Disputed territory, A Visit To Akimel O’odham Land

Security in México is a topic I don’t usually talk about; in order to keep myself from falling into hopelessness, I try to focus and highlight the good actions of people. Nevertheless, it’s like a pebble that you always carry in your pocket: you know it’s there, you touch it when you reach for other stuff, and although you are mostly used to it, some days it just decides to poke your leg. Adventure cyclists in the country generally have this factor in consideration at different levels depending on region and other circumstances, so here we’ll go a little over the topic but hey, there are some happy parts in this story too, for good balance.

A couple of weeks ago Karla and I joined a group of slackliners who were in the look for a new spot to set up a highline in the town of Yécora, Sonora, although we were on a different mission: to ride a route known for hosting an annual event consisting of 47 km of dirt roads in the Sierra Madre portion of Sonora. Sitting some 300 km west of our hometown Hermosillo, Yécora is right at the border with the state of Chihuahua, making it a scenario of the battle for territory between rival cartels. It’s the kind of place where you only go if you know someone in town, you wouldn’t just roll in and start asking questions; most likely, you’ll be the one being asked questions. “¿Qué anda haciendo?”- What are you doing?; the men in pickup trucks or motorcycles are very straight forward. Having a local’s name at hand is the best way to be left alone; a vague answer and more questions are bound to follow. Somebody among the slackliners had a friend living there, so it was an opportunity to take advantage of it.

Karla, me, and our fast friend Arturo are dropped at the beginning of the route, 15 km before Yécora, while the rest of the group goes off to scout for potential highlining spots. We begin climbing on a dirt road, then concrete appears: the unmistakable sign that steep is just about to get steeper. After 2 km the terrain flattens out and my quadriceps are burning already. We make our way through apple and quince orchards, which locals offer us to take; the two apples inside my frame bag coming all the way from Hermosillo feel pointless now, “You brought water to the well” says my mom’s voice inside my head. We stop at a sign indicating we’ve made it into the state of Chihuahua, and a man outside his house greets us, “You come from Hermosillo! It’s ugly over there isn’t it? Lots of infected people”; he says there are no cases around here and “todo muy tranquilo”, which may refer to different things. We continue our ride among the unfamiliar landscape of the forest, filling our lungs with the scent of pine trees, and stopping at the sight of anything we aren’t used to; mushrooms, pine cones, acorns, and two dung beetles seemingly racing each other.

A long descent over fist-sized rocks delivers us with sore hands and squeaky brakes to the tiny town of Bermúdez, where we take time to chill by an arroyo. We would usually be looking for some interaction with locals, but virus-awareness keeps us from coming any closer and we just wave from afar. Men in motorcycles go through the town a couple of times and we acknowledge their presence with a hand gesture, some respond, others don’t. We know who they are: “halcones” or “punteros”, the watchmen for the local cell, the position where every aspiring cartel member must start. I’ve seen some who barely look like high schoolers, but not many who look much older; the career as a cartel member isn’t too long, an estimated of three to eight years.

With shared but unspoken reluctance we get back on the road, aware that all the elevation lost must be regained; after finishing the ride we join the highliners in Yécora and share stories of our day. We are informed that a man was shot in the next town to the west so the situation in the area is tense as more activity is expected. After a campfire dinner with the group, we withdraw to our tents to recharge batteries since Arturo and I will repeat the route but in the opposite direction, while Karla goes to visit a Pima indigenous community. Here’s where she takes over the story.


We met Gina, our safe contact in town, through one of our highliner friends. She has been working with the Pima women for twenty years, in the preservation of their culture through making art such as paintings and embroidery based on the nearby rock paintings. The Pima is a native indigenous group from northern Mexico, settled in the Sierra Madre Occidental between what now is Sonora and Chihuahua. Their name comes from the word “pi’ma” which resembles “I don’t”; that was the answer they gave when the first Jesuit colonizers asked them something, so that’s the name the Spanish gave them, but they call themselves Akimel O’odham, “the people from the river”.

They live in houses made out of wood or adobe with gable roofs of metal sheets; a small window creates a dark interior that simulates the lighting of the caves where they used to live up in the mountains not too long ago. The Spanish colonization and evangelization made them relocate to the foot of the mountains, in the settlements and ranches around Yécora. Alicia, one of the Pima women I met, said that the happiest time of her life was when she was living in the caves, so their houses simulate those days.

Gina also works with Padre David, a Franciscan priest who’s been settled in the mountains for over thirty years, continuing with the evangelization work that his Jesuit ancestors had to abandon after being expelled from the country in the XVII century. The Pima practice the Catholic religion and hold Padre David in high regard; they still keep some of their customs and traditions, and some others have faded such as their language, which is very close to becoming extinct. There’s only a few in the community that still speak it, like Don Guadalupe who has lost his sense of hearing but every day goes out to bask in the sun; I could have stayed for hours staring at the stories drawn on his skin or interpreting his silences full of anecdotes, but there were still places to go and I had little time.

Gina tells me that Padre David has put a lot of effort in preventing the Pima girls to become wives at an early age; on one occasion a young adult man wanted to marry a 14-year-old girl, and both Gina and Padre David was begging the girl’s mom to prevent her daughter from marrying, so in an act of cleverness or desperation she decided to take the suitor for herself. Gina explains that the relationships in the community are of an open kind or with little regard to a long-lasting commitment or monogamy; the union and separation among them are frequent and they don’t seem to maintain emotional bonds as us from outside the community understand them. Gina recalls the time she asked a woman what was her secret for having several boyfriends, and she answered that it was easy to get the man you wanted, you just got to look at him, wink, blow a kiss, and it’s done. As I laughed at these stories I also reflected on the effects that cultural colonization has had on this community, the control of women’s sexuality, and the way we “Yoris”, non-natives, see these practices that we could put under the categories of free love or polyamory.

The Pima people live in a natural paradise, among forest, rivers, and mountains; nevertheless, their land has been disputed for centuries by colonizers, extractivist, and more recently, drug traffickers. The fight for their territory and culture hasn’t been an easy one and has led them to neglect, poverty, and on the way to disappearing. This trip was a reminder for us that the land we ride on has a history that’s very much alive, that the roads we draw routes on will always have a story to tell, and that the whispers of the wind are the chants of the people demanding what was stolen from them.