In the Sierra Madre: An Award-Winning Copper Canyon Memoir
From Mexico’s Copper Canyon to a Siberian Jail: The Traveler of the Sierra Madre
an excerpt from In the Sierra Madre by Jeff Biggers
[Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon has become one of the great travel destinations in the Americas. Travel writer Jeff Biggers stumbled onto a Copper Canyon dweller who had made a world journey of his own.]
I met an extraordinary story-teller in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. To reach his log cabin in a remote hollow, I had to follow the ribbon of a trail along a canyon’s edge, ford a creek bed, and then zigzag through the remains of sparse corn fields bordered by boulders and the frontline of a pine forest.
I picked up a small rock along the way, which had become a habit, in preparation for the mad dogs of the mountains. Alfonzo had given vague instructions to find his homestead; the Raramuri in the Sierra Madre have an obscure way of describing their personal geography.
I had actually met Alfonzo outside a Raramuri village shop a few days before. He was a wiry man; unruly grey hair was tucked under a straw hat. He possessed the weathered face of an outdoor laborer. His eyes engaged with a storyteller’s gift of astonishment.
He was expecting me at his cabin; he had probably been expecting me for days. In his two-room abode, which housed three generations of his family, Alfonzo’s wife Maria offered me a cup of coal black coffee from a pot that had been boiling atop their wood stove. We sat around a small wooden table. There was little else in the way of furniture. A cadre of children hugged the doorway and watched. I could hear dogs barking outside.
“All men do not have a good heart,” Alfonzo began, removing his hat.
His words were not as artless as they sounded. He clasped his hands together, staring at me intently, and then recounted his life story.
In the 1970s — the precise date, of course, is unknown — Alfonzo wanted to see how people lived outside of his own remote homeland in the western corner of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.
Carrying only a bag of pinole, roasted corn ground twice into a powdery grain, he walked out of the Sierra Madre mountain range, descending canyons, passing the valleys of corn fields and log cabins and the cave dwellings of his Raramuri people. He finally caught a ride on muleback from a mestizo trader, who took Alfonzo to the plains of Chihuahua.
With an affable disposition, Alfonzo made friends easily. He had no problems adjusting to adversity; after two years in a faraway boarding school for indigent children, he had spent his youth toiling in the cornfields and forests in the Sierra Madre. He spoke both Spanish and Raramuri fluently.
Unlike other migrant workers, he had no plans to tuck away his pitiful savings and return home in the off-season. He said he was searching for a different fortune. He found work as a ranch hand in Durango and then as a farm worker in Michoacan. His goal was to move on, see more of the world. He didn’t bother with official documents. He crossed borders at night, along rivers, or through the very forests that had made him invisible in the Sierra Madre.
By the time he reached Peru, he had narrowly escaped death at two separate farm incidents. It didn’t stop him from jumping a freighter one night, in the port of Lima.
“I was a polizon,” he chuckled.
I shook my head. I didn’t know that word in Spanish. “When someone sneaks onto a boat without permission.”
A stowaway. I nodded for him to continue, but that image glowed in my mind with the random process of our journeys.
“When they found me, they had two choices,” Alfonzo continued. “They could either throw me overboard to the sharks or put me to work. It took them some days to decide. Then one day a man
gave me a mop and told me to get to work.”
Alfonzo worked on the freighter across the Pacific. He was given a small stipend when the ship moored in the Chiba harbor. Wandering the streets of Tokyo, the Raramuri traveler didn’t feel like a stranger; he eased into the traffic of the warrens like a bemused apparition.
His visit to the gravestones of the samurai at a mysterious temple, all having committed suicide, disturbed his sense of place. He couldn’t fathom their ritual act of hari-kari. He found refuge for the night in the gardens of a shrine, where he slept in the shadows of the Emperor.
Alfonzo missed his freighter’s departure. Hanging around the port for days, he managed to find work aboard a fishing vessel heading to Vladivostok, where a fellow sailor, who spoke Portuguese and a meager Spanish, described the Trans-Siberian railroad that departed from the Russian peninsula.
He never made it across Russia. After roaming the bitterly cold Siberian streets, he was arrested by the Soviet police. Amid the shouts of linguistic confusion, he was accused of being a spy for Mexico. He spent three months in a Soviet prison until the Mexican consulate was finally informed of his claim of citizenship.
It took the direct intervention of President Luis Echeverria Alvarez of Mexico to gain his release from prison and return to the Central American isthmus.
“I was the first person to speak Raramuri in Asia,” he said, sitting back in his chair.
But the outsiders, in some many countries, amazed Alfonzo with their apparent familiarity with the Sierra Madre.
“They always asked me about the treasure,” he said. “I had no idea what they were talking about. So, I told them about my people.”
When Alfonzo returned to his village in the Sierra Madre, he was as penniless and starry-eyed for the world as the day he had walked out of the forests. He found his community languishing again in the ravages of a long drought. Many Raramuri men were readying to depart for migrant labor camps in the plains.
The villagers couldn’t believe Alfonzo had traveled the world, interacted with the President of Mexico, and not returned a wealthy man. His stories sounded invented; they doubted his newfound vocabulary to match his descriptions.
“‘I did not travel for riches,’ I told them, ‘but rich experiences.'” He opened his empty, wrinkled hands.
“‘You are as poor as we are,’ they told me. ‘What good are your stories?'”
Alfonzo quieted for a moment. He had choked up a couple of times. I saw him repeating those lines under his breath, as if to remind himself of the value of his journeys. The line had caught me
off-guard, as well; I felt this same sense of conflicting emotion welling up in my own chest.
“So, I claimed a plot of land, built a small cabin, and began to cultivate corn like other Raramuri,” he finally went on.
Born within view of the mission in Mawichi, Alfonzo was both Raramuri and mestizo, the son of a Mexican lumberjack and a Raramuri mother.
“Some say I am a chabochi,” Alfonzo chuckled, using the Raramuri word for outsiders. “But the chabochis say I am Raramuri. I am both Raramuri and chabochi in my heart.”
Alfonzo sipped his coffee, which had not been touched during the course of his story. I saw him struggling to remember the details of his voyages. Over the years, the foreign ports and streets
of Tokyo had become faint but vital memories, lingering like the 1,000-year-old petroglyphs on the caves near his homestead. But his stories, told and retold in the shadows of gas lamps and fires, were living testaments of other fortunes.
“So, you have finally made it to la sierra,” Alfonzo said, looking up with a grin. “You’re probably looking for the treasure, as well.”
I smiled and took a sip of my coffee. It had become cold.
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Jeff Biggers is the author of In the Sierra Madre , a travel memoir based in Mexico’s Copper Canyon which won the ForeWord Magazine Best Book of the Year in Travel Essays. Winner of an American Book Award and Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, he is also the author of The United States of Appalachia. For more information on his work, visit jeffbiggers.com.