Corn to Batopilas helps Tarahumara
By PILAR PEDERSEN
The story of our community’s response to the drought and hunger in the Sierra Tarahumara is one worth telling. Last fall I witnessed firsthand the withered crops and the conditions that the people of those highlands were facing as a result of the current drought.
In early December, Jim Glendinning and I put a small news item in this and other local papers asking for help in the form of monetary contributions. Despite a tight economy here at home, people on this side of the border looked past negative press regarding Mexico and reached out to help their neighbors.
We received a tremendous response. In a little over a week we had collected nearly $1,300, which we wired to the Cuauhtémoc Food Bank buy food basics and distribute in a remote community called Retosachi. The donations continued to stream in, and we gratefully informed people that we would accept contributions through the end of the year. Another $3,338 arrived, in individual checks made out to me, Pilar Pedersen.
In early January, Mexican tour operator and guide Dave Hensleigh posted a request for aid on his website. In the lapse of 10 days, Dave had raised another $2,200, which he wired to my bank. A total $6,832 was contributed by folks from the Trans Pecos, East Texas, and as far away as Colorado and Oregon to help the people of the Sierra.
This astounding response called for appropriate action on our part. How could we best utilize these funds to reach the greatest number of people? I queried my Mexican friends, and also called the Mexican Consulate. All answered the same: to ensure that every dollar was used to stave off hunger we needed to take this money to Mexico, buy the food supplies, and distribute it ourselves. We ended up doing just that.
Sunday, January 29, I drove south, arriving in the city of Cuauhtémoc at 4:30pm, in time to meet pianist Romayne Wheeler on the steps of the municipal building (presidencia) where he was soliciting for his community of Retosachi. Mexicans, on foot and through the open windows of their cars, were delivering bags of food. Romayne had been putting out the word via radio ads and interviews for the past week. He will return to Cuauhtémoc each month with the same mission; to save his adopted community from hunger. I handed him an envelope containing $550.
Thanks to the prior footwork of my local friends, I was able to go to the warehouse of Mennonite farmer Cornelius Wall Giesbrecht the following day and purchase ten metric tons of white corn for $4,644. Cornelius agreed to bag it in sacks of 40kg for pick-up on Tuesday morning. We also purchased a half ton of table salt ($196). In the meantime, the presidencia of the municipality of Batopilas was sending a truck to transport our cargo down the winding dirt trail to the town of that name, deep in the canyons.
Batopilas is listed as the second poorest municipality in the Republic of Mexico. I heard from all my sources that, while all the communities in the region were struggling, Batopilas needed extra help. Most fortuitously, I have good contacts in Batopilas. It was the correct choice.
Beans and corn form the basis of the Tarahumara diet, but especially corn. Because beans are scarce and consequently expensive, we chose to reach the most people with the resources we had. A 40 kg sack of corn with 2 kg salt (to flavor the tortillas, the pinole, atole and even tesguino) would keep a family alive for a month. That became our goal. We had 270 sacks.
Our operation went flawlessly. The truck arrived; the bags of corn were counted and carefully loaded. Cornelius even donated an additional 10 sacks to our cause. We departed for the Sierra. I arrived, ahead of the truck, in the town of Batopilas after dark that evening. Presidente Leonel Hernandez and his men were waiting for me in the plaza. I was to spend no more of my own money for the next three days.
The truck lumbered into town late the next morning and was rapidly unloaded into four smaller vehicles. That which we didn’t take was stacked in the official warehouse on the square. Then we departed. Though I am a seasoned traveler in these mountains and canyons, I was unprepared for the journey we were about to make. In the space of seven hours we scaled the 5,000-foot canyon walls from rim to rim, starting, pausing, and ending at the bottom. Only an experienced driver can pilot a truck up the impossibly steep, narrow, serpentine roads we traversed. And only a passenger with strong nerves agrees to sit shotgun.
The Presidente’s men had radioed ahead; in each locale groups of small leathery Tarahumaras wearing brilliantly-hued costumes were waiting for us. Guacaybo, Plátano, Chapátere, Munérachi, Santa Rita. To each community the explanation was the same: This was not a political act, but one of concern. People up north had heard of the drought and suffering, and many had donated to be able to buy this corn, this salt. That I, Pilar, had come to Mexico to deliver it, and the presidencia was helping with transportation.
I watched each group apply serious attention in allocating the sacks of corn to individual households. Those not present, houses with women and children but no men, were carefully included. The same attention was used to guarantee that no family group received more than one sack. They understood implicitly that if one dipped twice it meant someone in a location further on would go without.
After distribution, each person, men and women alike, approached to shake my hand and thank me. The Tarahumara, or Rarámuri as they prefer to be called, are naturally shy and retiring people. It has saved them from intruders many times. I was pierced by those warm smiles and penetrating gazes. It is the treasure I take with me.
The next day saw us loaded up again as we distributed the remaining 60 bags of corn. The following morning I departed Batopilas. On the long drive up the canyon and out of the Sierra, I had much time to think and reflect. This mission, of international cooperation to help a people in need, had been a success. But what comes next? The canyons are parched. The higher communities are nearly out of water. If rain doesn’t come the rivers themselves will be dry by May.
Determined to spend every donated penny in Chihuahua, I left the last $160 with my trusted friend Olivia, to buy corn and beans to give to the pianist when he comes to stand his vigil for food next month.
My heart is full of gratitude for the people of the north who gave from their hearts, and the diligence of those in Mexico who made it all come together. I learned a new phrase in Rarámuri while amongst them: “Canilga muchisi, diós y yuga”. May God bless you.
You can visit Dave Hensleigh’s website at: www.authenticcoppercanyon.com.
To contribute, please make monetary donations to Pilar Pedersen, PO Box 342, Alpine, TX 79832. Information: 432.837.9980.
Story filed under: Home Story Highlight