A Huichol Donkey’s Tale

I am a simple donkey who lives in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.  My owner is a Huichol Indian named Juan Garcia, a farmer who lives with his wife and three children in the community of Nueva Colonia.  The Huichol moved to this area many hundreds of years ago from the lands to the east, and their lives have changed little since.  The Spanish came, but mostly left us alone because our land was so remote and we had nothing they wanted.   Life is very simple for us.  We have no electricity or telephones, things that I hear are quite common in the rest of the world.  My life as a donkey is not too bad.  I do my work as I am told and do not question or complain.  Those things are for humans.  But I know these mountains very well and see many things, which normally I keep to myself, as the ways of humans are not that interesting to me.

One day recently when my master was gone a strange man came to my house.  He was not a Huichol, but looked more like one of those Spanish conquistadors, with light skin and hair and fine features.  He was dressed humbly and wore a straw hat.  He was looking for a donkey to carry his pack down the mountain to our sacred ceremonial site where the Festival of the First Fruits was to be held in two days.  My master’s wife was in a good mood and to my dismay tied a rope around my neck and handed it to the strange man without even negotiating a price.  His name was Juan Negrin.

Juan led me away to the nearby ranch where Andres lived.  Juan claimed to be his compadre and had spent the night there along with his friend David who had arrived with him from a place called “civilization”.  I have never been there but have heard much about it.  I could tell that Andres was not that happy to have visitors show up unannounced and ask to spend the night in his small compound.  They had slept on the floor in his storeroom and now Andres was loading their things on my back.  Obviously his visitors knew nothing about how to deal with a donkey.  Before we left, the wife of Andres served them a traditional breakfast of blue corn tortillas and bean soup with a little bowl of salsa on the side.  One is supposed to make pieces of the tortillas into the shape of spoons with which to eat the soup, and I was amused to observe that the visitors seemed unable to master this simple technique. 

When it was time to leave Juan took my rope and led me out across a meadow with David in the rear.  I was not thrilled with this assignment, and so held back and made him struggle to get me moving.  Juan handed the rope to David, and eventually I resigned myself to my fate and followed along reluctantly, stopping to snack on mouthfuls of grasses and tasty plants whenever I could.

As I suspected, Juan did not know his way and promptly went off in the wrong direction.   He led us down a steep and treacherous path to the foot of the cliffs where he thought the ceremonial center was located.  At the bottom we came to a clearing where a couple of small houses were located.  I was surprised that Juan did not stop to ask for directions.  Instead, he took the trail that went off to the right and followed it for about half an hour before giving up and returning to the two houses  This time he decided to go straight, following a trail which went down into a canyon.  This was really a bad choice and I was getting tired, so I gingerly sat down in the path, balancing my load so I did not tip over.  This seemed to make the humans very worried, so I struggled back to my feet after a short rest.  They made a right turn and started scrambling up a hill where they eventually encountered a Huichol woman riding on another donkey who I did not know.  The woman told them to take a path to the right, which they followed until it eventually returned them to the clearing with the two houses.  We had wasted two hours making this ridiculous loop.  Now Juan took the only remaining option, the trail to the left.  It led through some swampy meadows and eventually to the edge of a steep canyon.  To my dismay they started to go down into the canyon, but fortunately it was getting dark and they came to their senses and turned back.  They came to a stone wall, found an opening in it, and walked across a wide meadow to another stone wall where they found another opening.  It was not wide enough for me to pass and David had to remove many of the stones before I could squeeze through.  By this time Juan could barely stand up from exhaustion and it was getting darker by the minute.  They decided they had no option but to stop and spend the night outdoors, and try to find their way in the morning.   

Pondering their situation, David stood there giving me a quizzical look.  I could see he was thinking that it would be easy to unpack me, but he wasn’t sure they would be able to figure out how to load me up again in the morning.  That did it for me.  I had played along with this folly long enough, but now it was time for me to take things into my own hands. They had not bothered to tie me up yet, so I set off by myself up a path.  David followed me, seeming to sense that I knew what I was doing.  I rounded the crest of a small hill where the trail merged with a larger one.  Up ahead on the right I could see a glowing ember suspended eerily in the night air.  Getting closer I saw it was a Huichol standing motionless holding a burning branch about a hundred feet off the path.  What he was doing there at that time was a mystery (I mentioned that humans are strange).  Juan went up to him and began a conversation with the obvious admission that he was lost.  To my surprise, it turned out that the Huichol recognized Juan, although Juan did not recognize him.  He had stayed at Juan’s house several years before in a place called Guadalajara.  Many Huichol, I knew, made visits outside the mountains when they became sick or for other unknown reasons.  They never took donkeys with them on these trips, but I had listened to all their stories.  I knew that Guadalajara was a huge city inhabited by eight million humans.  In my life I have never seen more than a few dozen humans in one place, and can hardly imagine such a sight.  The smell must be horrendous! 

The Huichol, a man named Antonio, agreed to let the outsiders stay at his house for the night, so he took my rope and led us there.  It was no surprise to me that he lived in the very same house that we had already passed three times before.  I heard David mention that to Juan, but Juan became quite angry and insisted they had never passed by there before.  “All the houses up here look the same!”  he barked. 

The next morning Antonio came and got me and loaded me up with the packs.  He was going to lead us to the ceremonial center, which is called Kieruwitua, but after a short while he simply pointed the way and turned back to go home.  I was worried that they would get lost again, but fortunately they managed to find their way.  Kieruwitua was a two hour hike on the other side of a range of hills from where they had wandered for eight hours the day before, ending up no closer to their destination than when they had begun!  Never before have I had such a dismal experience, but I admit I performed admirably as I felt sorry for these outsiders who were so helpless in the land I know so well.

Once they arrived at the ceremonial site Juan led us to a compound where the eldest of the Huichol elders lived.  He also was a compadre of Juan.  Juan had heard he was very ill, but he wasn’t there.  His son welcomed them and showed them to a small hut where they could stay.  David tied me stupidly to a tree inside the compound, but I did not complain as I was able to amuse myself by devouring choice stalks from the small patch of corn growing nearby.  Soon the son discovered my special treat and took me outside the compound and tied me up on a small knoll from which I could observe all the comings and goings at the ceremonial center.  I was left there alone for two full days, except once when David stopped by and patted me on the neck, a human expression of affection that I do not particularly care for.

I had been to the ceremonial center many times before.  It is like a small village arranged around a central clearing, but no one actually lives there.  It is used only for Huichol ceremonies that take place at certain times of the year  At one corner of the clearing is a large round temple building with a tall thatched roof.  Smaller temples and “god houses” built by individual Huichol surround the circle, along with other small buildings used as communal accommodations by Huichol from outside the immediate area. The center is nestled against a high cliff in a beautiful lush valley surrounded on all sides by mountains with long sweeping ridges punctuated by arrow shaped peaks.  The land is blanketed with oak and pine forests interspersed with meadows covered with wildflowers of many colors and, in the immediate area of the center, corn fields tended by the Huichol who live in the area.  There is no electricity or roads or telephones or any of the other things that belong in civilization.  Humans from civilization are always awed by the feeling of being in a place such as this, where an ancient culture still lives in harmony with the earth.

The Festival of the First Fruits takes place in October at the time of the corn harvest, and must be completed before anyone can partake of the fruits of that harvest.  I have been to several of these festivals and they are quite charming.   It is a family event and the children, who seem very happy, participate in all aspects of the event.  There is drumming, chanting, music and dancing, all of which has a quality of  sweetness and gentleness that I am told is not found in the outside world, where things are very loud, noisy and raucous.  The celebration begins around noon the first day with drumming and chanting.  The children are given rattles and play along for hours.  This is part of their training so they can learn discipline and feel part of the community.  At sunset there is a short break when food is served, including tortillas of all different kinds, guava fruits, and bowls of beef broth.  Then the ceremony moves inside the temple for more chanting, drumming, music and dancing, continuing all night until noon the following day, when there is a ceremony where each person comes to an altar to receive a blessing and a symbolic ration of corn from the new harvest. 

Very few outsiders attend our events, as we do not encourage visitors and in our area there is no such thing as “tourism”.  A human device known as a “camera” is not even allowed in our territory. There were a handful of Mexicans there who had some connection with the Huichol.  One of them was a woman named Patricia Diaz, a friend of Juan who had driven he and David up to the mountains from Guadalajara.  I am told that she also has spent many years working with the Huichol and is quite famous for her work against the use of pesticides in Mexican agriculture.  Of course, here in the Huichol mountains we do not allow pesticides or chemicals of any kind to be used in our cornfields.  Patricia had arrived the day before with a small group of three other Mexicans who are working on a project to increase the stock of deer in the mountains.  I myself have not seen many deer, but to me they are strange animals, keeping to themselves and not wanting to carry packs or do any work.  Patricia and her friends had not gotten lost on the way, nor did they bring any donkeys. 

Besides David there was only one other person from outside Mexico, a shy and mysterious young woman who kept to herself.  After dinner was served Juan sat down next to her and asked where she was from.  “Bosnia” she answered.  Juan asked her opinion of a man named Tito, who I understand had once been the ruler of a country called Yugoslavia that had included Bosnia.  The woman admitted to having a certain respect for him, which seemed to please Juan.  “My grandfather was very good friends with Tito,” Juan smiled.  His grandfather was once the prime minister of Spain, the land from which the conquistadors had come, until he had been forced into exile after losing a civil war against a man named Franco.  Did that make Juan a conquistador?  I think not.  He had spent most of his adult life, over thirty years, working on behalf of the Huichol, “performing service” as he called it, and had something of a legendary status among my people, unique among outsiders.  For this I had to respect him.  He had apparently done much for the Huichol, and he was here to ask their approval to establish a website that would contain pictures and materials about Huichol history and culture.  He wanted to put a computer somewhere in Nueva Colonia so that Huichol could look at the website and learn about their history and traditions.  As a donkey, I do not understand websites or computers or why one would need to be reminded that they have a history.

Juan asked the woman from Bosnia why she was there.  She stated that the year before she had taken peyote and had not felt well since.  Peyote I know is a plant that humans like to consume at their ceremonies, although at this festival there did not seem to be very much of it.  It has to be gathered in the desert to the east, and the Huichol conduct pilgrimages there in the spring to collect it.   “Do you know about brujos?”  she asked Juan.  Juan thought for a minute before answering.  “Yes, there were once men who were considered witches, but they were not really witches.  They were accused of that by the Catholic church, but it was done only to persecute them and it was not true.”   Apparently Juan scorns the Catholic church and their leader, the Pope, but this was not the information the woman was seeking.  Someone had advised her to find a mixed blood medicine man, a brujo, who could cure her and that was why she was here.  Juan disagreed with this advice.  “The mestizos do not know as much as the Huichol,” he counseled.  “Before taking peyote, the Huichol say that you must perform a fast, and you must also confess your sexual sins, not in private like the Catholics do, but in public for everyone to hear.  That is probably what is causing your physical problems, that you have not confessed your sexual sins.”   David was sitting next to Juan and I could see him wrinkle his brow, concerned that the woman might think that Juan was inviting her to confess to him forthwith, but Juan reassured her that this was not the case.  “Of course, you should not take peyote tonight because you have eaten,” Juan concluded,  The woman thanked him sincerely for his advice, and that was the last I saw of her.

After the final ceremony, Juan and David decided to leave the site with Patricia and the other Mexicans.  I was loaded up with the packs and we headed up the switchback trail that led back up the mountain to Nueva Colonia.  Juan had been given some peyote and most of the group consumed some on the way up.  Juan claimed the Huichol used it to help them walk long distances, but I had never noticed that the Huichol needed any help in order to walk.  The ascent only took about an hour.  At the top was parked the truck in which Patricia had come and everyone began to pile in, except David.  “Get in,” Patricia urged,  “we can pull the donkey from inside the truck.”  David refused.  “No, I have too much respect for this donkey and we’ve developed too much of a bond for me to allow him to be dragged along behind a truck,” he said.  Personally, it didn’t really matter to me, but I guess humans are prone to grandiose gestures.  “I will walk behind the truck with the donkey,” he insisted.  

David didn’t realize that we were still an hour and a half from my home.  He seemed puzzled that I was in no hurry, and even though I no longer had my load, he still had to exert the same effort to pull me along behind him.  He didn’t understand that for a donkey, load or no load, there is never a hurry.  Time is something that only humans concern themselves with.  Nonetheless, David seemed to enjoy the walk.  It was just before sunset and the dirt road took us along the beautiful mountain-top plateau with its lush meadows and forests.  Eventually Patricia got out and walked with us.  A Huichol woman came towards us out of a field carrying only a small basket with a few ears of corn.  She was wearing a colorful traditional dress and I could tell that the outsiders were awed by her beauty. “Do you know where we can find the ranch of Juan Garcia?” Patricia asked.  We were very near by now.  The woman waved across the field in the correct general direction, then admired the scarf that Patricia was wearing.  Patricia immediately took it off and gave it to the woman, who thanked her and walked off down the road.   

My long journey was nearly over.  Although David had led me the entire way, Juan got out of the truck and insisted that it would be better if he delivered me back to my owner.  I raised a bit of a fuss just to be difficult.  My master and his wife were not at home, so we were greeted instead by their eldest daughter.  She was very excited to see such an unusual group of humans and welcomed them warmly.  Juan asked her what my price was for the four days I had served them.  She shrugged a bit, then suggested 50 pesos.  I was a bit insulted, but it meant little to me.  I had performed my duty and my masters would never know the strange details.  Juan suggested we give them a bit more, and David suggested 100 pesos.  Juan balked, thinking it a bit much, but David lied, saying he only had 100 peso bills.

“Does the donkey have a name?”  Patricia asked.  Again a shrug.  It was not customary for us donkeys to have a name.  “Well then we shall name him Juan!”  Patrica exclaimed.  “Yes, Juan Negrin!”  David added.  My master’s daughter grinned.  That was fine with her.  I stood there silently watching it all, feigning disregard, as the outsiders walked off giddily on their way back to civilization.

And so this is the story of how I, a humble donkey from the Huichol mountains of Mexico, was given my name.

Website of the Wixarika Research Center

Website of Patricia Diaz–The Huichol and Pesticides

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~ by PB on December 11, 2007.

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