The Sierra Tarahumara in Northern Mexico is one of the most unspoiled areas of wilderness left in the world today. “Words like mystical, powerful and haunting… don’t describe what it feels like to be here,” writes Richard Speedy. “Vast and overwhelming, this is hallowed ground. Imagine a dozen Grand Canyons if you can. Then make it deeper.”
If words alone cannot describe the region, Speedy has done so in 10 years photographing the Tarahumara and its people, and has recently completed a book, Dancing Under the Moon: A Photographic Journey Through the Mexican Sierra Tarahumara. He will give a talk about the culture, history and concerns about the Tarahumara from a photographic perspective at the Arts Council of Princeton Nov. 3.
Speedy lives and works out of the Chocolate Factory near the Hopewell Railroad Station. The old building truly was a chocolate factory, producing Hopewell Dainties back in the early 1900s, and men’s nightshirts and nightcaps before that. In the late 1970s, it was converted by artists to work and living space.
The kitchen wall has been painted with petroglyphs based on those Speedy photographed in the Sierra Tarahumara, as well as solar symbols of the four directions. “The spiritual thinking of the Tarahumara has much in common with the Navajo, and they bless the four directions,” says Speedy.
The Princeton native has been in the Chocolate Factory since 1998. For 22 years he was a partner in Richards and Speedy Studio, shooting advertising images of cars, jewelry and food, as well as annual reports, out of a 200-year-old converted barn in Princeton Junction.
As technology began changing the economics of commercial photography – rather than hire photographers, art directors now purchase stock images online at very low cost – Speedy turned lemons into lemonade and pursued the personal artwork he never had enough time for while running a business. “I was ready to do that anyway – I had so many projects in mind,” he says. “When the door opened, it opened wide.”
He first explored the American Southwest, camping, hiking and photographing. Since boyhood, Speedy has traveled out west. His father worked first as national director of Cub Scouting, then as program director for the Boy Scouts of America, and the family would go to the Boy Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.
Speedy’s mother, a homemaker, Red Cross volunteer and artist, accompanied them, and was inspired by Native American designs to weave rugs on her home loom. “We had Indian pottery throughout the house,” he recalls.
Through conversations while revisiting the Southwest, the Copper Canyon began began to call. Speedy’s first visit was for 10 days, but the next time he stayed three months, going in deeper. “I became fascinated with the history, the terrain and the culture.” He travels by foot and by horse.
During one of his earliest visits to Sierra Tarahumara, while staying in the Sierra Lodge, Speedy met the woman he would convince to become his wife. Mara and their son, Emiliano (named for 1910 Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata), live with Speedy in the Chocolate Factory, decorated with Mexican pots and weavings. They also have a home in Alamos, in the state of Sonora, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and rent it out when they are living in Hopewell, where Emiliano goes to school.
Like the Yanomami in the Amazon, the Inuit in the Arctic or the Maori in New Zealand, the Tarahumara live a traditional lifestyle, seemingly immune to the outside world. In their own language they call themselves Raramuri, or foot runners, and are renowned for their long-distance running abilities. In his 2009 book, Born to Run (Knopf), author Christopher McDougall writes about the Tarahumara’s centuries-old running techniques, including running barefoot, which may have encouraged the popularity of Five Fingers – those newfangled running shoes that look like the feet part of a gorilla costume.
“For centuries the Tarahumara have run from countless invaders who would reshape their culture (and) ‘civilize’ their uncommon view of the world they live in,” writes Speedy.
Like their ancestors, the Tarahumara live in simple stone, wood, or modified cave dwellings.
At the beginning of his expeditions, Speedy considered whether it would be the right thing to bring this culture to public attention. “They have a nobel way of living with no desire for material goods, but to seek spiritual fulfillment and keep their ancient traditions strong,” he says.
The desire to tell a good story with photographs was strong. In the end, Speedy determined that informing others about this special culture would be, overall, a good thing for humankind.
In order to get close to the people, he found a guide, Santiago, who was immersed in the culture and the terrain. “He cares for their well being, and encouraged me to do this. We’ve become good buddies – he’s introduced me to their ceremonies and fiestas.”
Although Speedy never studied anthropology – he attended Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., from 1969 to 1972 – anthropology has come to the forefront of his interests, as he now looks at other cultures in peril.
Among the threats facing the Tarahumara is deforestation. Roads are being built to get to the forests, and as the land is stripped, often illegally and in some cases with government support, erosion destroys farmland and livelihoods.
Companies with sophisticated mining techniques are coming to the region, creating short-term jobs. When the mines close, the workers will have lost their connection to the land and move to the barrios, says Speedy.
And with the roads built for timber harvesting and mining, drug cartels are coming in and forcing Tarahumara to grow marijuana and poppies — and threatening them if they won’t, adds Speedy.
The preferred crops among the Tarahumara are corn, beans, squash and herbs. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of the diet comes from corn,” says Speedy. Because they grow their own food, little money is exchanged. They may barter for goods they don’t grow. Goats are kept for fertilizer, and the simplest of tools are used.
Clothing is made from wool spun from the sheep, as are blankets. “They have very few possessions,” says Speedy. Cooking utensils and pots are made by hand, and open fires are used.
Traditional herbs and folk remedies are used to treat illness, and shamans help to heal through spiritual techniques.
“Make no mistake, it’s a tough hard life,” says Speedy. “Infant mortality is high, the life expectancy is not what we know here, and TB is prevalent. But they are extremely durable people.”
They want better health care and to educate their children, but they love where they are the lifestyle, adds Speedy.
From one visit to the next, Speedy may learn of someone he knew who lost his life from, say, falling off a cliff while herding goats. Other people leave. As a result, the Tarahumara population has not increased in 50 years.
“They have a word, korima, to share,” says Speedy. “In Tarahumara culture there is no word for please and thank you, but they know who is in need and they do what they can to help. Korima has sustained their culture.”
Very little meat is consumed in the Tarahumara diet, but during the Dance of the Matachines for the Virgin of Guadalupe, they will sacrifice a goat and boil it up, entrails and all, to be had for breakfast. To be a good guest, Speedy forces himself to eat the sickening stew and pretend it is yummy. “The fat content is so dense, it congeals on your teeth and you have to scrape it off,” he says.
Tesguino, on the other hand, is a libation to be enjoyed. Made from sprouted corn that is fermented for three days, then cooked over a hot fire, it has the same alcohol content as beer and is considered a sacrament. “It’s consumed at all social and religious gatherings. If they need help planting, they brew up tesguino – it’s like a barn raising,” says Speedy. “Word gets around, and people come. They change from shy and retiring to fun and laughing people, and no one can go home until it’s gone. It can go on day and night.”
The brew is passed in gourds, and the drinker is expected to down it in a single swallow. The server will then dip the gourd again and come back at you. “It’s a good-natured test,” says Speedy. “When you can no longer drink, they laugh and it goes around and around.”
As beautifully colorful as the Tarahumara culture is, Speedy has chosen to photograph it in black and white. “The color is overpowering. I am more interested in expression, form, shape, light and texture – color pulls you away from these subtler things that give the viewer more information,” he says.
He has used 35mm film, but prints with digital pigment ink in a way that replicates the silver gelatin prints with sepia tone he used to make in his darkroom. In fact, he uses a color printing process to create those warm tones. The result is large, luscious images that look as surreal as the culture he is studying.
In addition to the landscapes are portraits that look, by the style of the dress, the facial expressions reflecting an unfamiliarity with the camera and the black-and-white film, as though they may have been made 100 years ago. One little girl wears a necklace of plastic, snap-together beads. A portrait of a man, Frederico, one of the most revered healers, with grizzled white hairs on his upper lip, wears all the sorrow of the universe in his eyes.
Over tesguino, Frederico recounted to Speedy how famous anthropologists came, bought him fancy clothes, flew him to Europe first class, put him up in a hotel, and asked him to show off his shaman magic to the other anthropologists at a conference. Amidst all the fame and prosperity, all Frederico could think about was how he wanted to go home.
When in Mexico, Speedy brings Polaroid cameras so he can give pictures to the people he meets, and sometimes he even gives them the Polaroid cameras to take their own pictures.
“Now, they hardly see my camera, and we have fun,” he says. “I’ve been told by the elders, this is a story they want me to tell.”
Richard Speedy will talk about the culture, history and concerns about the Tarahumara from a photographic perspective at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon St. Princeton, Nov. 3.
This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 newspaper.