Yoreme – Mexico’s North-Western Indigenous Communities

The Yoreme (also known as Mayo, Yaqui or Yoeme) are an indigenous group located mainly in the Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa, and to a smaller extent, Durango and Chihuahua, as well as a community in Arizona, in the United States.  In their own language, the word Mayo means “people from the river shore”, although they identify more with the name Yoreme, which translates as “people who respect tradition.”  They share common roots with other ethnic groups in Northern Mexico, such as the Cora (in Nayarit), the Rarámuris, Makurawe, Warihó and Pima (in Sonora and Chihuahua), and the Opata (in Northern Sonora).

In the 16th century, during the establishment of Spanish Colonial rule, the Yoreme resisted; hostile to the conquerors, they nevertheless were able to establish treaties leading to a relatively placid life with great autonomy, and took conversion to the Catholic faith in stride, finding common ground between Christian beliefs and aspects inherent to their own cosmology.  Jesuit missionaries, with Pedro Méndez, Angel Ovanestra, and Diego de la Cruz amongst them, evangelized the Yoreme communities, founding the first mission in 1614, named Santa María de Navojohua. There were eight original Mayo pueblos founded by the Jesuit priests; some of these towns still exist, such as Pueblo Viejo, in the current municipality of Navojoa (Sonora).  Méndez and the Jesuit mission are to be credited for the introduction of new trades to these pueblos, such as wheat cultivation, and raising of cattle and other livestock.  In 1767, all Jesuits were ordered to leave the colonies, due to their differences with the Spanish King Carlos III.

The Yoreme continued to struggle to maintain their independence throughout the rest of the Spanish rule, and beyond, after Mexico became an independent nation in 1821.  During the time of Porfirio Díaz as president (1877-1880, 1884-1910), as Mexico became highly centralized, the army was involved in subjugating all indigenous groups that had remained independent, as I have mentioned, the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula, and in the north, the Yoreme, amongst several others.  In 1887, Yoreme leader and unifier José María Leyva, known as Cajemé (a clan name), was killed, and battles intensified, with the government killing the rebels, seizing their land, and even sending many away to remote farms.  These cruel events prompted many to seek refuge in the United States, particularly the state of Arizona, well into the early 1900s, escaping persecution from the Mexican government.  As I mentioned in a previous post, in 1914, general Álvaro Obregón was able to recruit Yaqui-Yoreme men to fight with him during the Mexican Revolution War; their brave participation finally granted them recognition of their land and rights, in the 1920s, after the war ended.

In modern Mexico, the Yoreme represent one of its most numerous indigenous groups, with thousands of people amongst more than 260 communities, located mainly in the municipalities of Alamos, Etchojoa, Huatabampo, and Navojoa, in the state of Sonora and Choix, El Fuerte, and Ahome, in the state of Sinaloa.  Farming is still their main economic activity, modernized during the 20th century, as well as fishing in the Yaqui river or along the Pacific coast; some Yoreme have also migrated to urban areas, such as Hermosillo, capital city of Sonora, and in the states of Chihuahua and Durango.  In the United States, there is only one federally recognized tribe based in Tucson, called the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

These communities remain connected through their common ancestry and religion, which is based on a syncretism of Catholicism as assimilated from the Jesuit missions, and their beliefs.  In the Yoreme cosmology, early people lived in the world of Huya Anía – the realm of timeless events. Our world is divided into four Anías: the realm of animals/wild, the realm of flowers, the realm of people, and the realm of death; their rituals are centred around bettering these Anías,  fighting the harm that has been done to them.  One way for the Yoreme to restore balance is through dance and music; perhaps the best known Yaqui/Yoreme dance is la danza del venado – the deer dance, a tribute to the spirit of the deer, and an expression of thanks for its sacrifice to feed the humans, who hunt him.  Accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of the flute and drum, a dancer wears a belt of deer hoof bells, and cocoon rattles around his ankles; when shaken, their sound represents the rustling leaves on the forest floor. The dancer also sports a stag’s head tied to his chin, as he imitates the graceful movement of a deer, running through the woods, in search for other deer, or away from hunters:

For a number of years now, there have been initiatives to preserve and promote the identity of the Yoreme, as well as other indigenous communities of the region.  In Sinaloa, El Encuentro Multicultural Yoreme”“The Yoreme Multicultural Meet” has brought together indigenous groups from that state, as well as Sonora, and Chihuahua, namely Rarámuri, Mayo-Yoreme, Yaqui and Guarijío.  In the fall of 2019, I was visiting family in Culiacán, Sinaloa, and I had a chance to check out that year’s meet, which coincidentally was taking place:

Performance during the 2019 Yoreme Meet (Culiacan Sinaloa, photo courtesy of my brother-in law)

In addition to performances and forums, there was food, and cultural activities, such as a clay modelling workshop for children:  

I bought a little souvenir from one of the stands, this jovial piggy the size of a golf ball, tricking the unaware with those tiny perforations on its back; no, it is not a saltshaker, but made from a solid ball of clay (I like to call the piece “saltshaker for the hypertense”, LOL):

All the photos of masks shown in this post were taken by me at the Encuentro Yoreme 2019.

Although the Yoreme did not warm up to other religious orders after the Jesuits left in the 18th century, they have remained faithful to the Catholic religion to this day, and most of their celebrations are centred around the Christian calendar, such as Christmas, Lent and very prominently, Holy Week and Easter.  During these celebrations, the Pajko’ora or Pascola, “the old man of the ceremony,” is a central figure, standing out as a dancer, but also as a facilitator and host.  The Pascola also appears in oral traditions, and through the specific crafts associated with his performance, such as the masks shown below:

The mask represents the realm of the wild, whose spirit is believed to be a guide to the dancer during the Pascola performance. When the Pascola dances accompanied by a harpist or fiddler, his posture is slouched, and the mask is removed to show the face, representing a human form.  When the dancer wishes to represent an animal or other creature, flute and drum take over, the Pascola shakes a wooden rattle with shiny metal disks in his right hand, and the mask covers his face, allowing the dancer to adopt the posture and personality of the being he is representing. 

Other dancers during these ceremonies are called fariseos – Pharisees.  In Judaism, they were members of an ancient sect that taught strict observance of Jewish tradition; in the Bible, Jesus exposes them for condemning others for sin, yet choosing wickedness themselves, for which they are defined as a self-righteous or hypocritical person.  Accordingly, in Yoreme/Yaqui folklore, these characters represent the evil forces that must be eradicated.  In the photo at the top of this post, and right, a variety of fariseo masks, from the Yoreme of Sinaloa and Sonora.

In addition, a group of volunteers called fiesteros (the party crew) are in charge to organize the events in each town, and nourish performers and attendants alike.  Over an open fire, a huge pot of cocido de vaca – beef stew, called in Mayo language Wakavaki or Guakavaqui (waakas – cow; baki – broth) is prepared to feed the crowds, also a ceremonial custom as a thanksgiving for the animals (beef) and plants (such as the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash) that are used in the preparation.  Stay tuned for more on Wakavaki, in my next post.


6 thoughts on “Yoreme – Mexico’s North-Western Indigenous Communities

  1. The only one of those tribal names familiar to me is Yaqui, probably because that is what they are called in the U.S. My understanding is that the Jesuits were very tolerant and understanding of native cultures, especially compared the the Spanish priests. No wonder things did not go well after they were ordered out! That all had an impact in New Mexico and southern Colorado as well. Good to know they have a robust community in Mexico.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the Jesuits had a very good relationship, and at the beginning the tribes were far from the Spanish settlements, but eventually got encroached and three hundred years of trouble began.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s