A Thousand Thanks & The Rumor that Saved Lives

By the time I had walked into the office on Wednesday morning, Telemundo El Paso was quickly turning into a food pantry. That’s because the station, like scores of other media, had reported on a rumor that about 50 Tarahumara Indians in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico had committed suicide due to their inability to feed their children.

Almost as quickly as the rumor of mass suicides by the Tarahumara spread throughout the blogosphere and other social media, the Mexican government and other aid workers familiar with their plight tried to set the record straight, denouncing that suicides had ever taken place. But that didn’t sway those people who were willing to help.

In recent days, a collaborative effort amongst media on both sides of the US-Mexican border was aimed at collecting as much food as possible for the starving indigenous population in our immediate area. In El Paso, Telemundo collected nearly a ton of food thanks to a community engulfed with the spirit of giving. There was so much food, in fact, that we enlisted the help of the West Texas Food Bank to haul the donations to the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, who would then cross the food over the border into the remote and mountainous area called the Sierra Tarahumara, where a large contingent of these indigenous people live.

Despite no evidence of mass suicides among the Tarahumara, the people are starving to death thanks to lack of much-needed rain for their crops and a bitter freeze. What the rumor accomplished was that it forced people to pay attention to the dire need of Mexico’s indigenous population and to take action at what’s considered to be their final hour.

After taking in donations for the past several days, I cannot remember the last time I said “Thank you” so many times. People are starving all over the world – 1 in 8 people go hungry in the United States – and after this week I’ll never question people’s willingness to give.

The real questions we should be asking are why should we have to wait for something so tragic and surreal, a story about mass suicides, in order to truly take action? More importantly, what role does the Mexican government take in helping this indigenous population?

On the border, we hear stories of drug smuggling and killings all the time. And thanks to the attention we’ve been paying to the Tarahumara, we’re learning that drug cartels are using the indigenous as drug runners while using their land – by force – to grow marijuana and poppies.

In El Paso, as thousands of people cross back and forth into Mexico every day, we’re accustomed to seeing “the Mexican Indians” dressed up in vibrant colors, selling gum and nuts and taking handouts as cars slowly drive by.

I first encountered the Tarahumara as a 19-year-old during a photo shoot deep within the Sierra Tarahumara. I had never seen such poverty. By contrast, looking over the border towards the United States, El Paso looked like The Emerald City, complete with a bright star shining brightly on the lush mountain in front of me. The big houses on top of the lush mountain seemed so close that I could reach out and touch them.

My salvation was that I knew I could go back to that Emerald City. The children, most of them barefoot who kicked around a soccer ball with me that afternoon 16 years ago, were stuck. Some lived in caves, others lived in plywood homes.

The thought has never left me that perhaps their curse was knowing that they’d never get to cross over, the Emerald City tantalizingly just beyond their reach.

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