For more than a week, Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations had been occurring in Copper Canyon, Mexico. I was fortunate to attend two of these, one on Palm Sunday in the tiny village of Cusarare and another on Good Friday in Cerocahui, where I joined in a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ, but from the beginning I had been looking forward to the main attraction on Easter weekend. For this reason alone I returned to Urique Canyon. I hoped to witness the Tarahumara Indians perform their mystical religious rites in the village of Guapalayna.
On Saturday afternoon, I joined other guests staying at Cabanas San Isidro Lodge for the two hour drive to the bottom of the canyon. With no hotel facilities in Guapalayna, we planned to stay overnight in Urique, rising early on Easter Sunday morning for the short drive to the settlement of the Tarahumara Indians. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately the hotel where we had reservations had other ideas. When we arrived, there was “no room at the inn.” Our reservations had been turned over to guests who wanted to stay more than one night. Since all accommodations in town were totally booked, we drove back up to the canyon rim, placated by assurances from the lodge owner that we would return the next morning in time for the festivities. As we made the long drive back up the hill, he filled us in on the history of the area.
Beginning in the mid-1600’s, Jesuit monks began converting the Tarahumara to Christianity. The Jesuits succeeded where other had failed, most likely because they allowed indigenous peoples to merge their traditional native beliefs with Catholicism. This resulted in the peculiar animistic/religious ceremonies that are today staged on religious sacred holidays, Easter being the most important one of the year. On Saturday afternoon, loose confederations of Tarahumara Indians wander through town beating handmade drums, beckoning members of the tribe who have climbed down from the cliffs to join in the ceremony. Some paint their entire bodies in black and white stripes that represent the devil. Fueled by teseno, a potent drink made from fermented corn, the “devils” carry around a straw Judas and mount repeated attacks on the church, only to be repulsed by the forces of good. After a long night of drinking and many symbolic wrestling matches, the forces of good finally prevail on Easter morning: Judas is destroyed and the devils undergo a ritualistic cleaning, after which they are welcomed back into society.
The next morning we clambered back into the van for the main event. As we pulled into the dusty town square I anxiously looked around for painted devils, but there were none to be seen. We were too late. The lodge owner pointed down a dirt road leading away from the town square: “The Indians have gone that way, follow the road until you find them.” A mile later, we spotted the Tarahumara gathered in a forest clearing and descended into an arroyo littered with jagged boulders. We stopped outside the barb-wired gate leading to the compound until the chief waved us in. The party was well underway. Mugs of an amber colored liquid were being drawn from a huge black rubber container and distributed to everyone present, regardless of age. Adolescent boys and teens staggered around the grounds, barely able to stand.
A glass was proffered to me. “Es alcohol?” I asked. Is it alcohol? “No, no es alcohol.” But the unmistakable odor of alcohol assaulted my nostrils when I sniffed. “Me huele como alcohol,” I insisted – It smells like alcohol. “No, es de maiz.” No it’s made from corn, the brewmeister persisted. “Pero, es fermentado, verdad?” But it’s fermented, right? “Si, pero no es alcohol.” Not willing to risk my sobriety, I politely declined, hoping to dispel any ill will generated by my refusal by explaining that I have an allergy to alcohol and could not take the chance.
I wandered around the compound, examining handmade drums being offered for sale and listening to a trio of musicians playing songs about their beloved Guapalayna. Though I hoped to spot a laggard devil, all traces of black and white paint had long since been been removed in the nearby river, banishing the devils until next year. It was a most anticlimactic end to my Copper Canyon adventure, but looking on the bright side, missing out on the Semana Santa celebration in Guapalnya gives me an excuse to return.