July 23, 2017 – Los Muertos

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I remember overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop some years ago where a gentleman said something like this:
“I always have people ask me why I’m so serious. I often overhear people telling their friends not to take ‘this’ or ‘that’ too seriously. And I got to thinking about it. If we need to learn how to not take life so damn seriously, we ought also to learn to not take death so seriously.”

I’m not sure, but it stuck with me. A simple exchange, maybe a completely spontaneous thought from a total stranger I was eavesdropping on – but it stuck with me. I think about it often, especially after losing several friends, relatives, and acquaintances over the past several years. It’s unusual to me – at least intellectually – to be so incredibly afraid of something that literally every single living thing in the cosmos will eventually have to do, which is to die.

Different cultures treat death differently, but there are always common themes of loss, sadness, tragedy and redemption, rebirth, or some form of ‘life after death.’ I’ve enjoyed photographing various rituals and discovering some of the nuances of life and death celebrations in the American Southwest and Mexico.

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March 31, 2017 – Warrior Spirit

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During the beginning of Semana Santa, I got to witness the interesting mixture of the Tarahumara’s indigenous spiritual beliefs with the Catholicism that was brought by the Spaniards in the 16th Century. The whole community pours into the courtyard in front of the Mission Style church and prepare for a night-long procession. Men and boys, painted as demons, run around the church, chased by other men and boys armed with spears to drive the demons away.

It’s a sight to see, and it’s nothing I ever expected to see in Mexico. For a few moments, I felt like I was much further away from home than I actually was, and the tribal nature of these rituals seemed outlandishly foreign to me.

It made for some interesting photographs, though.

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March 30, 2017 – Tarahumara Mother

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The Rarámuri are believed to be descended from the Mogollon culture. Never conquered by the Spanish conquistadors or fully converted by the Jesuit missionaries, their history is filled with stories of resistance, flight, and warfare against European conquerors. In the early 17th century, the Spanish had established mines in Tarahumara territory and made slave raids to obtain workers for the mines. The discovery of the mines of Parral, Chihuahua, in 1631 increased Spanish presence in Tarahumara lands, bringing more slave raids and Jesuit missionaries.

In 1648, the Tarahumara waged war against the Spanish, destroying several missions. The Tarahumara of the northern territories formed the strongest resistance, driving the Jesuits and Spanish settlers from the area.

There is a stoicism to the Tarahumara people. They live simple lives and work hard. They are peaceful, experiencing little-to-no violence or crime in their ranks. They have survived against crushing odds and maintain their own unique traditions, spirituality, and language, which is no small feat considering the history of the territory.

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March 29, 2017 – Tribe

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A bumpy truck ride, hitchhiking through the hills outside of Urique, I made my way out to a location called Guadalupe Coronado. Along gravel roads and through some terrifying curves rests a small Mission-style Church and a cluster of makeshift houses. One could scarcely believe anybody would live in this remote location, and it’s hard to image how a church of this size was built here.

Sipping a thick, creamy-looking sludge from plastic one-gallon milk jugs, another hitchhiker in the bed of the pickup handed me his beverage and insisted I take a sip. It smelled like a freshly-opened can of corn, and I was told that this is a special drink made for Semana Santa (holy week) in the Copper Canyon Region. Called Tesgüino, this is a fermented corn beer made by the Tarahumara Indians of Sierra Madre. The Tarahumara people regard the beer as sacred, forming a significant part of their society. It’s estimated that the average family spends at least 100 days per year directly concerned with the growing and manufacture of tesgüino, and Semana Santa is an event where a majority of their stock is consumed.

It didn’t taste very good, but I was honored that I was invited to imbibe with a group of strangers.

Outside the church, a group of men and boys are painted in black and white to serve as symbolic demons who want to attack the church. They whoop and holler and dance around, and rush into the church. Another group of young men, holding spears, then chase the demons out of the church. This is the beginning of holy week, and the tableaux goes on for several hours, until nightfall, when a candle-lit procession begins, and the whole community walks a specific route in and around the church until sunrise.

I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

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March 25, 2017 – Life In Mexico

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I always try to stay at the same hotel when I visit Creel. I’ve had a couple of not-so-pleasant experiences at other places, but Hotel Taramuri has always been a pleasant experience, with an open courtyard, fountains, and a calm and quiet atmosphere. I remember the first time I traveled here, and it was such a stupid and silly relief to use the internet connection to watch an American sitcom; after the stress of struggling with a language I’m not too terribly talented at, climbing my tired-ass upstairs to the corner room and watching an episode of Community was just what I needed to recharge my battery.

Right around the corner from the hotel is my favorite restaurant, with excellent tacos de barbacoa, fresh and delicious flan, and the best homemade salsa this side of the equator. There is a peace and quiet to this part of town, just on the edge, just close enough to the restaurants and shops, but just tucked-away enough to enjoy some good old-fashioned peace and quiet.

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March 24, 2017 – Rarámuri Runner

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This is one of the only traditional Rarámuri men I saw during this entire trip. Not wearing modern clothing, he instead wears hand-made clothing that designates him as a traditional Tarahumara runner. If you look closely, you’ll see his hand-made sandals, constructed out of used truck tire rubber.

Originally inhabitants of much of the state of Chihuahua, the Rarámuri fled into the high sierras and canyons of the Copper Canyon region upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century. As a result, the Rarámuri were never conquered, converted, or forcefully integrated; they maintain their own spiritual beliefs, lifestyle, and language (belonging to the Uto-Aztecan family). The area of the Sierra Madre Occidental which they now inhabit is often called the Sierra Tarahumara because of their presence.

It’s estimated that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 Rarámuri (Tarahumara) in existence. Most still practice a traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood or stone. Staple crops are corn and beans, although many of the Rarámuri still practice transhumance, raising cattle, sheep, and goats.

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March 23, 2017 – Alcoholics Anonymous

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I certainly wouldn’t want to joke about a serious subject, or visit any disrespect on the institution, but I have to admit: this is the most depressing AA meeting place I’ve ever seen. Along the railroad tracks, in a back alley, in this ramshackle building, groups huddle around a single low-voltage light.

I like to imagine something good comes out of this place, but it just looks so woefully run-down.

But hey. People in need exist in all communities, be they large or small, rich or poor. I’m not sure how somebody can remain anonymous in such an incredibly small town, but it’s nice to know that this service is available to anybody who wishes to participate, even in the middle of an almost-forgotten, dusty little village in Mexico.

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