Diana Molina has visited area nearly two dozen times

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FARMINGTON — Her work as a photographer, writer and artist has taken Diana Molina all over the world and brought her into contact with people of dozens of exotic cultures.

But the southern New Mexico resident says she has found no place that rivals what she found among the indigenous Tarahumara people of the rugged Sierra Madre territory in northern Mexico.

Molina estimates she has visited that remote destination 22 times over the last quarter century, chronicling her trips with extensive notes and photographs. She'll deliver a Chautauqua presentation on her experiences, "Ramamuri: The Foot Runners of the Sierra Madre," at 7 tonight in the Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

The fascination many people hold for the Tarahumara is a product of the 2009 nonfiction book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" by Christopher McDougall. The book sold more than 3 million copies and launched the previously little-known Tarahumara — widely regarded as the world's greatest endurance runners — to international fame, even as their day-to-day existence in the canyons and plateaus of the Sierra Madre remains largely unglimpsed, and unimagined, by the outside world.

Molina provides an insider's view of their culture, one pieced together after numerous extended stays among the Tarahumara. Molina's great-grandmother hailed from the area, and so she comes by her affection for the Tarahumara naturally. She cites their ability to live in sync with their environment as one of many reasons to admire them.

"Their strength and their stamina and their lifestyle was extremely intriguing to me," she said during a phone interview on Thursday. "They impacted me to a greater degree than any other culture I have visited."

Molina, already an experienced world traveler, made her first visit to the Tarahumara homeland in the early 1990s and was instantly hooked.

"It just captured me like no place I had ever been before," she said.

Molina has been displaying her photographs and artwork associated with those visits almost since her first trip, but it wasn't until 2010 that she began delivering this Chautauqua presentation under the auspices of the New Mexico Humanities Council. She says her experiences in the region never failed to yield new insights, so her presentations have undergone a marked evolution over time.

"Absolutely, with every trip I take," she said. "My mining process of material has developed over the decades. … I'm very passionate about this place and the people. It's an ongoing project. I still have a lot more to learn — and experience."

The physical isolation of the Tarahumara culture has been aided by the extremely challenging landscape in which it resides. The towering peaks of the Sierra Madre are offset by canyons that Molina says are deeper than the Grand Canyon. Yet, the Tarahumara move among that treacherous terrain with a startling swiftness afoot, routinely covering steep distances of more than 50 miles in a matter of hours.

The Tarahumara live a life of simplicity, but it is not an easy life, Molina noted. The vast majority of Tarahumara homes feature neither running water or electricity. Climate change has contributed to increasing drought in the area, and that means a lifestyle that already had little margin for error is being stressed. Their territory also increasingly serves as a battleground for drug cartels.

But none of that has led to the collapse of the Tarahumara culture, as has been the case with so many other indigenous cultures around the world. Molina believes Tarahumara resilience reflects the uniqueness of the people and the place they call home.

"Above all, there's a very strong connection to the natural world and a very unique environment," she said. "They're very tied to their space and how they move within it."

That doesn't mean the continued encroachment of the outside world on the Tarahumara homeland won't someday take its toll, she acknowledged.

"I do fear for them because they live so close to the land, and this essential watershed is increasingly impacted by severe drought. … When there's a drought in Tarahumara country, they can't go buy bottled water and go the store and get groceries. That's why it's important for us to understand the lifestyles of Tarahumara and indigenous people around the world. The people who live closest to the land are the ones who feel the devastating effects of change first."

Admission to Molina's presentation is free, and a question-and-answer session will follow. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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