On the Raramuri as masters of hope, running, and world-building

WORDS BY ROBERTO RANSOM

Photographs by Daniel Almazán Klinckwort & COURTESY OF ROBERTO RANSOM

“If we stop running, the world ceases to exist”.
Arnulfo Quimare. A champion long-distance runner, on the cosmology of his people, the Rarámuri.

The Rarámuri, a people in northern Mexico have vehemently, yet peacefully, resisted assimilation and genocide for what has now been nearly 500 years. In doing so, they have shown their impressive endurance not only as extraordinary long-distance runners but as keepers of a rich and unique worldview and culture. Today, the Rarámuri embody a brave and radically non-capitalist model of human agency. This agency functions at several levels. It begins at the very concrete yet subtle scale of landscape interventions that make their daily lives possible in very harsh environments and is implicit in their profoundly inclusive cosmology.

The Rarámuri, a people in northern Mexico have vehemently, yet peacefully, resisted assimilation and genocide for what has now been nearly 500 years. In doing so, they have shown their impressive endurance not only as extraordinary long-distance runners but as keepers of a rich and unique worldview and culture. Today, the Rarámuri embody a brave and radically non-capitalist model of human agency. This agency functions at several levels. It begins at the very concrete yet subtle scale of landscape interventions that make their daily lives possible in very harsh environments and is implicit in their profoundly inclusive cosmology.

What the Rarámuri do in a gentle but forceful manner is present testimony of hope amidst a dire situation. Their unique and profoundly respectful, yet non-sentimental relationship with other living and nonliving entities suggest an entry point for navigating urgent issues that plague contemporary northern Mexico. Solutions to issues of environmental justice, water rights, violence, and extractive economies must consider the wisdom, insights, and intelligence of the Rarámuri and other non-western actors. 

In this context, running enables us to engage and understand a place and a people in a way few other activities can. It grounds our experience in a tangible bodily reality and space. By virtue of this, it reveals many nuances stemming from the tension of what is essentially an individually lived yet universal human experience. 

As a graduate student analyzing this region, I did not come to this realization right away. During my research, I first focused on this region rather conventionally, according to economic, infrastructural, topographic, and hydrological networks. However, I slowly realized that my reading of these dynamics and territory was incomplete unless I understood and experienced the agency of the very people who had existed in these entangled networks for the longest time. I slowly grasped that to do so in a respectful and sincere manner I had to begin at the intimate, subjective scale of us.


My thesis work approaches the city as a microcosm of the larger territory. The socioecological network of the Tarahumara and urban infrastructure exist simultaneously at these different scales. At this intersection of realities, the thesis proposes a taskscape along the Sacramento River and into the Nombre de Dios mountains in the city of Chihuahua. Rather than a master plan, a taskscape. According to anthropologist Tim Ingold, a taskscape is an entire network of tasks or mutually interlocking dwelling activities that contain social and temporal dimensions. Just as the landscape is an array of related features, so the taskscape is an array of related activities. And as with the landscape, it is qualitative and heterogeneous. At the territorial level, the taskscape serves to understand the context of the site along a 250-kilometer-long section. This section intersects with an equally expansive temporal scale and highlights site conditions and dynamics that are replicated in a much more compressed scale in the metropolitan context of the city.

At the metropolitan scale and through a socio-ecological network, the taskscape aims to reconstitute the fragmented and heavily degraded high desert grasslands and riparian forest in the city of Chihuahua. This is realized by weaving a patchwork of native vegetation, horticultural fields, and spaces for daily life, organized and maintained through tasks and elements of Rarámuri practice. At the personal, corporeal scale, running is the task that links all other tasks. The beauty of a task is that it encompasses all aspects of Rarámuri life, sustenance, necessity, but also recreation which is intertwined with ceremony and social life. By repetition and interaction, tasks become networks of communal living.

In this context, a taskscape also becomes a tool for proposing multiple futures. Hybrid realities that include not one dominant worldview and ideology, but multiple, complex, overlapping ones. As a designer of the built environment, the Rarámuri are teachers of a post-human, radically inclusive approach to engaging and interacting with places and other creatures.

One example of this slowly emerging awareness has been highlighted by the urgency of climate change. It has accelerated and made visible underlying dynamics that have been developing for centuries. Rapid urbanization and the industrialization of agriculture, forestry, and mining in Northern Mexico have resulted in a sharp decrease and even depletion of groundwater, deteriorated soils, and environmental degradation in general. Yet, in the specific, it has been a heightened awareness of social injustice that has revealed how banishment and dispossession of entire ethnic groups and populations have been part and parcel of this social and economic transformation. 

his massive demographic shift from the rural to the urban has once again disproportionately affected indigenous and female persons. When you see the statistics on femicide and assassinated indigenous environmental leaders this is appallingly clear. Yet these are precisely the two demographics with the most legitimate claim to agency for change in the current political environment in Mexico. Suddenly, with this framework, we can approach problems like rural and urban poverty, drug cartels, and violence within the larger issues of climate and social justice. The beauty of these issues is that they exist at multiple scales, and it is at the community level that we find encouraging stories and individual examples of authentic leadership.

Finally, I like to paraphrase Wendell Berry who has written about how -it is only when you have faced the depth and breadth of a problem that there is room for hope-. In this case, attitudes towards the environment and our indigenous past are shifting, even if, simultaneously, the situation only seems to get worse. People are finding the capacity to be outraged amidst what has been a very challenging context full of historically perpetuated injustices that find most of us complicit. This outrage is necessary for hope and action to take place.

In more pragmatic terms, it appears to me that this shift is perhaps, at least partially, in response to stark ongoing environmental and contextual pressures that demand nothing less than radical change.

Roberto Ransom

Roberto Ransom is from Chihuahua.
He enjoys trail running and has traveled often to the Copper Canyon, running the Caballo Blanco Marathon in 2018. He received an architecture degree from the Tecnológico de Monterrey prior to earning a Master of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2020.

Roberto is currently an independent consultant. He previously worked at the landscape NYC-based architecture and planning firm MVVA and at JSA in Mexico City. 

You can follow and learn more about Roberto’s work on his Instagram.

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