Each year the most isolated Tarahumara of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region celebrate Virgin Guadalupe Day giving thanks through animal sacrifice, dancing, and feasting. My guide and friend, “Santiago” James Barnaby, found a small, indigenous community for me to visit and photograph. Seldom visited by outsiders, the ranchería is located in a beautiful, hidden valley accessible only by narrow foot paths. Here the rituals, music, and dance celebrating Fiesta Guadalupana remain traditional and picturesque. The dance combines elements from these cultures:
- Ancient Rarámuri: The Tutu Buri altar, Saweame chanter, women’s and Pascola’s dance, and Chapeyoko, leader of the dance
- Spain: Mate Chine dancers with El Monarco, the guitar and violin
- Mexico’s indigenous Catholic population: The Virgin Guadalupe
At this ranchería, preparation for the ritual begins several days in advance with the communal act of grinding corn and cooking by the women, a public picture of their life at home. Men gather firewood, prepare the dance floor, sacrifice animals at the altar and make Mate Chine crowns, scepters, rattles and robes for the dance. The ritual commences with music and dance at night-fall on December 11th and continues with feasting and intermittent dancing throughout the day of the12th.
From 2002 – 2009 I photographed this celebration, adding video to present the sounds, movement, and color that this beautiful pageant offers. Today, as rapid change and social upheaval sweep through the Sierras, even the remotest rancheria is affected by the impact of environmental and political policy. As these aboriginal people rub against Western civilization’s values and power, their ritualized beliefs, no longer serving a purpose, are discarded. Elders seek to pass the mantle of leadership to youth who, seduced by the promise of opportunity outside their culture, leave the land. The Mate Chine dance pictured in this series may survive in some form, but the beliefs and ceremonial aspects, the original intention, will be lost. This is why I believe these images are important, the last of their kind.