Out of the Sierra

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Victoria Blanco grinds corn on a metate to make corn tortillas in El Oasis, December 2021.

Victoria Blanco’s forthcoming book, Out of the Sierra: A Story of Rarámuri Resistance, is a work of narrative nonfiction set in Chihuahua City, Mexico, and the Sierra Madre mountains. Over a decade in the making, it follows the Rarámuri people as they navigate life in the city after being forced out of their ancestral homeland by a variety of social and environmental forces. The following conversation with Blanco has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this book come to be?

I am from the U.S. Mexico borderlands; I was raised in El Paso, Texas, and I come from a family that is deeply rooted in that region. As a young writer, I was drawn to writing about my home, about the desert, about my family. All of these things go together — you can’t talk about one without talking about the other.

As a college student I started digging into family stories and interviewing family members and elders. I was also going out into the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to develop my field research skills and understand these places that I am rooted in. I came to realize that I did not know much about the Rarámuri people who are present in Ciudad Juárez and who have been in the Chihuahuan Desert for thousands of years. I realized at that point that I couldn’t write about my home without understanding the Indigenous peoples of my home.

I am Mexican-American. Many Mexican families have remnants of Indigenous practices. We grind chili and we make our tortillas by hand, for example, but we don’t know where that knowledge came from specifically. Part of the research that I started doing at the age of 24 felt really personal in that way; it felt like a way of reconnecting with some of my roots, even though I don’t truly know what my roots are — although they probably are Rarámuri.

The first year of the field research [for Out of the Sierra] was supported by a Fulbright award that I won right after college. The project started as a collection of oral histories of Rarámuri people who had been displaced from the mountains to Chihuahua City, Mexico. With the guidance of an anthropologist, I ended up at this urban community called El Oasis. It is a world within a world — a walled community within a Mexican mestizo neighborhood — and it is a place where the Rarámuri people have tried to replicate life in the mountains in the city. At the same time, a lot of people are contending with what it means to have left a sharing economy in the mountains and to now be in a city that is functioning under a capitalistic market economy. The decisions that they have to make on a daily basis about what to assimilate into, and what to resist, is something that comes out viscerally in small moments everywhere you look in that community.

It took many weeks to build enough trust so that people would speak to me. Lupita [Guiterrez] was one of the first people to approach me — she was eight years old at the time and was such an open, curious child. She introduced me to her mother Martina. I was able to gather [that family’s story] with the most care and detail, and I have spent many hours over the years with them.

How did you balance integrating into the community while still being an outsider and a recorder? Did your understanding of your role change over time?

It absolutely evolved over time. I came in in my early 20s with an understanding of the rules of field research: take diligent notes, bring a recorder, take photographs. At first I had my toolbox next to me all the time, but the women in the community let me know very quickly that my toolbox was actually an obstruction to building relationships. I learned within a matter of days to start putting my toolbox away and to not take out my camera, to not have my notebook out all the time. Instead, I went home at the end of the day and jotted down all of my notes. Now my process is very relationship-centered and not so rules-driven.

Things have also changed over the years as more people have cell phones that record — there is more active participation, especially from young people. I will say, “Hey, I’m really interested in gathering footage of this foot race. Can you help me out?” Most of the time they are posting and livestreaming on social media anyway. I think they understand who I am and the work that I do, and there is more collaboration.

I have never sat down and asked for a difficult story to be recounted to me because that [creates] a lot of narrative pressure to tell a story in a linear form. That is not how Rarámuri people tell their stories, and that is not how they view the world. The stories that I have gathered have been in bits and pieces over the years. The part [in the book] about Martina’s experience with drought and drug growers in the Sierra came out over the course of many years. As she felt moved to tell me, she would tell me. I did not want to put pressure on her to recount horrible things; I was going to be asked to leave the community [if I did that]. So all of this was very much on their terms, and that is why this book is being published 14 years after I started working.

What is the history of the Rarámuri people?

It is important to understand that the Rarámuri people are a people that have been twice displaced. Centuries ago they moved constantly through the Chihuahuan Desert. Then the Spaniards arrived, and the Rarámuri response, which I detail in the book, was to retreat to the mountains in western Mexico, the Sierra Madre Occidental. Over five centuries they have come to think of themselves as a people of the mountains, and they view the mountains as a gift that God gave them to protect them from the invaders. It is sacred land for them. That mountain range is very hard to access, it is really rough terrain, and the canyons are really deep, even deeper than some of the canyons in the Grand Canyon. They are experts at traversing that terrain and have developed long–distance running to deliver aid to each other.

Over the centuries, loggers have come in and destroyed the pine forests, and soil erosion has occurred and made it harder to grow food. In the mid-late 20th century and throughout the 21st century, drug growers occupied the land because it is hard for the Mexican federal army to access. That area is also very important for cartels; it is a pretty straight shot to the port of entry into the U.S. where the [drug] markets are. Then you add the drought caused by climate change. All of these compounding factors have forced 35,000 out of 75,000 Rarámuri people out of the mountains into the city. The government’s response has been to build these asentamiento, or settlements, of subsidized housing. El Oasis was the first one that was built. Over the past 10 years, the government has added more homes because more people are leaving the mountains.

What are you hoping readers come away with?

I hope that readers see that resistance doesn’t look like what popular images or descriptions tell us it should look like. Passive resistance is a kind of resistance. The idea that a Rarámuri woman puts on her floral dress to go out when she knows that she will encounter insults from the mestizo culture — the main culture. She is going to encounter bias and discrimination and racism just by stepping out in the city in her dress that she chooses to make the brightest, most colorful, most voluminous dress she can. That’s a choice, right? That’s resistance. I think that that kind of resistance is often overlooked, and I think that it’s important to pay attention to and find ways to support. I find the genre of doomsday climate catastrophe literature exhausting. [How do we] read that over and over and over again and not throw up our hands and say, “There’s nothing to do”? There are plenty of people who are not throwing up their hands. For the Rarámuri people, that’s not an option. It’s never over.

The following is excerpted from Out of the Sierra: A Story of Rarámuri Resistance, by Victoria Blanco; forthcoming from Coffee House Press.

The only times when Martina usually had a full meal were on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, when she helped cook the children’s lunch in the communal kitchen, a single white room with barred windows beside the school, at the back of the asentamiento. On one side of the kitchen, there were two work tables on which the women spread flour and rolled sticky balls of dough into tortillas. A pot of pinto beans boiled on the industrial stove, and in the frying pans, white rice simmered in chicken broth. The communal kitchen, where TV news stations sometimes came to film segments about government aid for the Rarámuris, had newer appliances and furniture, a sink, four wooden picnic tables for the schoolchildren, and white tiled floors. The kitchen, chapel, and school were the only buildings in El Oasis with tile, perhaps because the state government had decided that families should be responsible for improvements to their own homes. At the start of each week, government workers arrived with sacks of beans, rice, and white flour, and cans of tomatoes and chicken flavoring. The state government required Rarámuri women to cook the midday meal for the school, and they did so on a rotating basis. After serving the children, the women were welcome to eat as well.

The kitchen was usually a place where the women talked, laughed, discussed the dresses they planned to make, and asked after each other’s children. It was a testament to the stress the men’s absence was causing them, then, when the mood in the kitchen grew incrementally tense that fall. It wasn’t just the wives and children of the men who counted on their wages to eat; it was also their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. By early October, staving off hunger had become the main focus for the dozens of families affected by the absences. Sometimes a woman wondered aloud why the job was taking so long, but her question was usually met with a clipped response about mestizos who extended their projects without any consideration for the families the Rarámuri men left behind. By then, the men had been gone for twelve weeks.

The slightest misstep or provocation could cause the women to argue and cry. Once, Sylvia chastised a younger mother named Natalia for tasking her seven-year-old daughter with taking care of her five-year-old brother, who had been born with brain damage. The girl deserves a childhood, she told an angry Natalia. Factions began to form as other women voiced their opinions, and the community kitchen was filled with animated voices until a teacher came in and told them to quiet down because they were disturbing the lessons.

Martina tried to keep to herself. On days when she worked in the kitchen, she ate a plate of food once the children had filed back to their classrooms and she had finished sweeping crumbs from the picnic tables. But on days when she had to skip meals, she was dizzy by early afternoon. Her headaches became severe enough that she had to lie down at home in the middle of the day. Her wondering about where Luis was turned to impatience and resentment. Why had he and the others put so much strain on the women? They knew how their families counted on them to survive, and yet they remained away, even as the sun’s harsh glow faded to a corn yellow.

Sometimes a fissure would open in the forward motion of time, letting in small waves of relief.

For the Rarámuri women of El Oasis, it was storytelling while sewing that most often created these fissures. Perhaps the communal kitchen saw tensions rise between the women because the government required them to be there preparing meals. Government mandates were too big an imposition to bear that fall, as the women vacillated between worrying about the men and gathering enough coins to feed themselves and their children. The sewing circles, though, were on their own terms, and they became restorative.

In the light of the harvest sun, the women spent entire afternoons weaving their needles through reams of fabric, stitching paths and mountains onto floral skirts. That month, Martina skipped korimeando [asking for money in the streets] about once a week to work on a dress with bright orange lilies against an indigo background. She had chosen the fabric, the cheapest kind at Telas Parisina, one of the chain fabric stores where Rarámuri women shopped, two months before, during a time when she didn’t yet know how many extra hours she would have to spend korimeando. The fabric was lighter than Martina would have liked — she preferred cotton with more weight, which couldn’t be easily lifted by the wind — but the pattern had been too beautiful to pass up, so she had bought it with the intention of completing it in time to wear for the harvest season.

With such a great need for coins, the women could have sacrificed sewing in order to spend more time korimeando. Yet that fall, Rarámuri women, sometimes including Martina, sewed every day. They often sewed in silence, letting the hours unfurl into long afternoons. Martina didn’t plan which days she would dedicate to sewing. She didn’t always calculate how much money she would lose by staying home. Instead, she simply picked up her scrap bag, a Soriana shopping bag, at the hour she usually went korimeando and either sat on her front stoop, with Eugenia and María José joining her on theirs, or found a sunny spot in the clearing before the chapel. Stretching the fabric across her lap, Martina’s fingers worked the needle to make it move like a snake through grass. Under and out, over and over, the needle guided brightly colored thread around the dress, stitching a sliver of blue fabric into the path she and her family had followed out of the Sierra.