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Making Strides for Survival : Family Aids Poor Mexican Tribe Famed for Running

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their native Mexico, Tarahumara Indians are treated as nothings--looked down on by many of their countrymen despite their fame as legendary long-distance runners--and are left in a struggle to endure.

But in Orange County, four sisters raised in Mexico have turned the tables on the prejudices they grew up with, raising more than $10,000 since September to help the destitute Indians.

Their compassion, they said, comes from moving to the United States and learning how discrimination feels.

“Now that we see how it is to live in a new culture, we understand what it means to be different, how hard it is,” said Carolina Montes, who with her sisters was inspired to help the Indians after watching several Tarahumara runners compete in the televised 1994 Leadville 100, a Colorado run nearly as long as four 26-mile marathons.

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“We are not strangers to them. We lived near them where we grew up. But there, we didn’t think to help. Now we see it’s such a beautiful culture, and it’s all we have--probably some of our ancestors were Tarahumaras--and it’s dying. We want to teach our kids to respect them.”

The sisters’ efforts have garnered the Tarahumara tribe enough money to buy food, medicine and blankets for their community of about 900 families, who live in adobe huts and caves, as well as new roofing and an electric generator for the church in their village of Choguita, in the high mountains of northern Mexico.

The money has been raised through charity dances, breakfasts and receptions the sisters have organized from their homes in Santa Ana.

Most contributors are recent Latin American immigrants with little money themselves. Donations have come in nickels and dimes as well as in substantial checks.

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Now, the sisters are putting their heads together to help the Tarahumaras again.

Since last week Juan Herrera, a 27-year-old Tarahumara runner, has been staying with Ines Robles, one of the sisters, while the family enlists local business and community leaders to raise more money for the Tarahumaras.

A May 9 dance is planned at La Isla Restaurant in Anaheim, which will donate its facilities, and an April 19 get-together in the parking lot of a Santa Ana insurance firm.

“They may not raise a lot of money, depending on what you think of as a lot of money. But if they create a consciousness in the people that there are people who have less than they do, they are accomplishing a lot,” said Raul Molina, administrator of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, where the sisters persuaded church officials to organize a collection for the Indians late last year.

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The sisters say their efforts were motivated in part by anger at race promoters who have repeatedly brought fleet Tarahumara runners to compete in long-distance events, but who the sisters say have done little to help the starving tribe members back in their canyon homes in the state of Chihuahua.

Since 1993, when Victoriano Churra, a Tarahumara, won the Leadville, Colo., run, the Indian tribes members have been part curiosity, part phenomenon on the long-distance running circuit.

While most long-distance runners wear spandex and fancy sneakers and rely on high-tech food supplements during a race, the Tarahumaras run in sandals and their white cotton native garb, and take beer and a traditional cornmeal drink with them on races instead of water.

“We have been many places, but in all those places not many people want to help,” Herrera said, his muscular legs barely concealed by his loincloth. “They think we are strange. They don’t want to know how we live.”

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But since last September, when the sisters and their families met the Tarahumaras at the Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run in the Angeles National Forest, they have treated the runners like heroes. With no experience in fund-raising, they have made a family project out of helping the Tarahumaras nevertheless.

Robles traveled with her husband to Herrera’s village in December, toting hundreds of blankets and T-shirts and sacks of rice and cornmeal to give the tribe.

The sisters acknowledge there is no way to track whether all the money and aid they have sent has been distributed fairly. But they say they are convinced the help is making some small difference.

In the United States, Herrera says he feels a bit out of his element.

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On the downtown Santa Ana street where the Robles family lives, children playing soccer and in-line skating after school stare curiously at him in his flowing cotton cape and colorful headband. Some people poked fun at him.

At the local high school track, runners looked perplexed when Herrera strode in to do a lap.

But inside the Robles house, nobody is laughing.

“I feel very proud to have him here. He’s a famous runner,” said Ernesto Robles, Ines’ husband. “We have never had a person so important stay with us. He is here doing something not just for himself but for his family, his community.”

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