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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

Geographic/Demographic Profile of the Sierra Tarahumara

The region in northern Mexico known as the Sierra Tarahumara (See Figure 1) covers an area of approximately 26,387 square miles1and lies principally in southwestern Chihuahua, which covers approximately one-third of the state. The altitude in the region ranges from 9,000 feet to 1,640 feet, creating vastly different climatic and botanical zones (Butler 1993; Schmidt 1994) with temperatures ranging from -20o F. to 113o F. Deep canyons such as the famous Copper Canyon imprint the terrain of the region, forming a four-to-five canyon network that exceeds the Grand Canyon in depth and, according to Clark (1994), rivals it in scenic beauty.


Population estimates of the Sierra Tarahumara range from approximately 250,000 to 340,000, depending on the extent of the area enumerated (Schmidt 1995; Martínez Juárez 1991).  Indigenous people number 74,716, according to INEGI (1990), and reside in approximately 1,500 communities situated in 23 counties (Programa de Solidaridad 1994c; Chávez 1988). The Rarámuri,2 which is how members of the Tarahumara group identify themselves, number about 46,000 to 48,000 (Schmidt 1995). Other indigenous inhabitants of the Sierra Tarahumara reached by Radio XETAR’s broadcasts include, with their self-identification in parentheses, 3,000 Northern Tepehuán (O’Odam), 700 Pima (O’Otham), and 1,800 Guarojío (Guarojío). Figure 2 displays their geographical distribution.

The Guarojío3 is among the most isolated groups in the Sierra Tarahumara. They reside on the slopes of a mountain range that divides the states of Sonora and Chihuahua (Instituto Sonorense de la Cultura (1993), where they have fled from the relentless encroachment of the outside world. They were not “discovered” and studied ethnographically until the late 1920s and early 1930s, according to the Colegio de Sonora (1994). Spicer (1980) describes the Guarojío and the Rarámuri as “people of similar language and custom,” and indeed most ethnographic and linguistic works on the subject treat them comparably.

The approximately 3,000 Northern Tepehuán group covered by Radio XETAR resides in the southwestern portion of Chihuahua and in the adjoining northern region of Durango. Their southern cousins reside in the center of Durango and Nayarit. This group can be found in the uplands and the lowlands of the Sierra Tarahumara. The Northern Tepehuán have managed to maintain their cultural identity despite several centuries of contact with the Rarámuri and Mestizo population (Pennington 1969). A degree of acculturation has occurred among the Tepehuán, given that some speak Spanish and Tarahumar (Pennington 1963). More recently, Schmidt (1995) indicates that even in remote areas “it is not uncommon to see the Tepehuán in Mexican style clothing ... and possessing other foreign products.” Acculturation has resulted from increased presence of the mass media, education, tourism, the railroad, new roads, etc.

The Rarámuri form the largest, and perhaps the most studied, indigenous group in the Sierra Tarahumara. It is the best known to tourists who invariably will encounter the Rarámuri when crossing the Sierra Tarahumara from Chihuahua City to Los Mochis, Sinaloa via the famous and very scenic route of the Chihuahua-al-Pacífico railroad. The Rarámuri are known to the outside world because of their legendary running stamina and their kickball game, which involves moving a wooden ball with their feet along a set course (Pennington 1981). They are a seasonally nomadic people that cultivate crops, such as maize and squash, and raise goats and sheep for sustenance. They spend the warm weather months in the highlands, on top of the canyons, and descend to the bottom of canyons, such as the famous Copper Canyon, during the winter months (See Figure 2). González Rodríguez (1982) and other scholars of the Sierra Tarahumara indicate that the Rarámuri shun contact with outsiders and prefer not to leave their familiar surroundings, although physical encroachment on their lands and hunger has driven some to migrate to urban areas in search of charity. This charity or “Korima,” as it is known in the Rarámuri tongue, is an acceptable form of subsistence in hard times.


Missions and churches, some of which date to 1607, dot some parts of the Sierra Tarahumara, reflecting the presence of Catholicism (Bennett and Zingg 1986). The Rarámuri reside in individual dwellings—sometimes in caves during the winter—located in small settlements (rancherías), many of which are linked politically and socially to a town with a church or mission, although many are quite distant from settlements and somewhat inaccessible (González et al. 1994). Their social, work, and religious calendars are closely associated with festivals and ceremonies. This group, which constitutes a large portion of the region’s indigenous population, is the primary audience of Radio XETAR.