Guadalajara Feature

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The Struggle of the Huichol

The Huichol (WEE-chol) Indians' true name is Wirraritari, or "people who populate places of thorny plants." It's a fitting name for this hardy and reclusive group, whose independence has helped them preserve their traditions better than many of Mexico's native communities. (As a measure of their isolation, some Huichol communities only had electricity installed in 2003.) To outsiders, the most notable among Huichol traditions is the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus fruit, in complex spiritual ceremonies. Huichol artists also create remarkable "paintings" by pressing colorful beads or yarn onto wood molds smeared with sap.

The Huichol fiercely resisted Spanish—and later Mexican—intrusion; nowadays most live in northern Jalisco, southern Nayarit, and Zacatecas, in a remote 592,800-acre reservation established in 1953. In recent years, however, the ownership and boundaries of some Huichol lands, much of it rented out to farmers and cattle breeders, have come under dispute. The conflict hasn't been peaceful, with allegations of human rights violations perpetrated by Nayarit police as well as by the current "tenants." In the mid-1990s, after a long investigation, Mexico's Human Rights Commission (CEDH) corroborated many of the Huichol allegations, and a recent constitutional amendment affirmed the autonomy of the Huichol and other indigenous communities within Mexico. But problems continue—there remains intense pressure to develop some Huichol lands, and the Mexican Army, in its highly visible war on drugs, has arrested Huichol coming back from religious pilgrimages in the San Luis Potosi desert, where they collect peyote.

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