The Huichol Universe
Published Aug 2, 2007 - (Updated Dec 11, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007 issue.
They are easily spotted at diverse shops around town, painstakingly attaching multi-colored beads to hand-carved wooden sculptures depicting a variety of fantastic creatures. But the sight of a Huichol artist at work in an urban setting such as Puerto Vallarta is but a paltry glimpse into a multifaceted pre-Hispanic culture concealed in the Sierra Madre mountains of northwestern Mexico, where everyday life remains largely unaffected by Western civilization and time stands still.
Considered to be the last tribe in North America to maintain pre-Hispanic traditions, the Huichol ancestry can be traced back approximately 3,500 years to the Aztecs, by way of the Olmec from south-central Mexico and the Hopi Indians from Arizona. A peaceful people, they have no known history of war, a fact that can only be corroborated through assiduous research, for the Huichol have no written language. And it is thanks to their commitment to oral tradition that they have been able to hold on to their spiritual beliefs and societal structure, while other Mexican tribes succumbed to the Spanish oppression that began in the 1500s.
An attempt was made by the Mexican government during the 1960s, through the National Indian Institute, to encourage the Huichol to migrate to cities such as Guadalajara, Tepic and Mexico City so that their culture would be assimilated. A landing strip was built near the Huichol community of San Andres Cohamiata, Jalisco, introducing bilingual (Spanish and Wixarika, their native language) schools and modern healthcare into their lives. However, the program was deemed a failure.
Most tribe members who left the safety of their homes, sold their cattle, and moved to the city, quickly ran out of money. Unable to return to the mountains due to a lack of funds or acceptance by those who remained there, they started schools in urban areas, where they were encouraged to create art, thus bringing their artistic heritage into Mexico’s mainstream. Approximately 8,000 Huichol remain scattered throughout the Sierra Madre mountains, while it is estimated that 15,000 can be found in urban centers such as Mexico City, Guadalajara and Tepic.
For those who remain in their homeland, the words “basic” and “simple” best describe everyday life. Dwellings in a Huichol village traditionally consist of single-room homes where cooking, sleeping and dining all take place. The homes are built of stone or brick, joined with a mixture of mud and dry leaves, making them comfortable in both cold and hot weather, while roofs are built with a bamboo structure and dry palm leaves. Furniture is sparse, and it is not unusual to find cribs and bamboo shelves suspended from the ceiling to protect newborns from scorpion bites and food from animals, respectively.
Although they are primarily known to us for their art — the aforementioned beaded sculptures, intricate yarn paintings, woven textiles and some clay work — the Huichol are dirt farmers. Corn is at center stage not only as a source of nourishment; it is one of their main deities, along with deer and peyote, a kind of cactus known for its psychotropic effects used heavily by the Huichol as part of their religious practice.
With the goodness of the land being so intimately connected to their religious beliefs, it is no surprise that most of the Huichol life, festivities and pilgrimages revolve around the yearly cycles of their corn fields. Religious celebrations serve an important social function, allowing the initiation of young children into community life, and are used to reflect upon nature’s revolving cycles. Along the same lines, deer hunting becomes more of a celebratory ritual than a simple hunt, with a series of rules included. For example, two people in love, by definition, would never be able to catch the deer, so they are forbidden from the hunt.
The PuertoVallarta Connection
All forms of Huichol art were originally produced as prayer offerings to their gods. While this is still the case today, several people and places were instrumental in introducing these offerings as an art form in Puerto Vallarta and the world. Essential to bringing the Huichol into the Puerto Vallarta limelight was author Peter R. Collins, a Westerner who lived among them for decades. In his book “The Huichol of Mexico,” Collins introduced us to a beautifully photographed glimpse into their lives. Fifteen years ago, Galeria Piramide, owned by the Avelar family of Puerto Vallarta, introduced Huichol art. And while the Huichol have been producing basic bowls used in ceremonial offerings, along with their textiles, for quite some time, it was not until the 1970s that US anthropologist Susana Valadez inspired Huichol artists to incorporate modern beads to their carved wood figures and to further beautify their ceremonial bowls.
Galeria Piramide, still at its Basilio Badillo St. location, continues to be one of the most important venues where this beautiful work can be enjoyed and purchased, joined by other fine shops, such as Kevin Simpson’s Peyote People (Juarez 222, El Centro). A Huichol authority, Simpson has patiently earned the trust of several communities, who have embraced him, entrusting him with the sale of their carefully selected artifacts. Susana Valadez also remains fully committed to the Huichol through her Huichol Center. Located in Huejuquilla El Alto, Jalisco, the Huichol Center strives to support the continuance of their native traditions, preserving their cultural patrimony for future Huichol generations and the world at large. Some Huichol artists, such as yarn painter Jose Benitez Sanchez, have obtained commercial success and are highly sought after by international art collectors.
Up Close and Personal
If you are intrigued by the Huichol and their fascinating culture, there are several expeditions available from Puerto Vallarta that will take you to them. During the winter months, Vallarta Adventures organizes air expeditions to San Andres Coamihata, Jalisco, an important Huichol religious center, allowing you to closely experience their way of life. Puerto Vallarta Tours organizes a similar experience by bus. Pursue either of these options and you’ll truly appreciate having experienced one of Mexico’s hidden treasures.
For a closer look at the images produced for this article, please click on the link below to watch a slide show featuring authentic Huichol music.