The Tarahumara are a people who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. Despite centuries of incessant attention by Spanish, French, and Mexican governments, they still hold on to many of their original cultural traditions. Basket weaving and maize cultivation, along with pastoral practices, for example, hearken back to their original ways.Their cave dwellings, some decorated with pictographs such as the ones below, attract the occasional anthropologist and tourist. The Tarahumara also happen to be some of the most excellent long-distance runners in the world. In short, they’re fascinating and the Southwest Collection is fortunate to have thousands of photographs of the Tarahumara–such as the one above of a woman near the village of Wawatzerare, holding her baby in a rebozo–captured by a local priest, Father Luis Verplancken, who worked closely with the Tarahumara for decades. And, as we often do, we intend to show them off right here!
(Tarahumara pictographs near the village of Cusarare.)
Although their current population now numbers in the scant tens of thousands, the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri, their traditional name, i.e. the one not given to them by the Spanish) numbered many more throughout Chihuahua in the 16th century. The arrival of the Spanish began to change this, as their interest in mining speckled the Sierras with mines, prompting the Tarahumara to move to more remote, mountainous areas. Sadly, they also enslaved some Tarahumara in order to obtain mine labor. This, in between sometimes-successful proselytizing by Christian missionaries over the next several decades, led to armed conflict in the 1670s and 90s; encounters that the Tarahumara ultimately lost. A side effect of this cultural clash was the creation of beautiful missions such as the one above, Batopilas. It was established by conquistadors in 1632, for religious (but mostly mining) purposes, and remains a well-preserved example of that architecture to this day.
(Cave dwelling with a family preparing corn tortillas over a fire near the village of Basiwari.)
As we mentioned, these photos were taken by Father Luis Verplancken, but he was far more than just a photographer interested in documenting Tarahumara culture. Born in 1926 in Guadalajara, Mexico, Verplancken became a Jesuit missionary in 1943. A few years later he was assigned to Creel, Chihuahua, where he immediately devoted his life to aiding its residents. He arranged to have water piped into area towns, oversaw the digging of more than 50 wells, and even partnered with the nearby community of Arareko to create an artificial lake that remains a popular tourist destination to this day.
(The boarding school at Gonogochi.)
Such infrastructure was perhaps the hallmark of his career. He also installed electricity wherever he could, and opened a medical clinic that saved hundreds of childrens’ lives every year. Along with this, he trained locals to provide medical aid at locations far from the clinic. Education was another focus, resulting in the founding of two boarding schools that taught in both the local dialect and Spanish, a photo from which can be seen above.He translated the Bible into Raramuri, built a museum dedicated to sacred art (both native and Christian,) and made a host of other contributions. And all the while he documented Tarahumara daily life in pictures, from ritual and religion to simple tasks such as basketweaving; from herding and farming to trap setting, as in the photo below.
(Setting a trap near the village of Basiwari.)
A selection of photographs from this collection of nearly 25,000 are available among our digital collections. Of course, if you’d like to see any of the others, our Reference Staff is always happy to get them into your hands.