Amidst a heat wave, Mexico’s Wixárika people invoke the rain

Each year, this group of Indigenous people – who are scattered across central-western Mexico – go on a pilgrimage to the desert of San Luis Potosí, to ask the gods for water. EL PAÍS accompanies them on this increasingly urgent ritual, in the face of a drought that threatens their culture and their lives

Wixárika pilgrims gather during the ceremony in the Wirikuta desertMartín Maisonave

On the eve of St. John the Baptist day, Mexico is dry. The rains have been delayed and the entire territory is experiencing an intense heat wave. In some states, the temperature exceeds 113 degrees fahrenheit. In the northern highlands of Jalisco – home to several Wixárika communities – the drought has been classified as “severe.” For the Indigenous people of central-western Mexico, the current season isn’t just an uncomfortable season, but a threat that jeopardizes their ancestral culture and their way of life.

From the semi-desert region in the heart of the country, Minjares Valdez Bautista – a primary school teacher and a leader of the Wixárika people – explains to EL PAÍS how the situation is affecting his community of Santa Catarina, in the state of Jalisco: “In the mountains, many cattle are dying… the animals are skinny, there’s a lack of oxygen. If it doesn’t rain, the seeds are at risk, as well as the plants and everything that gives us oxygen.”

Because of this, in 2023, the traditional rain ceremony is undertaken with a particular sense of urgency. Every year, some Wixárika people – also known as Huichols – travel from their towns in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango or Zacatecas to one of their five sacred places: the Wirikuta desert, in the state of San Luis Potosí. According to their worldview, this is where the sun was born. Pilgrimage to this place is a way of renewing the bond they have with their deities and their ancestors. Ceremonies are held and offerings are delivered for “the renewal of life.” This is how the rain cycle is regenerated and harvests are favored.

“The Wixárika people come with their hearts in their hands. Hopefully, the deities will listen to us. If not, we still have to fight, we must not give up, we have to be insistent,” Valdez affirms. He’s also the coordinator of the Regional Council of the Wixárika, the body that organizes the ceremony. “What we want to show our families, plants and animals is that there is life.”

He and other authorities of the Wixárika people – who number more than 80,000, according to the last census – met on Friday, June 23, in Catorce, a municipality in San Luis Potosí. The small town – filled with packed dirt roads and adobe houses – is part of Wirikuta, a region of 350,000 acres, where hundreds of Huichol sanctuaries are concentrated. The Wixárika Council describes their sacred site as the “house of the blue deer [and the] blue flowers that moves the universe since time immemorial; [it’s the] book of books, the sacred library, the matrix altar of life, the garden of the ancestors that illuminates the path of all humanity.”

Wixárikas Día de San Juan
Wixárika pilgrims on the eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptist – the first day of the summer rains Martín Maisonave

Wirikuta is also a megadiverse territory, where most of the species that inhabit the great desert are concentrated. There are hundreds of endemic cacti, which, for thousands of years, have been the sacraments of the Wixárika. The peyote or hikuri (Lophophora Williamsii) is a blue-green cactus plant that acts as the people’s direct means of communication with the gods. The sacred peyote hunt is a central element of the pilgrimage to the desert and of the Wixárika way of life. The consumption of this plant in ceremonial contexts gives them the “gift of seeing.”

The struggle that these Indigenous people have undertaken to protect a territory – which they don’t inhabit, but which forms a fundamental part of their culture – has lasted for more than a decade. Past legal battles have resulted in several mining concessions – which were made to national and foreign companies – to be suspended. But across the territory, there are still threats, mainly due to the accelerated expansion of agro-industrial companies.

Wixárika pilgrims arrive throughout the day in various trucks. They gather at the home of

Eduardo Guzmán – a landholder in the community and one of the main allies that the Wixárika have among the mestizos (Mexicans of mixed Indigenous and Spanish origin). He’s also a member of the Committee for the Care and Defense of Water and one of the founders of the Sincronía Wirikuta collective. Through this charity, hundreds of donations have been received from different parts of the world, to support the transportation costs of participants who attend the ceremony.

Through the organization’s social media channels – for the second year in a row – a call was also launched for “mirror-alters,” which are personal or collective offerings from people who wish to symbolically join the Wixárika prayer. “We’ve raised our voices so that the mirror altars are raised throughout the world… [this will] promote a synchronicity that feeds the conscience of all of humanity to renew the way we relate to nature,” the Council noted in a statement. Several Mexican artists actively support this cause, such as the musician Rubén Albarrán, or the actors Daniel Giménez Cacho and Damián Alcázar. According to Sincronía Wirikuta’s records, between 2022 and 2023, 799 mirror-altars were built on five continents.

The “grandfather fire” – or tatewari – is lit before sunset. Participants gather around it, prepared to spend the whole night awake. Among the Indigenous delegation, there are local politicians, cultural leaders, a communal property commissioner, agrarian authorities, the Council of Elders, the special committee that oversees the sacred sites in Wirikuta, as well as the jicareros – the religious authorities – who hail from different ceremonial centers. Eusebio de la Cruz González and Ambrosio López Díaz are the shamans, or mara’akate: “those who know how to dream.” The latter is also the singing shaman – an intermediary between humans and the spirits of ancestors and deities.

Nearly 80 people – both mestizo and Wixárika pilgrims – surround the fire and the altar, where an incense burner containing resin has been placed next to the offerings. The night progresses between songs, words in the Wixárika language, as well as episodes of crying from the singing shaman. At least a couple of times, Minjares Valdez approaches the mestizos to translate “how the dialogue with the deities progresses.” In a sorrowful voice, he tells EL PAÍS that, this time around, there’s no certainty about the renewal of the world. This has to do with the lack of commitment and unity among the Wixárika, but also among the mestizos.

A group of Christian women from the town of Las Margaritas join the ritual at dawn. They arrive singing, marching in single file to the spot where the ceremony is held. According to their beliefs, they also participate in the collective prayer requesting rain. The ceremonial activities and the delivery of offerings to the deities continue until Saturday afternoon – but this takes place at another site, located an hour away by car: the Hill of the Nose. This is considered to be the gate of Wirikuta – from the top, you can contemplate the immensity of the desert.

Later, the Indigenous authorities meet to draft a pronouncement and communicate the messages received from their “nature deities” – the sun, fire, deer and the grandmothers of the rain and the sea. “They told us about an imbalance affecting the entire planet and warned us that a collapse that endangers life as we know it is almost inevitable. All living ancestors urged us to work together in a ceremonial prayer, to help lift our planet’s wounded energy.”

In the document, they recognize President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for promoting a Justice Plan for the Wixárika people. They also request that this be fulfilled before the end of his administration. The Indigenous authorities also make two specific demands: one, that the sacred character of Wirikuta be recognized and, consequently, that the growth of agro-industrial companies in the region be stopped. They want an end to the planting of tomatoes, the construction of wind farms and the operation of the poultry and pig farms that, they claim, put natural resources and the environment at risk. Two: “that anti-rain technology (hail cannons, which generate shock waves to disrupt the formation of hailstones) be banned forever in the entire region,” because “agribusiness cannot be allowed to prevent rain in the garden of divine wisdom.”

On Sunday, June 25, shortly after the Indigenous authorities began returning to their communities in the Jalisco highlands, the sky above the desert was covered in clouds. Then, the first drops of rain fell in Wirikuta.

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