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Drinking Down the Clouds

Jeff Biggers recently traveled to the remote stretches of the Sierra Madre mountains in northern Mexico, where over 50,000 Tarahumara Indian reside on plateaus as high as the Rockies and in gorges as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. After visiting and staying in a Tarahumara village near the rim of the famed Copper Canyon, he sent us this postcard.

Yumari: Drinking Down the Clouds in the Sierra Madre
by Jeff Biggers

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Dear Rudy,

Earlier this summer, I found myself planting corn by hand, following a gaggle of Tarahumara women in sweeping skirts. I couldn't help but get involved. The villagers nodded, nodded for me to find my own digging stick and follow their lead up furrows plowed by a carved oak branch. I took one step forward, stabbed the stick into the rut, dropped three kernels of corn, and then rolled a layer of soil with my foot. I felt clumsy. One woman, who carried an infant wrapped on her back, moved like a ballet dancer.

We worked until the sunset stretched across the canyon walls and topped the pines. The farmer offered all the planters soup made from ground seeds of pumpkins, served with blue corn tortillas. Everyone passed around a single gourd of corn beer all day.

The Tarahumara men in this village knew that if the rains didn't come soon, they would be forced to leave the Sierra Madre in search of day labor in the plains.

The newspaper in Chihuahua spoke the unspeakable the next week. Northern Mexico was going through the worst drought in the country's history.

"The key," one man told me, "is to plant at the right time, so that when the rains come, the corn will be a foot high. If it is too small, the rains will wash it away. If it grows over a foot, then it will crumble and die."

This man consulted the moon and the night sky for the right time to plant.

We finally assembled for a yumari dance of thanks. In truth, no one called it a rain dance, though that was clearly the buzz in the village. The elder who had been summoned to do the chanting was wearing a cast-off Dallas Cowboys rain breaker.

He began by shaking a gourd, rattling the bones of drought in front of three crosses pounded into the earth. A goat was sacrificed and boiled for the traditional tonari stew. The old chanter hobbled forward eight tiny steps, and then back eight steps. He continued alone all night.

Inside the cabin, everyone else celebrated the planting season by drinking tesguino, which was a beer made from fermented corn. Everyone drank from one gourd. It tasted sweet; sort of like a slightly burned light beer. As I learned, tesguino corn-beer isn't only for parties, but is central in all of the Tarahumara rituals.

During a break, the chanter came inside and took some tesguino. Then he smiled with a mustache of smeared corn.

"Drink some clouds," he told me. "Tesguino is a gift and we must give thanks."

He went back out and danced alone until dawn. The party continued inside. When the morning canyon walls were scudded by smudges of red, I saw the yumari chanter quietly hobble away on a path into the forest. We ambled back to our cabin.

The first rain of the season arrived by ten that morning. I could hear frogs the next night.

Jeff Biggers is a writer based in Ohio and Italy. He is currently at work on a travel memoir about the Sierra Madre.


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