‘Run Free’: A romanticized view of a native people

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RUN FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF CABALLO BLANCOIn a canyon deep in the Sierra Tarahumara of Northern Mexico, a lanky American nicknamed “Caballo Blanco” organized what Christopher McDougall describes in his popular book “Born to Run” as “The Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”

Now, a new film, “Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco,” directed and written by Sterling Norlen, 2015 (Noren Films) offers another view of the race and the indigenous people who run it, the Rarámuri.

In Durango the film opened on April 28 to a full house of over 200 people. It was introduced as a film “about running” and the crowd was excited. Afterwards there were lots of comments about “how cool” the Rarámuri were. It had showed in Flagstaff, Ariz., the day before to a crowd of over 300. It was named the best documentary at the 2015 Arizona International Film Festival.

But as an anthropologist who lived in a Rarámuri community, I have a different view. From 1999 to 2001 I stayed in a small Rarámuri rancho in the Batopilas, working on my dissertation on Tarahumara birth. I have returned many times, often for months at a time, and I miss the region sorely when I am not there.

Since the Tarahumara were the focus of my work, I didn’t go out of my way to visit mestizo or gringo tourist towns, so I didn’t get down to Urique, where the Mas Locos running race is held.

Since the publication of “Born to Run” in 2009, several of us anthropologists who lived among the Tarahumara have become dismayed over the book’s portrayal of the Rarámuri. Now comes this film, already winning awards.

Remember: this is a documentary about a white male runner, Micah True – not the Tarahumara.

I met True in Batopilas in the late 1990s. On occasions I ran into him in Creel, but we inhabited different spheres, and I was not a close friend of his.

The movie does a nice job portraying True’s life through extensive interviews with him and his friends. We learn that he changed his name early in life, to reflect his philosophy; that he was a prize-fighting boxer, but didn’t want to talk about it. He travelled extensively in Southern Mexico and Central America, picking up the name Caballo Blanco in Guatemala, since he ran with his long blonde hair streaming in the sunshine.

True met the Tarahumara runners in 1994 in Leadville, Colo., when they were there to run the 100-mile race. We learn why True wanted to start the Copper Canyon Mas Locos 50 race, and how he felt about it becoming commercialized.

The last interviews with him are bittersweet – filmed only weeks before he died. True’s death is covered in an honorable and sensitive way, and this story of one runner’s life is touching.

Yes, “Run Free” is compelling and interesting – a character sketch of a man seeking something beyond American life and culture. A traveller who came of age in the ’60s, and wholeheartedly adopted the free-wheeling lifestyle and philosophy of those times.

What happens after he meets the Tarahumara runners is where McDougall picks up the story in “Born to Run,” and what “Run Free” seeks to clarify. Several runners interviewed in the movie, such as Luis Escobar and Scott Jurek, state that being around the Rarámuri changed their lives. (Sadly, no one in the film manages to pronounce “Rarámuri” correctly, including True.) The Rarámuri did change True’s life (they changed mine) and in the Sierra Madre, True finally found the peace and love he was looking for. While this was good for him, the repercussions of his engagement with the Rarámuri and their canyons remain to be seen.

I say this because, unfortunately, just as in “Born To Run,” the information about the Tarahumara in “Run Free” is frequently mistaken, even grossly incorrect. The Tarahumara as seen in this film are products of True’s vision, just as the Rarámuri in “Born to Run” are products of McDougall’s.

We hear interviews with mestizos in Urique, who are delighted about the commercial success of Caballo’s Copper Canyon race, because it brings in much-needed cash through tourism. We hear from Caballo, his girlfriend, other runners and locals, but we don’t hear from the Tarahumara. Interestingly, we don’t even hear any Rarámuri language in the film, and some of the translations of Rarámuri words are incorrect.

For instance, True translates “Rarámuri” as “people who run,” but this is an oversimplification, frequently used in promotional materials. The word variously refers to footprint, running, or ray of light, turtle, speed, and so on. The Rarámuri language is metaphoric and meaning is often derived from the context. Tarahumara and Rarámuri are used interchangeably. The canyon region is called the Sierra Tarahumara, and most people I knew called themselves Rarámuri. Perhaps “people who run” is an easy translation for people who like to run themselves and want to romanticize this indigenous group’s practices.

What is disturbing to me is why this is the thing about the Tarahumara that gets our attention – running. Yes, we want to hear about good stuff. Freedom, joy and sharing. But there’s so much more.

We don’t hear about rampant economic exploitation in the name of tourism. Did you know there was a gondola built to the bottom of the Urique canyon, just like the one planned in the controversial Escalade development in the Grand Canyon? The Rarámuri didn’t want it, but it was built anyway.

In the film we don’t hear about the narcos (drug traffickers) who are murdering mestizos and Tarahumara – forcing Rarámuri off their fields with AK 47s. We don’t hear about mestizos illegally logging remote old-growth forests with support from the World Bank, or the Trans Canada pipeline being (illegally) built through Tarahumara communities. We don’t hear about racist attitudes of some mestizos towards the Rarámuri.

We don’t hear about how the traditional rarajipe races in the Sierra are now diminished because evangelical missionaries are converting the Rarámuri in order to prohibit the drinking, gambling and sorcery that goes hand in hand with the races. (We also don’t hear about the gambling, drinking and sorcery that are common features of traditional Tarahumara running events.)

We don’t hear about GoldCorp, the mining company that sponsored Caballo’s 2012 race. We don’t hear about the hard, violent, and economically insecure lives that many Rarámuri live as a result of several hundred years of oppression, racism and exploitation by outsiders.

One scene shows Tarahumara in the 2012 race running alongside people from all over the world. True’s girlfriend says one indigenous man was running to get beans for his family. After the race, Tarahumara line up to receive a bag of beans from Caballo himself. We hear that todos son ganadores, (we are all winners) and that every participant gets some corn.

So people are rushing to “the middle of nowhere” to run “in peace and harmony” with the Rarámuri — most of whom are on the trail not for joy, but to earn a bag of beans. How can such economic disparity be celebrated? Why do we cheer the fact that people pay thousands of dollars to run with indigenous people who are running simply for food?

You don’t “help” a culture by romanticizing them or glorifying one aspect of their lives. You don’t help a culture by making them run 50 miles for a bag of beans and some GMO corn. You don’t help a culture by giving them handouts of jackets and food and congratulating yourselves.

This year the local government and business organizations sponsoring Caballo’s race cancelled it due to nearby violence (a massacre) associated with the drug trade. Some people from other countries who came in for the race ran anyway – for the Rarámuri – for Caballo – for the joy of running. And then, exhilarated by the run, they went home – away from the guns, empty bellies and noble Indians.

“Run Free” is a fine documentary about one man. But it is not about the Rarámuri. Hardly anything about these “amazing runners” in the film is accurate. Run on, yes, in peace and harmony, but when you’re finished, please take a moment to try to understand that when the Rarámuri say they want to “run free” and “be free,” they mean free from us! They want to be free to live in their remote canyons without tourists, mestizos, social workers, runners, developers, anthropologists, tour guides, film-makers, missionaries, movie stars, rock-climbers, and loggers asking them questions, taking their pictures, and giving them handouts.

I once heard a Mexican social worker say that when you ask the Rarámuri what they want, they say, “Go away and leave us alone.”

But will we?

Janneli F. Miller teaches at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

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