The Sierra Madre Occidental, the Mother Mountains of northwestern Mexico, is a place of wild stories and mysterious beauty that has spawned its own shelf of books over the years. Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Carl Lumholtz's two-volume Unknown Mexico came out in 1902. He was one of the earliest of a group of literate scientist-explorers who lost themselves in the immensity of this great spine of rock that slices across Mexico. Others like Howard Scott Gentry, Aldo Leopold and Paul S. Martin followed. So did the novelists--Tucsonan J. P. S. Brown wrote The Forests of the Night, and more recently, Jim Fergus created The Wild Girl, both must-reads in the Sierra Madre repertoire.
Everyone knows The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps less well-known today is its inspiration, a book of the same title by the mysterious German, B. Traven. Well, maybe he was German. Traven's real identity is one of the great mysteries of modern literature. Despite selling millions of books translated into numerous languages, his life is as unknown as the place in the title of his book. Turns out both the book and the movie were actually based on the Sierra Madre Oriental, the other Mother Mountains of southeastern Mexico.
Award-winning writer Jeff Biggers is not quite as mysterious. Author of the fascinating The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America, his new book In the Sierra Madre is a worthy addition to that shelf of books on the Mother Mountains of Sonora and Chihuahua.
Biggers and his Italian companion, Carla Paciotto, spent almost a year living among the indigenous Raramuri, also called Tarahumara. Home was a two-room log cabin in a tiny village, deep in the heart of the Sierra. While Paciotto did fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation, Biggers essentially "hung out," observing and participating in Raramuri cultural life. Nicknamed "Pancho" because of his modest talent with a banjo (banjo-Pancho, get it?), Biggers was adopted by his neighbors with the grace and good humor of the Sierra's native people.
Early in the preface, we are introduced to Alfonzo, a Raramuri traveler who managed to scam his way around the world and claimed to be the first person to ever speak the Raramuri language in Asia. He says of his travels, "They always asked me about the treasure. I had no idea what they were talking about. So I told them about my people."
Equal parts personal history, travel narrative, anthropology, literature review and Native American/American/Mexican history, In the Sierra Madre is about music and corn beer (tesguino) and writers and work and fun and people, and it is about love.
The past 400 years have seen onslaughts by the Spanish, the Mexicans and the Americans into Raramuri country. Yet the Raramuri have survived through their remarkable tenacity and capacity to adapt. They are under assault yet again, this time by drought, tourists, drug traffickers, loggers and, perhaps worst of all, evangelical Christians. In spite of this, they continue to thrive. There are places so special that love for those places will conquer just about anything, something clearly evident in these stories of the Raramuri and the relationship they have with their home.
In the Sierra Madre tells the story of becoming part of a new and different place, if only for a short while, and what can be learned about not only other people, but yourself, if you strip away most of the trappings of the so-called modern world and focus on what's really important: work, friends, music, a little beer now and then, and a connection to a landscape as it was before technology took over. Biggers struggles with his own past and family history--the quandary of our time--and what it's like to be from somewhere else, to be rootless. He observes that "Arizona became my generation's frontier; transient and fickle, not quite California, not quite Mexico, more western than southern, more invented than understood." Wow.
Even though located in the other Sierra Madre, Traven's book and Huston's movie are never far away as Biggers also wrestles with the idea of treasure. To a hungry man, a plate of beans is a treasure. In the end, it was Alfonzo who nailed it in the preface. The real treasure of the Sierra is its people and their stories. In the Sierra Madre is a sweet and perceptive book, filled with empathy, respect and kindness.