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The Shoeless Mexicans Vs. The Flying Finn

June 2024
5min read

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.

Should I try to sneak in? Back in Denver I had sometimes sneaked into the Zaza Theatre by walking in backward when the spectators of the previous performance were coming out, easily losing myself in the shuffle. But here there would be no crowds leaving the stadium until after the race was over. Obviously I would have to devise a method more suited to these particularly difficult circumstances. I was still pondering the matter with anxious concern when the four Indians arrived in a taxi, and in a flash of piercing brilliance I found the answer to my problem—I would simply attach myself to the Tarahumaras and pretend I was with them.

Quickly moving into their collective shadow, a short stride behind, I followed the Indians up a long ramp and into a narrow performers’ entrance. I was well beyond the door when one of the guards grabbed my arm. “I’m the mascot,” I blurted. He hesitated a moment, but when he noticed my thick-lensed gringo spectacles, his face registered the flattest No I have ever seen. That’s when I offered him my quarter, a crude out-and-out bribe, which he took with a most unseemly haste. The Depression had hit East Los Angeles several months before it struck Wall Street, and he doubtless needed every cent he could get. “Now scram!” he snarled; then in a whisper, “And thanks, kid.”

So there I was, safely ensconced in the grandstand, flat broke but incredibly happy. In my frenzied expectation, however, I paid no attention to the preliminary events. It was the Tarahumaras and Paavo Nurmi who were the only genuine attraction, and the whole crowd felt the same way.

Finally the barefoot Tarahumaras loped out of a dugout and onto the track, thereby causing the loudest human noises I had ever heard. There was total bedlam in the Ascot Stadium. When it had finally subsided, Paavo Nurmi came on the scene and nodded briefly at the crowd, knowing full well that it was a somewhat partisan gathering. He seemed cool and self-possessed, however, every inch the champion. But as they all approached the starting line Nurmi momentarily lost his cool when he took his first good look at his bronze-skinned opponents—one was a teen-age girl, and they were all barefoot.

The starter’s gun sent the Tarahumaras off at a brisk lope, Nurmi trailing them at a discreet distance. He was obviously going to pace himself, run his own race as he had always done. The crowd somehow sensed that he was holding back and uneasily restrained their applause for the pace-setting Indians during that first phase. But when the Tarahumaras began to stretch their lead after several laps, the OLES and BRAVOS broke out in increasing number and volume. Someone began a chant that soon caught on and literally shook the wooden rafters ofthat rickety stadium:

The Indians’ lead widened a bit more. Then Nurmi, who had been running with a steady, monotonous rhythm, suddenly exploded into a furious burst of speed that stunned all of us—especially the Tarahumaras. He caught up with them in just a few seconds and flashed past them to build up a huge lead before they realized what had happened. It was a marvelous hell-bent-for-glory sprint, his well-muscled legs churning the air with powerful loping strides that reminded me of a racehorse. Nurmi knew what most of us did not know—that this was the last lap—and he was merely following his usual formula.

He won, of course, and by a considerable margin, but he nearly collapsed after blazing past the victory tape. His trainers were crouched over him as the Tarahumaras crossed the finish line and continued running for another lap around the track. One of the officials, apparently not knowing how to speak Spanish, finally made them realize with sign language that the race was over—that Paavo Nurmi had beaten them.

We were a sad, disheartened people that evening. And what made matters worse was the fact that Paavo means “turkey” in Spanish. We had been licked by a mere turkey.

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