Irma Chávez

Circling the world 

‘Rarámuri’ is the name of the indigenous people to which Irma Chávez belongs. It means: ‘those who run fast’. Threatened from many sides, Chávez is determined never to slow down.  

‘Running is a fundamental part of our community,’ says Irma Chávez. She is referring to the Rarámuri, an indigenous people living in Chihuahua state in northwest Mexico. Running is a way of life for them: they can run incredibly long distances, and do it mostly on sandals.  

The community became famous in the United States with the release of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It’s about the American Micah True, who went to live among the Rarámuri and started organising races between American and Rarámuri runners. The book made the races – called ultra marathons – incredibly popular in the US. Each year the town of Urique, where start and finish take place, is flooded with Americans. 

Irma Chávez is critical of the way the Rarámuri’s traditions became diluted by the ‘ultra marathon’ craze. ‘I don’t consider these ultra marathons to be part of our culture,’ she says in the beautiful movie The Infinite Race. ‘Traditional races are a community effort. A race is an expression of gratitude rather than a competition.’  

Sadly, the marathon tourism is far from the only disturbance of the Rarámuri’s peace. Much more serious are the threats posed by the drug cartels and the logging and mining companies taking the lands on which indigenous communities depend. Both groups don’t hesitate to use violence: every year, indigenous activists are killed. ‘Many families were forced out of their communities,’ Chávez says. ‘You have to run away before they kill you.’ When Chávez and her father went to the media to speak about the situation, they received death threats which were ignored by the authorities. ‘I’m very scared as my kids are still very young,’ Chávez says. ‘We don’t trust that any institution will protect us.’  

To be able to do more for the rights of indigenous people, she earned a master’s degree in social sciences. ‘I’m learning how to navigate institutions,’ she explains. ‘I’m learning how I can defend myself, how I can defend my community.’ At the same time, Irma Chávez will never give up running. As she says at the end of The Infinite Race: ‘Our people will continue to circle the world.’ 

The Infinite Race was shown as a preview at the Movies that Matter Festival 2020.