The Shoeless Mexicans Vs. The Flying Finn


It is much too early to know who will represent Mexico in the long-distance races at the next Olympic games, but if they should finally choose one of my Tarahumara paisanos from the high sierras of Chihuahua, I am willing to bet five pesos even money that Mexico will win the marathon. As a matter of fact, I’ll raise the ante to ten pesos if the Olympic officials will kindly consent to make all competitors run in their bare feet.

The Tarahumaras will probably run barefoot anyway, because no decent, self-respecting Indio would demean himself by wearing sissified, toepinching shoes in a footrace.

In Denver, where I lived, my father had told me all he knew about the Tarahumaras. “They live in the most remote highlands of Chihuahua,” he said. “And they run through those mountains like wild deer. Most of their fiestas are climaxed by longdistance races that last several hours, vast numbers of barefoot men and women running through thick pine forests and wide-open plateaus, curiously able to inhale and exhale that sharp, thin, oxygen-scarce mountain air without keeling over.”

He told me much more about them, about their hunting and warring, about their culture, and about their strange, aloof stoicism. Since I am at least half Tarahumaran (most of us Mexicans have a considerable mixture of Indian blood), I have developed an unabashed, though admittedly chauvinistic, pride. The Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Zapotecs, all of whom I have claimed as ancestral kin on other occasions and for other reasons, were brilliant scholars, artists, and craftsmen; but none of them were ever as fleet-footed as my legendary predecessors the Tarahumaras.

My first encounter with them occurred in the late twenties when I saw a group of them competing against the great Paavo Nurmi in a 10,000meter race in Los Angeles. A local impresario had heard about the amazing running ability of the Indian mountain-dwellers and forthwith decided to stage one of those perennial race-ofthe-century extravaganzas. (I dimly remember the same impresario’s sponsorship of a ioo-yard dash between an ex-Olympic sprinter and a well-known racehorse.) In any event, he quickly contracted for the rather inexpensive services of four Tarahumara runners and then pulled what must have been a very cool coup: he persuaded Nurmi to run against them. He couldn’t have picked a more sensational opponent. The durable Finnish champion had won gold medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics (5,000 meters) and in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics (10,000 meters), winning them with such runaway power and speed that he was soon acclaimed the number-one sports figure throughout the world.


The news spread like mild fire through most of jaded southern California (“Never heard of them other guys”), but in the shabby barrios of East Los Angeles it was the most electrifying event since the death of Pancho Villa. I happened to be visiting my Uncle Melchor, a part-time featherweight boxer whose interest in sports was all-embracing, and it was his enthusiasm for the Tarahumaras that inflamed my passion.

Hundreds of relatives and compadres poured into the city several days early, occupying every spare cot or couch in our Chicano ghetto, many of the younger ones doubling up with their local cousins. They had all come to cheer like mad for their four countrymen. The Tarahumaras were —let there be no doubt about it—the alter egos of the thousands of indigent and victory-starved Mexicans who lived in East Los Angeles, which was considered a not very affluent suburb of Mexico. Through sheer fervent hope they somehow managed to create a sense of triumph in the air.

Poor Paavo Nurmi—that magnificent unbeaten Olympic champion whose name was almost sacred in his native Finland—was taking an awful trouncing on the chalk-scribbled sidewalks and fences of our neighborhood. OLE! IARAHUMARA! was written everywhere, while Nurmi’s name was nowhere in sight. How could he possibly win? We were all asking ourselves that very question on the morning of the big event. It was a bright, clear, smogless day (remember this is 1929), and the skies were full of promise and yo no se que . My cousin Pablo and I, unable to bear the tension of waiting at home until post time, took our leave immediately after breakfast.

The contest was to be staged in the Ascot Stadium—it’s no longer there—and the area outside the main entrance was densely cluttered with makeshift booths and open stands that were selling hot dogs, tacos, popcorn, pink cotton candy, soda pop, souvenirs, pennants, big red balloons, group photos of the Mexican runners, and several other items I can no longer remember. Suffice it to say they were a sore temptation for a ten-year-old boy with only ten cents to spend for extras. I carried the two quarters for my admission ticket in my right pants pocket and the thin extra dime in my left pocket, jiggling it against an old nail I carried for good luck. There’s no point in creating false suspense: I frittered away thirty-five cents within the next three hours and found myself in an almost tearful panic when the gates finally opened an hour before the show.