The craftsmanship of the native peoples of Sonora: The O'ob / Pima

Let's try to answer the question that time and again appears before us in the northwestern latitudes of Mexico: Who are the Pimas and why call them O'ob?

The craftsmanship of the native peoples of Sonora: The O'ob / Pima
In ancient times, the Pimería Baja encompassed large areas of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Currently, the Pimas that preserve their cultural traits are concentrated in Maycoba, Sonora, as well as in Yepáchic, Mesa Blanca, Pinos Verdes, Canoachi, and the mineral of Dolores, in Chihuahua.

The Bajo Pimas are an ethnic group that inhabits ranches and small towns in the areas of Yepáchic, Tutuaca, and the ejido La Junta (in Chihuahua) and Maycoba (in Sonora). In this habitat, characterized by the mountains, ravines, mesas, and forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Pimas lead a difficult existence, because, in addition to their long-standing condition of poor peasants exploited by their non-indigenous neighbors, there is now the danger represented by drug trafficking gangs and armed groups. But in their ancestral rites and the elaboration of their handicrafts, the Pimas continue to express their hope of keeping alive their traditions and customs, the culture of the O'ob people.

In their eagerness to dominate and conquer, the Spaniards and missionaries who accompanied them learned of the existence of a nation with an extensive territory and called its people "Pimas". With time and in the process of learning more about the cultural diversity of this region, two large groups from the same family were later distinguished: the low Pimas and the high Pimas; to complicate matters, even more, the so-called low Pimas live mainly in high mountainous regions, while the high Pimas inhabit the low desert plains between northern Sonora and the state of Arizona.

Thus, since the arrival of the Spaniards, they began to speak of Pimería Baja and Pimería Alta; however, the cultural diversity of the region and in particular that of this ethnolinguistic family does not end there, but another sector must also be considered, the historically called Pápagos, inhabitants of what the Europeans knew as the Gran Papaguería (Great Papaguería). Nowadays, the term "pápago" is rejected by the indigenous people, as they consider it to be derogatory, and therefore it is more correct to refer to them as the Tohono O'odham, of whom we will only make mention at this point since the interest of this brief trip is to travel a little of the indigenous world of the sierra between Sonora and Chihuahua.

Although the name by which they have been known is "Pima", which for a long time was accepted without discussion by the members of the group, deep down they were reluctant to accept this appellation imposed since the Hispanic conquest and ratified for centuries by chroniclers, travelers and more recently by Mexican anthropology and government institutions. Despite this, for several years the members of the group have said that in reality, they are the O'ob (a term that can be translated as "the people" or "those who are leaving", according to different versions of the oral tradition of that people); even in the state of Chihuahua, the term Oichkama is also defended.

Regions of refuge, regions without refuge: the Pima crossroads

The region where historically the territory of the Pimería Baja was located, seen from today, covers the vicinity of the city of Hermosillo in different municipalities (La Colorada, San José de Pimas, and Tónichi, among others), go up towards the east, up to the current municipality of Yécora, crosses the state line with Chihuahua, and reaches beyond the municipalities of Madera and Temósachic, in the latter state. But at present, the Pima territory is reduced to several ranches, communities, and towns in a mountainous area with pine forests.

When talking about this territory, some people think that the members of the ethnic group who lived in the lower regions decided to "move up" towards the sierra; what happened is that the great majority of the populations with a Pima indigenous presence went through intense processes of mestization and assimilation, due to which their population was reduced or disappeared completely in many towns, maintaining their presence in what -from Mexican anthropology- Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán called "regions of refuge". Although, as we will see below, I think that today what exist are "regions without refuge" if we consider that practically all the native peoples of Mexico face the great challenge of the assimilation of their culture and the annihilation of their languages.

As part of the process of domination of northwestern Mexico, the so-called low Pimas were under the influence of Catholic missionaries, first Jesuits and then Franciscans; However, due to the conditions of the region, the expulsion of the Jesuits, and the difficulties faced by the Franciscans, for a long time the indigenous people configured and maintained their own identity and religiosity, which is a certain way has managed to remain until the present and has allowed them to maintain themselves as a differentiated group, despite the difficult conditions in which their existence has developed. The Spanish domination was a determining factor in this process, in addition -especially during an important period of the XIX century-, the Apache presence also left its deep mark in the regional conscience, since they reduced to a certain extent the Hispanic presence first and the Mexican later.

In spite of the discrimination, plundering, and violence to which they are subjected, the Pimas of Maycoba seek to preserve their cultural heritage.

It was the Pimas who resisted the onslaught of the Apaches (who in turn were displaced from their territories). At the end of the 19th century, once the Apache danger was controlled or reduced, the process of domination by the Chabochis (the name given in the Sierra to the white people) continued until the 1960s and 1970s, when a low-intensity war took place, as many Pimas died anonymously defending their lands. That is why, since those years, the Pimas talk about the "postizos" ranchos, so named because when a Pima, owner of his land, died, a new owner who was a chabochi suddenly appeared in that place. This was to a certain extent a discreet and silent process, sheltered precisely by the remoteness of the territory, the ruggedness of its path, and by the very process of abandonment in the case of the highlands and privilege in the case of the valleys and the coast of Sonora.

Exclusion in the life of the Pimas acquired different faces and expressions; when indigenous education was established in the region, the chabochis managed to exclude the Pima children, controlling the education for their children. In those times, according to the indigenous people, they were only remembered again at election time, when they were visited by the official candidate, even though their vote was practically already decided, long before election day itself. Most of the attention the Pimas received from the federal government came from the state of Chihuahua since the lumber routes had their main trade with that state.

In the eighties of the last century, everything seemed to indicate that the disappearance of the Pima tribe was imminent: a great linguistic displacement, the disappearance of rites and ceremonial leaders, as well as their music and interpreters; the reduction of their territory and the almost total disappearance of their forms of government were some of the indicators of this terrible process. The region's economy was practically isolated to that degree, especially for the Pimas. Since the second half of the 20th century, but especially since the 1970s, a new phenomenon appeared in the region in the form of drug trafficking; although at the beginning this was a "discreet" activity, with the time the situation has become much more complicated, involving groups from Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa, in open competition with each other and with the Pimas in the middle.

Rituality and ethnic identity: Holy Week and the yúmari

Despite everything, the Pima spirit continues to be combative, and despite so many factors against it, all is not lost, in such a way that although it seemed in those years that the Pima identity was kept hidden, or low profile most of the time, it came out with great pride during Holy Week when the army of Pharisees appears: Pimas with their faces painted in white or black, who fulfill the representation of the Christian sacrifice, either in the church of Maycoba, Sonora, the ones in white, or Yepachi, Chihuahua, the ones in black face; being both part of the same origin and the same tradition. For many years the celebration of Holy Week has been the bastion of Pima identity; for a few days, the old surviving leaders taught the young how to comply with the tradition.

To become a Pharisee one must face a symbolic struggle, where the aspirant fights against an already recognized Pharisee; this style of combat consists of tying a rope or a sack around the waist, then the opponents grab each other by that kind of belt and struggle with each other; When the aspirant falls to the ground, he is admitted into this ritual army that will pursue Jesus Christ from "one band to another band", that is, from the slopes of the hills on one side of the town to the hills on the other side (the indigenous people live in the peripheral zones, while the central nucleus of the town has been inhabited mostly by non-indigenous people).

Between processions with religious images, night walks, and other ritual processes, the celebration of Holy Week goes through the appearance of the Judas, a doll dressed in the clothes of the Chabochis of the highlands and mounted on the back of a donkey; this announces the imminent presence of another ceremonial group, the Jews, ritual enemies of the Pharisees. The high point of the celebration is the Saturday of Glory when all the fires are extinguished, processions take place and the Pharisees paint themselves not only in white but also use crushed plants and ashes, to acquire a much more battle-hardened personality, for the struggle between good and evil. Although the Pimas try to carry out their version of the religious teachings of the Jesuits and Franciscans -either with the ritual fight or by putting out the old fires- to reestablish an order where good prevails over evil, on more than one occasion the young chabochis also take advantage of the occasion to try to demonstrate that they are the ones in charge of the region.

The Pima language belongs to the Yutoaztecan linguistic family, whose branches include Tarahumara-Cahíta, Cora-Huichol, Nahua and Pima-Tepehuana. In the Maycoba area, there is a high rate of bilingualism, since most Pima people also speak Spanish.

Apart from the celebration of Holy Week, and in a very brave way, the Pimas of Chihuahua -and to a certain extent also those of Sonora- have managed to preserve another ritual of great importance, the ceremony of the yúmari or yúmare. This is a ritual dedicated especially to the cultivation of corn, the axis in the conservation of their existence, and also related to the rituality of the Rarámuri (Tarahumara), their historical neighbors. According to ancient stories, when there was a great rain that lasted a long time, God gave the women the task of "solidifying the earth", that is, to give it consistency, which they do with their dance, which is accompanied by the singers of the yúmari, who with their songs invoke the different powers of nature; for example, it is said that the song of the crow makes it rain. In this ceremony, important and beautiful teachings are preserved that have to do with what we know today as "gender relations", as it is pointed out during the ritual process that we all have a place and an obligation, not only with the rest of the people or with religiosity but also with nature. In ancient times, the ceremony was mainly dedicated to corn and nature spirits; due to the influence and teachings of the religious, today Catholic elements are also part of the ritual.

It is said that in ancient times at least three yúmaris were held for each community, town, or farm, to which other communities were invited; in this way a yúmari was held at the beginning of the sowing season, another one in the middle of the crop and one more at the end of the agricultural cycle. To make a yúmari it is necessary to keep some corn from the previous harvest, with which the tesgüino is prepared, the ritual drink that represents the essence of corn, that is, the essence of life; it is the corn that is sung and danced to and it is with corn that the gifts of existence are blessed and thanked. However, this ancient and beautiful ritual that today should be recognized as part of the intangible or immaterial cultural heritage, is also not free from the dangers of existence, because although this ritual is celebrated in isolated places in the forest, the participants in the yúmari are followed by armed groups and people who are not interested in the celebration, but in the possibility of finding food, drink, and women, imposing the violence of weapons. Despite this, the Pimas of Sonora, but especially those of Chihuahua, overcome the freezing temperatures of the region, face the problems of food shortages and keep the ceremony alive, even risking their safety to continue their traditions.

From craftsmanship to hope

At the beginning of the 1980s, everything seemed to indicate that in a short time this valuable culture would disappear completely and that its people would be condemned to mestization and the oblivion of their traditions; fortunately, the reality has been very different and despite the serious problems it is going through, hope itself has not died. Several circumstances have influenced this process and that have encouraged the Pimas with the desire to be recognized and respected again as an original people of northwestern Mexico; among them, it is worth mentioning some: on the one hand, to recognize that at the end of the 1980's the appearance of a Franciscan missionary in the region has been of vital importance in the renewal of the Pima spirit. Thus, the presence of the missionary David Beaumont Pfeiffer, who upon discovering the greatness of the Pima culture and the strong contrast with the conditions of their existence, has been dedicated since then to study it and try to persuade governmental and non-governmental agencies about the need to recognize and support the Pima cultural process, through what is known as the New Inculturated Church, which consists of strengthening the values of the Pima identity, such as their language and their religiosity, without trying to dominate or transform it; In this same sense, work has been carried out to recover the Pima historical conscience, to strengthen their spirituality and ceremonial life, and to develop cultural projects together with them.

Another circumstance is that traditionally in their existence as a people, the Pima have developed the manufacture of diverse objects to use in their daily life, but some of these have faded away, leaving only a few of them. For example, in the past, and as Carl Lumholtz's accounts make evident, wool blankets were made, an activity that today has practically disappeared; pottery was also made, which is also almost nonexistent. However, other handicraft activities have been preserved, such as palm weaving in the production of baskets, baskets, or guaris and hats, which were manufactured inside the juki (small vaults dug underground to work the palm with the necessary level of humidity). The problem faced by this handicraft is that its products are not well priced, because despite their beauty, and perhaps due to their simplicity, they do not reach high prices.

The elaboration of these palm objects is mainly a female activity, which is inherited from mothers to daughters, but nowadays it is difficult for young Pima women to accept learning this laborious task (although for a long time the sale of guaris and hats has allowed women, artisans, to have at least a small monetary income to support their families in such an impoverished society). Fortunately, in the process of recognizing the importance and characteristics of the culture and identity of the Pimas, several events have taken place that has provided an interesting and beautiful alternative for the production of handicrafts and the rescue of their cultural values.

The conflicts between Pimas and Yoris (non-indigenous) are symbolically dramatized in the Holy Week festivities. The struggles of the Pharisees are one of the culminating events of the celebration.

It turns out that in the Pima territory there are several caves and sites with rock art, which the Pima recognize as the heritage of their ancestors: geometric, zoomorphic, and anthropomorphic symbols give an account of the past and the existence of the people of the past. Some of these sites have been well known to the older people, but some others were left out of their reach with the distribution of their traditional territory among the Chabochi hands. Despite this, "the message of the rocks" is still present in the region. While some of these caves are used as storage by drug traffickers or as a camp by the soldiers pursuing them, at certain times the Pimas may have access to them. Upon learning about and visiting these sites in the mid-1990s, Father David had the idea of recovering them for the consciousness of the Pimas, and so he sought out a plastic artist to copy the cave designs. From there, and with the support of women from Hermosillo, a new alternative for the Pima world began to take shape: handmade embroidery.

In the beginning, the idea was simple: to copy the cave designs and to transfer them to embroidery patterns; but it was not only a matter of obtaining yarn, fabric, and other materials, but a more lasting action was also intended. This is how they began to stimulate forms of organization and collective work to create true bonds of solidarity among the Pima women, with the support of outsiders. Initially, some women wanted to hoard as much fabric as possible, others made their first designs very crudely; then, it was necessary to improve the work processes and finishes; they needed to trust each other and all of them together.

Originally, the outlook was very complicated, first of all, because tradition indicated that the men were the ones who brought the money home, either with their work in agriculture (although in reality, this is more for self-consumption, sometimes there is a surplus that is sold after paying the debts) or with the work in the sawmill; However, the large forests began to become scarce, reducing the possibility of obtaining income by the latter means (in addition, on frequent occasions, the sawmill administrators agreed with the owners of cantinas that the Indians could obtain credit to buy beer at the expense of the income of the sawmill itself, which belonged to the Pimas). Another economic activity is working in the charcoal mines, which also put the continuity of the forests and the people themselves at risk; another option has been to work as day laborers; and finally, the last alternative is to work in the "alternative crops", with the risks that this illicit activity represents.

Tradition dictates that each community or ranchería ("rural community") celebrates three yúmaris a year. One when planting, another in the middle of the crop, and one more when harvesting.

Thus, men often get money for the sale of their work, but when it is time to go home, on more than one occasion, there are barely a few pesos left, and many times, not even that. Of course, it cannot be said that all Pima men do this, but the reality is that many families have barely managed to subsist on minimal resources. That is why the project of embroidery with the theme of rock art became a great alternative since it offered the women a way to work together and generate their economy. In different stages of this process, a group of women from Hermosillo, organized as LUTISUC I.A.P., supported the Pima women, getting them to buy their groceries at Hermosillo prices and have them delivered to their communities; artisan centers were also built, equipped with the necessary equipment and where they can also take care of their children while they work.

The presence of the Pima women's embroidery began to go beyond their territory, as they began to sell backpacks for meetings of other indigenous women and had a presence in events and cultural festivals, so that little by little the embroidery with the motifs of the Pima cave paintings has been worked in more detail, diversifying the products, designs and use of colors in different objects such as backpacks, pillows, aprons, blouses, dresses, shirts and even bags for cell phones, bookmarks, cookie cutters, etc., and other objects that are made in different communities, both in Sonora and Chihuahua.

From the original group supported by LUTISUC, a group of women formed another organization, known as MAKI, which has also continued to collaborate in this process. It is interesting to note that both groups intend to allow the Pima women to quickly take charge of their processes, forms of organization, and sales commitments, so as not to create dependency or paternalism, and instead to strengthen their community organization.

To survive in the Pima world

In the early 1990s, the interstate highway connecting Sonora with Chihuahua was built through the last redoubt of the traditional O'ob/Pima territory, which at the time was seen as a great social advance by allowing the opening of the Pima territory to regional trade, offering tourism alternatives and eventually assuring all Pimas the benefits of modernity.

However, while it is true that highways bring many good things to the people, it must also be recognized that they open the doors to new problems and conflicts. In this way, the problem of drug trafficking and the violence that this activity entails took on new dimensions. Part of this process is that the situation of violence has worsened in the region, as there are conflicts between different power groups fighting for control of drug trafficking and domination of the region. Revenge and acts of violence are made more expeditious by the use of the highway, making it easier to invade the ritual spaces and communities of the Pimas.

A few years ago, more than a hundred hired killers invaded the community of Maycoba and fear took hold of the people who were victims of this situation. As a way to manage the nervousness that this provoked, a drawing workshop was held, in which the children gave an account of their perception of that event; there have also been walks along the road that crosses their territory, asking for peace and greater security for the permanence of the Pima world, a world that refuses to disappear and that still has much to teach us to understand what cultural diversity and the ethnic persistence of the O'ob, a contemporary society that inhabits the forests of the sierra, between Sonora and Chihuahua, really means.

Author: Alejandro Aguilar Zeleny, Professor-Researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Sonora. Source: