wealth is measured by acreage and the Indians' ability to produce corn."
Maize is used as the base for many of their foods. Pinole or kobisi, as it is known to the Indians, is made by grinding the corn into a meal and mixing with water or milk. It is then served chilled in a gourd.
Corn may also be the base for a controversial drink called tesguino, a yellow, sour, fermented corn drink, which can make the imbiber drunk. Some experts claim that tesguino holds some positive aspects. Since vast amounts of time are spent in obtaining food, the Indians have very little time for other social practices. This being so, tesguinadas (tesguino parties) are held occasionally to give the Indians a chance to associate with their neighbors. The tesguino may release inhibitions, which may normally prohibit the Indians from socializing with each other.
On the other hand, tesguino may prove fatal. Indians have been known to get lost just trying to find their way home, while others fall off cliffs. Babies have been burned severely and even killed when they were dropped into fire by their heavily intoxicated mothers.
Tesguinadas are held for almost all social events except for funerals. Fermentation can't take place quickly enough to concur with the burial, say Gunderson and Salcido.
While relying heavily on their crops for food, the Tarahumaras are at the mercy of the Northern Mexican climate. A lack of rainfall periodically hinders the growth of their crops. The Indians consider themselves lucky if the rain come to water their crops. Irrigation is not used. Obviously there are years where crops produce only limited amounts of food.
Growing gardens and going in search of wildlife is still the Tarahumaras way of obtaining food. Despite the fact that the number of Indians is dwindling, they cling to the only way of life they've ever known.