Big Bend residents bring toys and joy to indigenous Rarámuri shelter

Staff photo by Abbie Perrault / Sandro Canovas entertains a group of indigenous Rarámuri children during a clown show held this month at a shelter for agricultural laborers and their families in the Ojinaga Municipality.

CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO – A towering thunderstorm loomed distantly over the verdant fields of El Oasis in Chihuahua on the first Sunday of August, but the storm held off at the Rarámuri shelter, where indigenous agricultural laborers and their families reside each harvest season.

Children scurried across the dirt between the long, white cinder block buildings they presently call home, gathering together on folding chairs in a community room for a rare event. In the spare building, three clowns emerged.

For the next hour, the children laughed, cheered and joined in on the clown show, and without hesitation so did their mothers and fathers, who all cackled as the clowns impersonated wild animals and pesky bugs and oversaw a raucous game of musical chairs.

The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, are an indigenous group from the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains that resisted Spanish colonization for centuries, instead maintaining their own culture and language to this day. In the warmer months, many men from the tribe descend from the mountains to find work in the agricultural fields run by Mennonites in Chihuahua, and many of the women and children sell handmade crafts and candies in the international bridge line, the women wearing recognizably bright, traditional skirts.

Staff photo by Abbie Perrault / Children gathered around local School Director Alejandro Gonzalez Villalba (center) and Emily Esperanza and Sandro Canovas (right) as they distributed dozens of bags of donations from Big Bend residents at a shelter for indigenous Rarámuri families.

For the past few years, Marfa resident Sandro Canovas has developed a deep relationship with the transient community. Canovas, an adobero and activist, was introduced to some Tarahumara families while recruiting help to restore an adobe, but once he saw the poverty level the families often faced, he began collecting goods to bring to them.

At first it was a trash bag or two of clothes at a time, thrown into the back of his truck when he was headed south of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the generosity and interest of his fellow West Texans grew, and soon Canovas was stocking a storage unit in Marfa with clothes, toys, hygiene products and shoes to be delivered down south.

His friend and fellow Marfa resident, Miguel Mendias, started throwing bags of clothing and necessities into his car too, dropping them with individual families or shelters in Ojinaga. Mendias saw that the children in shelters had little entertainment at hand, so when his friend Faeble Kievman called to ask for ideas of where to launch his next clown tour, Mendias hatched a plan.

Kievman’s work as a clown was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mendias’ solution for getting back on the road was a route to visit the Rarámuri shelters along the border.

After taking the idea to Canovas, the pair spoke with Maria Teresa Guerrero, the director of the State Commission for Indigenous Peoples in Chihuahua (COEPI). With her office on board, the tour exploded into an 18-stop “Rarámuri Resilience” tour through the area. COEPI and Kievman partnered with the nonprofit Clowns Without Borders, a social circus designed to bring humor to areas that have suffered trauma.

On August 1, Canovas, Mendias and a group of Big Bend-area volunteers made the biggest delivery yet, unloading four carloads of everything from cookware to stuffed animals for the Rarámuri shelter residents.

As they drove through the U.S.-Mexico port at the border, the interim port director for Ojinaga’s customs worked with the volunteers to itemize the donations, making the importation an easy process by having a Marfa nonprofit partner with COEPI to legally move the donations internationally.

Emily Esperanza, the co-manager of arts nonprofit Marfa Open, brought documentation that the group was sponsoring the donation that would formally go to the Rarámuri by way of COEPI. The volunteers – including Canovas, Mendias, Esperanza, Erica David and Jack Meredith of Alpine, and Annie Rosenthal and Harrison Smith of Marfa and Pittsburgh – followed the highway south of Ojinaga, passing distantly-placed bus stops, stores and restaurants for miles before finding the government-built shelter at the roadside.

With one clown having to depart the tour early, Canovas stepped in to perform with the two others that afternoon. As the laughs subsided and the clowns bowed, the families bunched together in anticipation of the distribution of donations. It began with toys, and the children shyly lined up, politely asking permission to take a toy, even as volunteers handed them out readily. Then the parents began taking what they needed from the dozens of labeled bags – belts, men’s pants, women’s shirts, children’s clothing, cookware and more, all donated from West Texans who were willing to share.

At the peak of the harvest, 200 families reside in the shelters, and Galdino Cruz Cruz, the group’s traditional governor, oversees the place. He told The Big Bend Sentinel that it’s difficult for people in the area to obtain essentials like clothing in the area because of its remote location and the Rarámuri’s language barrier, as not all of the shelter residents speak Spanish. However, he also said that their municipal government — and also occasionally the federal government — provide the community with food provisions, as well as blankets and mattresses in times of cold weather.

The shelter was built nine years ago by the federal government, on land donated by the Mennonites, because of a concern over children falling asleep in the fields while their parents worked.

Along with a place to sleep, the children receive an education. School Director Alejandro Gonzalez Villalba added that the recent opening of a new corner store in the area has made it easier for the Rarámuri to obtain certain goods. Prior to that, the closest store was an hour and a half away by foot — the shelter residents’ only travel option since they don’t own vehicles that could get them there quicker.

A community leader who opened the schools and has been there for five years, Villalba lives in Ojinaga and traveled there every day when the school was still doing in-person classes.

“The kids ended up being delighted with the toys,” he said that Sunday. “It’s seemingly little things, but they really value them.”

Outside the community center, the storm clouds drew closer, spilling heavy drops of rain in the dirt. The children happily set out under the gray sky, sprinting to their rooms with stuffed squirrels, dogs and unicorns firmly clasped in their arms, their parents not far behind.

Those interested in donating items to the Rarámuri or volunteering to deliver goods can email [email protected]