Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Teaching is Hard

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m now teaching GED and Adult Basic Education courses at a nonprofit “education and technology center.” The students range in age from their early twenties to their late sixties and come to our center with a variety of academic and work experiences. Some never attended high school or completed a few years, but fell short of earning their diplomas.

Some students are referred through the Move Up program, funded by the Pennsylvania departments of Education and Welfare. Others walk in off the street hoping to improve their reading, writing and math skills or to attain their GED. We teach immigrants who have transitioned out of our center’s English as a Second Language program and a few learners who have been homeless and are currently living in shelters.

Initially, I was surprised by how respectful and engaged the students were in my classes and in the others that I observed. I’ve realized that this is a reflection of the safe and supportive environment that the program directors and other teachers have created. Attendance is pretty inconsistent, but the learners feel comfortable enough to assume their roles as students, despite the obstacles and failures they’ve experienced in the past, and the majority of them are committed to the process.

Before I interviewed for the job in May, my soon-to-be director asked me if I would mind being interviewed by some of the students. He said that one of the teachers wanted to create a lesson around job applications and interview skills, so I agreed to it. He also asked if the teacher could share my cover letter and resume with the students, and I agreed to that too.

When I got to the office that day, I chatted with the administrators for a little while and was then led to one of the classrooms to meet with the students. There were about ten people sitting at tables spread out in a way that seemed more suitable for independent study than classroom instruction and my first thought was, “Okay, adults need a lot more space.”

I sat down at the front of the room and got a nice introduction from the teacher who had organized the lesson. This was a Basic Education class, which means that the students are developing some fundamental skills and aren’t yet ready for a GED prep class. All but one of the learners were African-American, and most of them returned my friendly but uncomfortable smile.

The students asked me a few basic interview questions that they had pulled off the Internet the day before, but I did most of the talking. We went through my resume and I told some stories about teaching ESL in Russia and then Kindergarten as a substitute teacher. They asked where I saw myself in five years and to describe a time when I’d dealt with a conflict at work. Then one student came up with a question that he hadn’t found on a website or even written down. He was probably in his early forties and spoke deliberately to minimize a slight impediment in his speech.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve taught all these kinds of people before, but how you gonna teach us?”

Eight weeks in, that’s the question I’m still trying to answer—particularly in the lower-level reading and writing class. With that group, I’ve found that meeting the students’ learning needs, which in some cases requires phonics instruction and writing basics such as capitalization, while also acknowledging the knowledge and experience that they bring into the classroom as adults is a real challenge. Understandably, they have a pretty low tolerance for materials and tasks that are either too easy or too difficult, and in light of their mixed abilities, the success or failure of a particular lesson can be hard to anticipate.

With attendance inconsistent, my class looks a little different every day, so I’m always making last-minute adjustments, even after class has started, once I see which of the students have shown up. Just when I think the group is ready to take on a more challenging text, a student drops in who requires more support decoding words, for instance, or maybe isn’t a native English speaker, so the needs of the group seem to shift dramatically from class to class.

Needless to say, every day is pretty interesting, if not always successful. I’ve already had moments of getting down on myself about how ineffective the instruction feels at times or how difficult it is to chart any real progress, but I also remind myself that just showing up is a big step for many of the learners and that they are improving.

For me, the process that these adult students are engaged in—of overcoming very personal and long-standing challenges with literacy and academics—is both fascinating and difficult to wrap my head around. I’ve heard a lot of teachers say that they always learn as much as or even more than their students in the classroom and, in my experience, that’s definitely true.

If anyone has any input or resources that might benefit me or these students, I’d be open to and grateful for that, and I’ll keep writing about our efforts, just to keep from losing my mind.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Hello, Middlers.

As you can see, it’s been a few months since I put any effort into this blog. All of the hype has died down and the recruiters from various publishing houses are leaving fewer and fewer messages on my voicemail. Part of the reason is that I got some articles into a couple of St. Louis publications and started to think that my days of writing for the public for free were over (I mean…I got paid $35 to write some of those stories!).

Another excuse is that a month ago I migrated out of the Midwest. I savored one last bite of gooey butter cake and moved to Philadelphia, PA, where the quality and character of my soul remain landlocked, but the Atlantic undulates less than a hundred miles away.

It was hard to put that physical distance between me and a few of my favorite loved ones, but I’m now lucky enough to live just a few miles from my sister, Katie, and few feet or sometimes inches from my girlfriend, Danielle. I also have a real job, which is a big change. I’m working for a non-profit "education and technology center," teaching Adult Basic Education and GED courses.

Last week, one of my students brought me my first cheese steak. It was cold and the wax paper was eerily transparent, but I knew I had to eat it. The student considered it a crime that after four weeks I hadn’t yet sampled one of these local treasures. Thankfully, I didn’t have to choke it down in front of her, but facing it alone in my office was almost as scary. Some of the orangish grease got on my shirt and the bread seemed pretty soggy, but I was surprised to find that it tasted really good. And I wasn’t even drunk. So maybe I can survive (until Christmas) without Imo’s.

Needless to say, I have arrived, but what am I supposed to do with the thousand or so Middled business cards I still haven’t handed out? For a minute I considered renaming the site “Middled East,” but that seemed like a failed and meaningless pun. I could just let it die a stale death, which is the fate of so many blogs, but I miss the consistency of sitting down to write without any parameters or expectation.

That said, I’m not sure that I’ll continue in the same vein. I’d like to loosen things up, do less interviewing and restaurant critiquing, and try to put forward some more creative efforts. I’m not sure if that will look like story excerpts or self-indulgent journal entries, but I’ll try to keep it readable.

I hope that wherever you are, you are well and that the gap left in your life when this blog went on pause is now filling up with the most savory sense of renewal. Thanks for checking back in.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Right At Home

In April, I got to attend an incredibly decadent dinner party in a historic St. Louis home. I was on assignment for At Home, the home and garden arm of St. Louis Magazine.

I ended up eating in the kitchen, but that turned out to be the most entertaining room in the house. The semi-celebrity French chef, Marc Felix, his assistant, Elisabeth Ottolini, and the food that they created were all delightful and impressive.

The article appeared in the July/August issue, but you can also find it here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

See the Film

Back in January, I posted "Canyon Run," a story about Ryan Wylie's documentary on the Raramuri, an indigenous people fighting to retain their land and traditional practices in the Sierra Madre.

Ryan's short film appeared on Current TV in April and can now be seen on the channel's website. Here's the link.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Sexy Grandfather

52nd City, the only literary magazine that I've ever seen in St. Louis (and a good one at that), has just published its "Sexy" issue, which features a essay I wrote based on a conversation I had with my grandfather about his own sexiness and related themes.

Unfortunately, if you're interested in perusing this fine publication, you have to buy it. The price is $8. You can purchase it locally at the locations listed here or online if you have a PayPal account.

Thanks as always for the support!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Article on Kirkwood Tragedy

The St. Louis Beacon, a new online newspaper intent on providing this city with in-depth, investigative reporting has just published an article I wrote related to the shootings that occurred at Kirkwood City Hall on Feb. 7th. The story focuses on the response of the Kirkwood High School administration in the aftermath of the tragedy while highlighting various student perspectives.

If you're not familiar with the Feb. 7th tragedy in Kirkwood, Missouri, I recommend reading this Wikipedia article for background.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More In Print!

One of St. Louis' venerable community newspapers, the Vital Voice, has published two of my articles, "Muslim St. Louis" and "Everyday Oppression," in its New Americans issue.

The paper is free, so, if you're local, pick up a print copy at most cafes in the city.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Famous Aunt's Goose

My article about my Aunt Sally's beautiful cement goose, Lucy, was just published in the April issue of St. Louis Magazine.

Here's the link.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Creative Writing Workshop (4/9 - 5/21)

I'm teaching a 7-week course for fiction and creative non-fiction writers (sorry, poets).

For the first four meetings, we’ll discuss published work, digging through elements of craft such as characterization, point of view, scene, setting, and voice. We’ll also explore those topics through short in- and out-of-class writing exercises.

The second half of the course will follow a traditional workshop format. Workshop dates will be divvied up and writers will provide copies of their short stories or essays the week before. In class, writers will receive verbal and written feedback and will have a chance to ask questions.

The idea is to provide a supportive and productive environment for writers to share their work and connect with others who are engaged in/struggling with the creative process. I hope to have more laughing than crying (though crying isn’t all bad) and to rouse some energy and motivation within the St. Louis writing community (Could such a thing exist?).

Time: Wednesdays, 7:30 to 9:30
Dates: April 9th to May 21st
Fee: $40 (no books to purchase—readings will be sent by email)
Location: The Gathering United Methodist Church* at 2105 McCausland Avenue in Maplewood

*note: the church has been generous enough to provide a classroom space, but this workshop is not affiliated with The Gathering

About me…

I’m a St. Louis native, but my adult residence only began in August, when I moved back from St. Petersburg, Russia. I’d been living there for two years, teaching English as a Foreign Language. A while ago, I majored in Creative Writing at Oberlin College in Ohio and later earned my secondary teaching credential from Mills College in California.

Back in St. Louis, I’m substitute teaching and working as a freelance writer. To date, I’ve published articles in St. Louis Magazine and the West End Word. In the near future, my work will also appear in 52nd City and the Vital Voice. Other efforts can be found on this very blog.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in signing up for the workshop, email me at mryanmiller@hotmail.com.

I really look forward to meeting and working with you!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Response to a Reader's Comment

Unfortunately, when someone comments on a post well after it was originally published, I'm probably the only person who notices. Yesterday, an anonymous reader responded to an article I wrote in November called, "Muslim St. Louis." One of the people I interviewed for that article was Dr. Khaled Hamid, a physician who has done volunteer work for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). This year, Khaled also created his own blog, Khaled Hamid Forum, addressing issues related to Muslim communities in North America.

Here is the reader's comment:

"There is tremendous ignorance here"

I think that there is a lot of ignorance but Dr. Khaled Hamid is leading the march.

He should be directing his outreach to the huge number of apparently misunderstanding Muslims from Afganistan to Palistine to the Philippines to Britain to most of the Middle East who have shouted "Allah Akbar" before blowing themselves up along with fellow human beings.

Did he personally know any of his fellow CAIR officials which have been convicted of links to terrorism from Palestine to Pakistan?

He should be more concern that a huge number of his fellow participants in Islam have somehow gotten the idea that Allah commands that they should kill non-believers.

I don't know how it happened or really care but they should fix it!

My initial response to this comment is one of frustration and anger. Even in such a limited space, this person manages to present a serious contradiction regarding the issue of ignorance. From, "I think there is a lot of ignorance but Dr. Khaled Hamid is leading the march," to, "I don't know how it happened or really care..." the reader challenges Dr. Hamid's perspective as narrow and misguided, then relieves her or himself of any responsibility to understand or even care why acts of terrorism are being committed throughout the world.

In this case, I don't think that understanding--as in understanding the political and social contexts in which such crimes occur--requires sympathy or even empathy with the perpetrators of violence and cannot be confused as an effort to justify the actions of those individuals.

As Khaled writes in his blog, addressing Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, "To understand where the anger and rage are coming from is healthy, and helps all of us: Muslims, non-Muslims, Arabs, and non-Arabs, get to the real source of the problem of violence:
Injustice, and try to help solve the cycle of violence. But through out all this, we SHOULD NOT ever accept such a deed, or try to justify it. Understand it: Yes. Condone, accept, or justify: Never. Speak against it, and try to stop it from happening: Always" (link to post).

I also don't believe that Dr. Hamid, an American, is more accountable for the actions of a Hamas militant or an Al-Qaeda operative than any other American. Why should he be? Because he's a Muslim? I have trouble understanding a world in which Khaled is responsible for the actions of someone who has grossly misinterpreted the religion that he happens to practice.

At the same time, if I said that Khaled Hamid and other American Muslims should not be compelled to denounce acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, I think he would disagree with me. Consider his recent blog post, "Suicidal or not, targeting civilians is immoral and criminal" or that, as I mentioned in my article, he participated in a conference shortly after the June 30th bombing of Glasgow International Airport last year, during which local physicians spoke out against terrorism.

As for this reader's question, "Did he personally know any of his fellow CAIR officials which have been convicted of links to terrorism from Palestine to Pakistan?" I'm not surprised by this attempt to undermine an established and effective civil liberties group.

Honestly, I'm not well enough informed or even compelled to respond to such a vague assertion, but the tactic is familiar. In the face of an organization, such as CAIR, that advocates for civil rights, principally through mediation and education, and seeks to promote a positive image of the communities it serves, critics are left with accusations capable only of conjuring the negative images and associations that the media already provides.

So, that's my initial response. Upon more careful consideration, I acknowledge the basic sentiment that seems to be at the heart of this reader's comment--
that horrible atrocities are being committed every day throughout the world and that they will not stop occurring until someone intervenes.

It would be really nice if the global Muslim community (and I don't think such a thing exists) could simply turn to the problem of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and "fix it," as the reader writes, but that is to deny that the rest of humanity is complicit in the tragedies and injustices suffered in this world. We, as Americans, have been made particularly culpable by the actions of our government, which (to say the least) has done everything in its power to make reconciliation between various ethnic and religious groups as well as widespread stability
nearly impossible in the Middle East.

So, in addition to individuals like Dr. Khaled Hamid, non-Muslim Americans should be speaking out against violence and acts of aggression, regardless of the actor's ethnicity, nationality or religion, whether over there or here at home.

I highly recommend that all readers visit Khaled Hamid's blog and contribute their ideas in the open forum that he provides. I will also point out to anyone who wishes to comment on this blog that anonymity is always an option, but that by selecting "other" in the comment posting section, you will be able to provide your name.

*Having just published this post, I found that another person has commented on the "Muslim St. Louis" article. I don't feel the need to dignify that comment by elaborating on what I've already written, but feel free to follow this link back to the article, where you'll find the comments at the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Real Politiks

My parents announced that we were moving from Indiana to Colorado when I was in second grade. My best friend’s mom cushioned the blow with tickets to the Michael Jackson concert (Bad Tour, 1987). I only remember that Michael performed Billy Jean in silhouette before claiming the stage in a werewolf mask. I couldn’t dance or hear the music. God pressed his hand to my heart and I felt every rhinestone-studded finger.

At age ten, the greatest moment in my life was behind me. We’d been living in Littleton for three years. My faded concert t-shirt was declared “retarded” at school and my lips were constantly chapped. I had finally learned to ride a bike in an empty parking lot miles from our subdivision, but persisted on my push scooter. I played Nintendo and overate. The opportunity to sing I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy for President George Herbert Walker Bush was a mercy I couldn’t refuse.

My choir teacher at Eagle Ridge Elementary must’ve been a political operative. We were a talentless bunch, but she shoved little flags in our fists and won us the honor of headlining a serious gig. The event was a fundraiser for a prospective state legislator and President Bush was lending some weight. Saddam Hussein hadn’t yet invaded Kuwait and the green specters of Patriot Missiles hadn’t lit up my tractable mind, but the President was obviously an important man.

As the date approached, I spent less and less time in my regular classroom, learning to smile with my eyes and sing from my gut.

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July!

I’ll never forget this refrain, nor will I be as nauseous as I was the morning of the big day. After vomiting in the restroom at school, a teacher’s aide took me to the main office to call my mom. The rest of the kids were already loaded on the bus and my choir teacher showed little patience for a fallen soldier.

“I’m sick,” I told my mom.

“You’re just nervous. I think you should go.”

This was a familiar conversation. When I was in pre-school, my teachers had a note on file that said, If Ryan vomits, don’t send him home. Having already evacuated my breakfast, there was no excuse not to get on the bus.

By the time we arrived at the convention center, I was hungry. I probably snuck a few gummy fruits or traded up for a Lunchable. Our teacher and parent volunteers hustled us off the bus to be organized in gender-segregated lines. We entered a building that looked like an airplane hanger full of red, white and blue balloons. An interminable waiting ensued, measured only by a cycle of bathroom visits in six-person rotations. When we finally mounted the bandstand, I tried to look past the spectating sea and retain the sensation of hunger, which I preferred to its opposite.

The opening bars of You’re a Grand Old Flag cued the waving of our cheap little props and the audience gushed, but my gaze never left the old man in the blue suit. He couldn’t moonwalk or say anything memorable enough to be reproduced eighteen years later, but I sang for him because he was more significant than me or anyone I’d ever met. Actually, I just mouthed the words.

My career in the field of political pomp had been on hold until last Saturday morning. I woke up at six-thirty, put on a casual, but respectable sweater and got into my frozen car.

In a recent tussle with my friend Shannon over presidential predilections, I said something like, “It’s shallow, but if we have the opportunity to elect the first female or the first black president, why would we choose the white guy?” I aspire to more nuanced and substantive political thought, but when I really consider why I’m going to vote for Barack Obama on February 5th, it’s difficult to move beyond personal preference.

The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are not the same. Their agendas are flecked with different points of emphasis that will have real effects in the world. Some of these differences are spelled out by Glass Booth, a refreshingly meaty website that found my political views in 91% alignment with Denis Kucinich. Huh.

Having waded through the gray waters of strategic messages and distorted attacks, I’ve identified the face that I want for our country, but I can’t sustain a very heated argument with a supporter from another Democratic camp.

So, why was I driving to a John Edwards rally at the Carpenters’ Union of Greater St. Louis? Honest answer: I wanted to be in the same room with someone famous.

I met Shannon and another friend, Lori, in the parking lot. It was too early and cold for ideological exchange, so I quietly shrouded myself in their Edwards love and slipped through the door. In the lobby, we signed in and received bumper stickers. I noted the complete and kind of alarming absence of security and that helium balloons are not a good way to promote an environmental record.

Lori, who had traveled to Iowa to document and participate in the caucuses, knew one of the event organizers. He asked if we, as young people, would be willing to stand on stage behind Edwards.

“Sure!” I said, overcome by that basic human desire to be seen on TV.

Inside the union hall, a huge American flag established a sense of production and Lori showed us the sign that she had made—the loveliest in the room.

I snapped photos of the gathering crowd and worked up the courage to approach two men who actually looked like they belonged at a union-sponsored event. Alex Gromada and Bill Dill were card-carrying members accompanied by Bill’s daughter, Sarah, who said she would be voting for the first time. Both men described themselves as undecided and were interested in getting specific information about Edwards’ platform.

“I’m pretty impressed just reading the flyer he’s got,” Bill said. “He’s not taking PAC [Political Action Committee] money from anybody. He wants the people to back him, not the corporations. So that’s pretty impressive right there.”

“About the NAFTA expansion,” Bill added, “he’s against that, so that’s going to help us out a lot too—keeping jobs here in America.”

When I asked Alex which issues he considered most important, he listed the economy, healthcare reform and ending the Iraq War. He also said that he didn’t think Edwards was getting as much attention in the media as Clinton or Obama.

After a difficult loss in Nevada, where Edwards only captured four percent of the vote, and in the face of South Carolina polls that have him trailing far behind (see the NY Times), that appears to be the case. Nonetheless, a roomful of people had shown up to hear the man speak and the buzz was making me giddy.

Shannon, who had to leave early, took over the camera work as Lori and I ascended to an elevated position. I felt like the least appropriate person in the room to be playing the stage prop. We stood amongst union men, signage bearing children and state legislators representing their various districts. One of the organizers helped us focus our efforts.

“I want to thank you guys for standing up here,” she said. “You are the face of John Edwards!”

“What we're looking for is engagement, so don’t fall asleep standing up. That would be really awkward. When he says something, don’t be afraid to clap, nod, wave your signs, that kind of stuff. And get to know each other. We have a lot of organizing to do to win this thing.”

From there, several speakers would do their part to warm up the crowd, including Alvin Reid, a journalist for The St. Louis American, who I found the most compelling.

“As I’ve spoken on behalf of the senator and the candidate for president of the United States, people have asked me, ‘Alvin, what are you doing up on that stage?’ and I tell them, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’”

“I’m not up here to make history and to try to prove something to somebody other than that the Democrats need somebody in the White House to work with the Democratically controlled Senate and the Democratically controlled House. Then we can get back to helping out people like you and I—people who work for a living, people who just want to raise their kids and be able to send them to college without going broke, be able to fix their car without taking out a loan, be able to do the things that I was able to do as a kid coming up with a father who was a printer and a mother who was a schoolteacher.”

“And if you’re a schoolteacher now or you're a union printer, you’re struggling. You’re trying to get by. And the White House, they’re laughing. They say, ‘Hey, I can send you sixteen hundred dollars and that’ll shut you up.’ Well you know what, we’re not gonna shut up! We’re gonna get John Edwards elected the next president of the United States!”

A few more speakers addressed the audience before a swell of applause brought Mr. Edwards on stage. I can’t say that anything about his appearance surprised me. I had seen plenty of him on television and listened to enough of his North Carolinian cadence that he felt familiar standing just a few feet in front of me.

His speech was broad and the points he made were expected, offering himself as the miner’s son ready for a fight, but I still marveled at the immense task with which he was engaged and his resilience in the face of it. Certainly that could be said about any of the candidates, but I haven’t stood behind them yet, goofing for the cameras.

*The last four photographs were taken by Shannon Connelly.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Democracy Now! today broadcast Dr. King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam," delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. It's incredible.

Here are links to the program site and the audio stream.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Canyon Run

The Tarahumara are the indigenous people of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They live primarily in Copper Canyon, a system of six canyons that is larger and, in some areas, deeper than the Grand Canyon. Their population is estimated to be between sixty and eighty thousand, and for many years they have been fighting the encroachment of the mining and timber industries on their remaining ancestral land, which now represents the last one percent of old growth forests in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Many of the Tarahumara continue to practice a traditional lifestyle—inhabiting natural, open-air shelters, farming subsistence crops, herding livestock across steep canyon terrain, observing religious and social ceremonies accompanied by
tesgüino, a mild beer made from fermented corn, and running—they do a lot of running.

The Tarahumara call themselves the Rarámuri, which means runners on foot in their own Uto-Aztecan language. Will Harlan, editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and himself an ultra-marathon runner, first became interested in the Rarámuri because of their reputation as, in his words, “the world’s greatest distance runners.” Amongst these people, both men and women have been known to travel up to a hundred miles in a single day, sometimes in the process of persistence hunting, the practice of tracking an animal to exhaustion.

In addition to ceremonial athletic competitions, a fifty-mile footrace is held every spring in which members of the indigenous community compete alongside world-class runners in an effort to raise money for clean water initiatives and seeds. In the 2006 race, Scott Jurek, considered one of top distance runners in the world, lost to Arnuflo Quirare, a Tarahumara farmer who was running barefoot.

Hoping to spread awareness about the struggle for indigenous rights, Will invited his cousin and documentary filmmaker, Ryan Wylie, and my friend, Phil Merker, to collaborate on a short film about the Tarahumara. On December 3rd, the three traveled to Chihuahua City and were received by employees of the Sierra Madre Alliance, a non-governmental organization that provides education, legal services and other forms of support to indigenous communities in the region.

Ryan, who co-founded Inner Mission Productions and the Free Form Film Festival, brought his video equipment, initially planning to document the Rarámuri’s efforts to sustain their community in the midst of a twenty-year drought. As it turned out, the rains had finally arrived in 2007 and the December visit placed the film crew in the canyon in the middle of the wet season.

Unfortunately, the much-needed rainfall is only one factor in securing the future of North America’s largest, traditionally practicing indigenous population.

Before traveling six hours to the city of Guachochi, where they would begin their descent into Copper Canyon, the team encountered a group of Rarámuri protesting on the steps of a government building. The demonstrators explained that they were petitioning the Mexican government to take action on a decades-old case for indigenous land rights. The fact that these people had brought their concerns to a state institution, rather than the appropriate federal one, exemplified the challenges they face in navigating a complicated and potentially corrupt bureaucracy.

With two Rarámuri men, Pedro and Santiago, and Valentine, Santiago’s twelve year-old son, as their guides, the Americans would hike for three days into Choreachi, the most traditional of the Rarámuri settlements. The first day’s push brought them to the Sinforosa River at the base of the canyon. On the hike down, they were accompanied by a stray dog that they recognized from town. Her single, protruding tooth gave her away.

The next day, with their donkeys, mules and new mascot, they ascended to the canyon ridge, logging another seven-hour trek.

The guides weren’t following a trail and the terrain was demanding. During the uphill climb, Phil experienced intense cramping in his legs and had to assume a deliberate pace. His frustration may have only been exacerbated by the presence of Valentine, standing by with a concerned look in his traditional footwear—sandals with a rubber sole fashioned from an old tire.

Despite the language barrier, the long hours of hiking established a bond between the filmmakers and their guides. When they arrived at Pedro’s home, a dirt floor structure on the outskirts of Choreachi, he invited them inside. Ryan later learned that this was a significant gesture as the Rarámuri’s shelters are strictly used for cooking and sleeping and are not often shown to outside guests.

This functional relationship to established dwellings was also evident in the center of the Choreachi settlement, which the group reached the following day. Here, a few basic cabins and an abandoned schoolhouse scattered across an open field constituted the heart of the community. During most of the year, the Tarahumara move nomadically throughout the canyon in relative isolation, but encampments like this serve an essential function as sites of congregation.

During their first evening in the camp, Will, Ryan and Phil shared a meal and watched the sunset. As the sky filled with color, Phil began to feel mildly nauseous and decided to boil some garlic water, which he was told would help protect him from parasites. After speaking with the guides, he also drank some tea made from chucaca, an herb native to the canyon. He shared the drink with Ryan, but Will had already retreated to one of the cabins.

The night would be a long one as Will grew violently ill and Ryan was also overcome with intense nausea and stomach pains. The alpine air hovered at freezing and as Will’s body temperature dipped dangerously low, the group had little choice but to place him in the Jeep that Ernesto, the lead attorney for the Sierra Madre Alliance, had driven into camp on the only road connecting Choreachi with the outside world. Gas was limited, but the immediate concern was with Will, who was delirious, shaking and intermittently blacking out.

The original plan was that Ryan and Phil would return to Guachochi by car, while Will ran back, retracing their journey with the guides. The plan would change the following day, but not before Phil, Ryan and even Will, in his desperate state, documented the Rarahippri, a display of athletic prowess during which the Rarámuri gamble lighters, pesos, colorful garments and cassette tapes that they listen to on their runs.

Assisted by Chunel, a university-educated Rarámuri who often works as a translator for his people, Ernesto facilitated a discussion of community matters and asked those present to sign, or at least fingerprint, a petition for the government to suspend logging until the Tarahumara’s land claims could be resolved.

With the formalities out of the way, twelve runners were selected to compete. While the male and female events both involved running and proceeded casually, making it difficult for the film crew to know when the races were starting or finishing, the equipment was different. The men sprinted across the field, kicking a small wooden ball, but the women used a stick to lift a cloth ring and toss it ahead of them.

Having covered the event, attention turned to Will’s condition and the journey out of the canyon. The road back to Guachochi was little more than a pair of tracks. It was dark and raining and the trip would take nearly thirteen hours. For the first two of those hours, the dog, now dubbed Sinforosa after the river, ran behind the Jeep.

Eventually, Will’s delirium seemed to break and he told the group to put the dog in the car. The others were reluctant to welcome a wet, feral animal into an already cramped vehicle, but they agreed to let Will hold her in the back. Never having been in a car, Sinforosa vomited within a few minutes and was released into the rain. She proceeded to chase the Jeep for another hour before being allowed in a second and final time.

With their insanely devoted dog and just enough gas, the beleaguered group reached a paved road and were able to stop for a meal at a local restaurant.

Will (lower right in photo) would be forced to return to the States a few days early and Sinforosa, the fanged stray, would go on to experience other firsts as an adoptee of the Sierra Madre Alliance.

Back in Chihuahua City, just two days before their departure, Ryan and Phil made a final stop. José Iganacio Legarreta Castillo is the federally appointed delegate of SEMARNAT, the Mexican equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Ryan, Castillo had recently signed off on a fraudulent map, distorting the boundary between Choreachi and Coloradas de los Chávez, a neighboring region.

In Mexico, two major systems of land use and ownership are the ejidos and the agrarian communities. The ejido system was introduced by the Mexican Constitution of 1917, but only formalized in 1934. This involved concessions in the form of cultivation rights to individuals who did not own the land they occupied. The problem was that boundaries were drawn without consideration for unified indigenous communities, such as the Yokivo and the Guapalayna, who were subsequently divided. Agrarian communities were created through recognition and titling of communal lands based on possession.

The Tarahumara’s claim to their ancestral land precedes these systems by centuries and is supported by both international law (ILO Convention 169) and the Mexican Constitution (articles 2 and 27 of section 7). Due to lack of legal knowledge, Choreachi did not apply for its title until 2007, and Castillo’s signature was enough to authorize the self-appointed president of Coloradas de los Chávez, Rumaldo Chavez, to begin logging just under 40,000 acres of Tarahumara land.

Castillo was clearly reluctant to accept responsibility for the falsified maps and, in Ryan’s account, the interview ended with the filmmakers practically chasing the official out of his office.

Recently, two representatives of the Tarahumara traveled to San Carlos to confront Chavez, only to be detained and beaten by his men. Ryan said that the narcotics trade is a major factor in the struggle, considering that growing marijuana and poppy on the cleared land is far more profitable than logging in the depth of the canyon.

In Los Angeles, Ryan is currently editing the video footage he shot during the eleven-day trip to the state of Chihuahua. Current TV has agreed to purchase the ten to twelve minute short. In-depth interviews with members of the Rarámuri community and their advocates, the stunning beauty of Copper Canyon and the heroics of Sinforosa the dog, should be available by the end of February. Middled will do its best to provide a link.

*The fifth, sixth and seventh photos that appear in this article were taken by Alfredo Ramirez Garcia. The rest are courtesy of Phil Merker.