SWC music student earned a place of honor with Mexico’s mystical Huichol People
By Albert H. Fulcher
Published: Thursday, December 4, 2008
“What am I doing here?” thought Arinda Caballero.
Standing there with a few companions, she saw the rugged terrain of the upper Sierra Madre Occidental. Surrounded by rocky desert terrain and dense pockets of forest she felt as if the terrain was daring her to travel further.
It had been a long journey to this point, a flight from Tijuana to Guadalajara followed by a seemingly endless drive through Nayarit to the small village of Mesquite. There was a two-day wait for a driver to go further up into the mountains. Enduring the rough ride up the mountainside, they could drive no more. Now they were traveling by mule.
Meet Arinda Caballero, artist, dancer and well-known Mexican jazz singer. Just a few weeks earlier her life filled with the hustle and bustle of singing, traveling from venue to venue and building her career. She was living all of the things that she had always dreamed.
Living her dream, however, had a price. Even in all the glow of her recent successes, chaos had become a daily companion both in her career and in personal life. Demands were draining her of who she was and she suffered inside knowing where she was heading.
“This is not where I expected to be at this time in my life,” said Arinda. “I knew I had to find a way to regain the control of my life and career. I could smell the breeze of change in the air around me.”
Caballero did not hesitate when a friend offered her the opportunity to go teach art to children of the Cora tribe in Nayarit state and the upper northwestern corner of Jalisco. Funding for this project was provided by grant through the Mexican government.
“I knew instantly that this was the change I had been looking for,” she said.
Armed by her mother with an arsenal of equipment and anything she thought could protect her daughter from the elements, Caballero began her journey. This would be a good trip for her and she would not be gone long enough that her career would suffer.
“Standing in the middle of nowhere, I became overwhelmed at the power of the surrounding Sierra Madres,” said Caballero. “With no one in sight to meet us I knew that I was out of my element.”
Her escape to refuge had become a fear-provoking path into the unknown.
After what seemed an eternity of reflection, guides did show. Caballero and her group were led to the local Cora village.
Cora is an old civilization, more than 2,000 years old. Maintaining much of its prehispanic culture, religious beliefs and languages, they avoided governmental control centuries after the Spanish colonization and the conquering of the Aztecs.
“I had an advantage over my American and European companions when working with the tribe because I am Mexican,” said Caballero. “My fluent Spanish helped me in communication with the tribe and I was able to learn their language quickly.”
There were many barriers to overcome. Rules she had to live by were strict. As an outsider and a woman, she was not allowed in many areas of the village. To view or participate in many of the daily rituals of the Cora people was not allowed. They permitted her to keep her camera equipment, but it was put away and could never be used.
Caballero worked with the children sharing her artistic talents. She spoke to the children in their native tongue and they would travel through the landscape daily together gathering indigenous materials to work with.
“I found great joy in the presence of the children,” said Caballero. “I felt like Julie Andrews in the ‘Sound of Music’ as the children and I danced and sang our way through the mountains looking for art supplies.”
Happy in this mystifying place she saw the Cora as an amazing people. Little by little, they allowed her to interact more in the tribe’s customs and rituals.
People of the Cora found great entertainment in her singing and dancing. Her jazz and freestyle dancing were new to them, and her attempt in learning their music and dance was met with laughter and teasing. Caballero said she did not mind. She felt honored to be there and fed off the simplicity of their culture.
On one particular evening, Cora from many tribes gathered. Caballero was asked to dance in ceremony and immediately caught the eye of one of the other tribe’s leaders. Through the course of the evening, he decided that Caballero was to be his new wife. He had his people capture her.
“I felt hopeless and lost,” she said. “I had no idea how I would get out of this delicate situation”
Her colleagues and the tribe quickly collected bribes to offer to the leader. They used liquor and tobacco to distract him long enough to grab Caballero and bring her to safety. This resulted in anger and discourse between the tribes.
“Eventually government intervention was required,” said Caballero. “Explaining to them why it was unacceptable to take me in this manner was a difficult task. Taking of a wife was a common practice in their culture.”
Eventually all was smoothed over and Caballero returned to her teaching.
After working with the children for six months, Caballero became comfortable in her surroundings. Yet she knew there was something more.
“I knew that I was being carefully watched,” said Caballero.
With this feeling relentlessly at her side she wondered whether it was by the tribe, or the government. Perhaps all of them were watching her. This concerned her and once again, she could smell the breeze of change coming in the mountain air.
During the middle of the night, without warning, Caballero found herself being covered with a blanket and dragged out of her dwelling away from the village. Fear gripped her to the point of helplessness. She wondered if she were being claimed as a wife once again or worse. These things raced through her thoughts as she was led in darkness. Finally, the blanket was removed. She looked at the men standing before her.
“I knew these people and had seen them before,” said Caballero. “Bright colored clothing and the different arrays of feathers that they ornamented was a distinct sign of who they are. They are the Huichol Indians. I had seen them in the village from time to time and out in some of my excursions. They live much deeper in the Sierra Madres in the state of Jalisco. I did not know what they wanted, but at least the fear had left me.”
Looking into the eyes of the leader she felt that her life was about to be forever changed.
In front of her stood a shaman with both arms out and closed fisted. He slowly opened his hands to show Caballero what he possessed. In one hand he held corn kernels, plump and ripe, prime for food and seed. In the other were kernels of much lower quality, fodder for cattle, of poorer quality.
“This corn we plant for the government,” said the shaman. “Good seed is what the government takes and we are left with the bad seed to feed our families. What are you going to do about it?”
Caballero instantly recognized the injustice. She spoke to them about her work for the government and that it only had to do with the teaching of the Cora children. She had no knowledge or control over what the government did with the Huichol.
They had been watching her closely working with the Cora children and accepted her truth. Sensing her honesty and her compassion, they asked her to come to their village to work with their own children
“I made a pact with the Huicholes that night,” said Caballero. “If they would shelter, feed and meet my immediate needs for survival then I would quit my grant work with the government, go to their village for a time, and teach their children as I had been doing with the Cora.”
They told her that in three days a plane would come for her at the Jesús María River and bring her to their village in Jalisco.
Caballero said goodbye to the Cora children and their people, her companions and to her paycheck from the government. Three days later, she was waiting by the river with all of her things to accompany the Huicholes to their village. This time was much different. She was alone and headed further into the harsh territory. As she looked across the region, the nature around her was no longer daring her to enter.
“It was beckoning me to come further,” said Caballero. “To see what more this miraculous place on earth had to offer. My heart spoke softly. I was not alone and magnificent things were waiting for me in the horizon of the mountains.”
A small plane came, just as the Huichol had said. Filled to capacity with turkeys and chickens Caballero was thankful when they landed and she saw the striking faces of the Huichol that were there to greet her.
Huichol are a peaceful people, she said. Their origin is not completely known and there are many theories of their beginnings. Their culture today has been handed down through the centuries and dates to pre-Columbian times. Uto-Aztecan is their native language and Spanish is their secondary tongue. They withstood the Spanish colonial invasions and warring tribes by retreating to the remote regions. Here they kept their beliefs and practices untouched until the intrusion of civilization brought strangers into their region.
“Huichol call themselves the healers of the Earth,” said Caballero. “Religious ceremonies and traditions, even down to the clothes they wear reflect their respect for all of the earth. They worship their ancestors and pray to the elements of fire, earth, water and air. Every living creature, plant and even the earth that they live on is one, each with its own purpose blending together life. Corn, deer and the peyote are the holy trinity.”
Upon her arrival, the leaders of the village rummaged through all of the things that she had brought. By the time they were done all she had left where her clothes and a swiss pocket knife. They allowed her to keep her camera, but under no circumstance was she to use it.
Caballero had been through this before. Rituals, meeting places and sacred areas were places she was not allowed to see. She understood that this might change as trust was established between them. Caballero began her work with the children of the Huichol.
“I was astonished with these people who showed such love, care and commitment to their children and elders,” said Caballero.
This simplicity and devotion soothed her. Huichol are not slaves of time. Day begins with the sun and it ends with the sun. As the sun goes down the tribe gathers as the elders tell stories of their history and pass along centuries of knowledge to the young that will one day take their place. She had much to learn and began finding her place within their society.
A special interest in Caballero was taken to the lead shaman, Chelino, a powerful and wise man.
In his first meeting with Caballero, he grabbed her by the head and gazed steadily into her eyes. “I felt his existence as it passed through my entire body, mind and soul,” said Caballero. “He spoke of my mother and father, my grandparents and great-grandparents.”
His detailed knowledge of her family and its history was mystical to her. He even spoke of things to come. His interest with Caballero developed into a peculiar friendship.
“Chelino affectionately calls me la latina gringa,” said Caballero. “I found this peculiar at first as I am Mexican, but I understood the reality of my place in their culture. I was la latina gringa in their land.”
Caballero worked with the children of the Huichol as she did with Cora. Devoting her time and energy into the children, she slowly gained trust and respect. Eventually she was allowed to sit at night with the tribe and listen to the stories. Her dancing and singing once again brought her to a place where the people enjoyed her company and closer into the purity of the tribe. She had no idea how long she would stay and became at ease in their land and ways.
“I was happy, content and loving the work I was doing there. The emptiness in my life when I began slowly began to be filled with the lives of the Huichol,” said Caballero
After working with the children for a year, one day Chelino and the others showed up at her door. Standing there, in their best fashion and decorated with all of the colorful feathers, something important was taking place.
Chelino looked at her and said, “I know you have a camera.”
Caballero, at first worried, defensively told him that her camera had been tucked away and never brought out during her stay. Chelino knew this and assured her that she had gained great respect among the leaders of the people as she had willingly obeyed the laws. He was extending her invitation to a holy site. Many shaman from around the world would be meeting. They asked her to bring her camera, document the pilgrimage and give them the photographs. Caballero was proud and excited to be included in such a holy ritual.
Higher into the mountains they traveled. She wondered if she could make it but followed willingly as they traveled the jagged terrain. As night started falling, they reached the sacred place.
“Individual camps surrounded the lake,” she said. “To this day this place is the most spiritual place I had ever witnessed. I was free to roam from camp to camp. Gathered were shamans from all tribes of the Sierra Madre, Mexico, America, South America and even Africa.”
Caballero’s relationship with the Huichol people grew stronger after the gathering. She spent many hours speaking with Chelino and the elders of the village. Chelino spoke to Caballero of the white man often.
“We dance on the earth to bring healing, balance and harmony,” Chelino would say. “The white man dances to the dollar. White man is disconnected from the earth. They deplete the earth of its resources without regard and have wars over money and land. The only good thing the white man has done is Coca-Cola.”
“Huichol people revere Coke as it gives them energy on the long walk,” said Caballero. “I knew that he spoke the truth and sadly, had to agree with him.”
One day, as Caballero gathered with Chelino and the elders, she was asked an odd question.
“What do you think of the women in our village?” asked Chelino.
Caballero hesitated in her answer, afraid of insulting them. She knew that she could not lie to them so she decided to be as candid as she could.
“I respect the women in the village, and the work that they do for their family and the tribe is honorable,” she said. “But I could never be one of them. I am unable to submit myself to men as they do and due to my culture I could never be one of many wives to a man.”
Chelino thought carefully about her words.
“This is understood with us,” he said. “From this day on with us you will live as a man. You will work in the fields, you will hunt in the forest and you will dance and pray with the men in ceremony.”
Caballero still taught her children, but began working with the men in the fields. They taught her the way of the revered corn. They gave her a bow and began teaching her the way of the forest and the hunt. Huichol hunt animals out of necessity of life and ritual. White tail deer is sacred and their blood is a sacrifice to the earth. They weep, pray and mourn whenever they have to kill. They never take anything from the earth without leaving an offering in its place.
Caballero learned of the sacred peyote plant. Huicholes are referred to as the Peyote People. “Regardless of age or gender, all tribe members eat the peyote plant,” said Caballero. “It is used in rituals to bring vision and clarity in the harmony of the earth. Women of the village eat peyote and interpret their visions in their beaded art and woven pieces. Warriors eat peyote to sustain their bodies with water and nourishment on their long pilgrimages through the rugged terrain.”
Caballero was in her second year with the Huichol now, and daily became more a part of the people. Once again, early in the morning, she was greeted at her door with the men adorned in their feathers. Something important was happening.
“Today you will travel with us,” said Chelino.
Gathering only her water sack and bow, Caballero went with the men this day. They never told her where they were headed and she had no idea of how long the journey would be. They walked all day, through the terrain of the mountains. They walked in order with Chelino leading the way and la latina gringa at the end of the line. As the day went, it was difficult for Caballero to keep up with the men. At the setting of the sun on the first day of their journey the men’s pace in front of her went faster and faster. Caballero did her best to keep up with the men, but as darkness fell, she saw the last of the Huichol men in front of her disappear into the night. She was alone, in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Suddenly fear came alive.
“There was much for me to worry about in the highlands at night. This region is full of poisonous snakes, scorpions and wild cats, the largest being the jaguar. It was late. I was cold, hungry, lost and afraid,” said Caballero.
Remembering her teachings Caballero decided not to travel any further into the night. She could not see well enough to know if she would walk off the side of the mountain and could not distinguish the terrain in front of her. Caballero found a bed of dry leaves. She lay there covered with leaves for warmth, said a prayer for her safety and eventually fell asleep. She slept hard. She was exhausted and her body was depleted.
A brush of sunlight awoke Caballero the next morning. Surviving the night alone had brought back her self-reliance. She could hunt with her bow. By now, she had learned to forage for worms and grubs, and believed she could find something for food. Looking around her, she saw that she had slept on a high peak with a sharp decline into a large valley. She sat down on a rock and the beauty of the sun rising through the mountains overwhelmed her.
“The land did more than that,” said Caballero. “It engulfed me. For the first time I truly understood what the Huichol had been teaching me. In that moment, I was one with the earth. Every rock, plant and animal was living and breathing. Air, fire, earth and water were a part of me. Peace, harmony and balance were my companion. I spent the morning with God.”
As Caballero looked at her surroundings, she noticed the valley below her. Down at the base there was a small river of sweet water and a grove of peaches on its far shore.
“I was in paradise,” said Caballero. “I decided to stay at this place for a while. I drank from the river and fed off the luscious peaches. For three days I bathed in this piece of earth, the worry of being lost was forgotten.”
When Caballero awoke on the fourth day there stood Huichol men that she had never seen before. Telling them her story of how she was lost from the tribe, they spoke barely a word. Asking them for help, they told her to follow them. She quickly gathered water from the river and stuffed peaches in every part of her clothing that would hold them. They took Caballero to a road that forked into three directions. They told her to follow the sun. She looked at the roads and the sun and then pointed to the fork on the left. They nodded, and then left.
Caballero traveled down this road all day. Then as quickly as they had disappeared from her sight, they were there again. Chelino and the rest of the men were coming up the path. They were not far from home and they completed the journey in silence.
Chelino called for Caballero. She told him of her days missing, what she had learned and experienced. By this time, figuring out that they purposely left her behind, she never threw an accusation. She spoke only of the earth and her spiritual union with it. Chelino was pleased.
Meet Arinda Caballero, artist, dancer, jazz singer, teacher and Huichol warrior.
Caballero is now Huichol. She possesses the same rights and responsibilities as any in the tribe. No longer forbidden from sacred places and rituals the earth is her home and the Huichol are her family.
Caballero lived with the Huichol for three years before deciding that it was time to leave. Filled with life of the Huichol the void that was once there is now gone. Herself in balance, she knew she had much more to offer in her life and her career.
Caballero is now ambassador of the Huichol people and their precious culture that is in so much danger of becoming eliminated. Huicholes are in constant battle to keep their land, their rights and to protect their ageless traditions.
“Chelino and I are still in contact,” said Caballero. “Through phone, writing and my dreams we are constantly in communication. Chelino and some of the tribe travel here to my home once, sometimes twice a year. Chelino performs healing ceremonies and I help them to raise money desperately needed to aid in keeping their culture intact.”
Caballero’s life is forever redecorated with the existence of the Huichol in her. Her professional career since then has taken her all over the world in dance, song and film. In her art, you can see the Huichol and their visions. In her song, “Hijo de la Tierra” on her album “Oceano” there is a mystical blend of Huichol and Spanish.
Meet Arinda Caballero, student at Southwestern College. Caballero is currently majoring in Mariachi. The word Mariachi is believed to come from the language of the Cora, those she worked with in the beginning of this journey.
“Learn to be at peace with the earth and yourself. Show respect and love for everything and everyone around you,” said Caballero. “Learn the ways of your ancestors and bring back the simplicity of their knowledge and let it be shown in everything that you do. Say a prayer for the Huichol people.”