(The first of a series of dispatches about Chihuahua with a focus on the water crisis.)
New deep well drilling on Mennonite farm near Colonia Valle / Tom Barry
Seldom does a name of a place – Chihuahua – seem to capture so much of its identity and spirit.
Perhaps that’s due to the name’s own expressive rhythm. Or it may have more to do with the many emotions associated with the popular expression
“¡Ah, Chihuahua!” whose beat and varied intonations communicate its different meaning -- whether lament, astonishment, surprise, annoyance, or dismay.
It’s an expression that transcends the border, as so much of Chihuahua’s history, identity, economy, and culture is. Whether in English or Spanish,
“¡Ah, Chihuahua!” or simply “¡Chihuahua!”
Chihuahua is certainly of pre-Hispanic origin, but its exact derivation is disputed. Some scholars say it’s a name linked to the land’s lack of water, while others argue that it signifies a place blessed with water.
Dry, Sandy Place
“Xicuahua,” a Nátuatl word meaning ‘dry, sandy place,” is the most widely accepted origin of Chihuahua. It’s a vast state – Mexico’s largest – that is occupied by a desert with the same name. Chihuahua comprises one-eighth of the nation’s land. It’s a state larger than many countries, including Great Britain.
The Chihuahuan Desert, the largest and most diverse of North America’s four deserts – spreads through the heart of the state, dropping south from southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas.
Heading south across the border and through Ciudad Juárez, there is nothing but desert -- a vast aridness of mesquite, creosote bushes, tarbush, acacia, and occasional tuffs of zacate, mostly trimmed to ground by starving cattle. (An estimated 400,000 cattle have died on the range during the 2011-12 drought.)
More than 375 kilometers of desert pass before the toll road approaches Chihuahua City, the state’s capital. In the early 18th century the Spanish founded Santa Fe Real de Chihuahua, a villa that served as the midway point along the Camino Real between the rich mine of Hidalgo del Parral in the southwest to El Paso del Norte.
Although Spanish explorers had first passed through the northern territory that is now Chihuahua in 1528, it wasn’t until two centuries later that the Spanish and criollo elite began to settle in the region, drawn by the silver and gold mines in the Sierra Madre Occidental. In the 1700s, the outpost of Chihuahua functioned largely as an administrative center for the region’s mines.
The Chihuahuan Desert envelops the city, extending south into Durango and east throughout Coahuila and edging into Nuevo Leon. In the state’s southeast corner lies a barren and barely populated expanse sometimes called the Zona del Silencio.
In many ways, the absence of water and the resulting harshness of the terrain seem to define Chihuahua. Aridness is its essence, and the struggle to survive in this stark land may help explain the reputation of Chihuahuenses – their determination, independence, pride, and infectious appreciation of life.
When the dust blows, when the sun parches, and when not a single tree breaks the horizon in any direction, Chihuahua certainly seems nothing but a dry, sandy, uninhabitable land – an unending, oppressive aridness.
Drought scene north of Ascencíon / Tom Barry
Where Rivers Meet
But there is another way to see Chihuahua: looking beyond the aridness to see how much the state is shaped and defined by the power, presence, and fundamental importance of water.
There are many who say Chihuahua’s name has more to do with water than desert. Before there was the territory, city, or state of Chihuahua, there were Rarámuris or Tarahumaras living at the intersection of two rivers, the Sacramento and the Chuvíscar. When the Spanish moved in, they adopted a variation of the indigenous phrase meaning “the place where two rivers meet.”
No longer do these two rivers meet in Chihuahua. Only the sandy and gravel-strewn beds of the Sacramento and Chuvíscar remain – the rivers now running only immediately after torrential downpours during the summer’s monsoons.
Where there are (or once were) rivers in Chihuahua, there are also corridors and centers of human life. In the north, he Rio Bravo/Rio Grande separates Chihuahua from Texas, while the Rio Conchos (which runs southwest from the border town of Ojinaga) is that river’s largest tributary.
You don’t, however, need to spend much time in Chihuahua to recognize that its life depends on the sierras. A third of Chihuahua is mountainous, and no other Mexican state has so much forested land. The melting snow and rainwater, which comes rushing and seeping down from the mountains into the grasslands and desert valleys, have made Chihuahua habitable.
Drug Wars Continue, Water Wars Begin
Over the past six years, no other state has been so closely associated with the horrors and the intensity of the drug-war violence of Mexico. For most people not from Chihuahua, whether inside or outside Mexico, the images and numbers of the drug wars have come to define Chihuahua.
In Chihuahua, you often hear the charge that the foreign media and the State Department have colluded to paint a misleading picture of a land besieged by crime, a type of “failed state.” In fact, they assert, most people, particularly those not involved in the drug trade and other organized crime, life has gone much as usual.
Yet, there is no disputing the graphic images of tortured victims and numbers of dead that have the state’s largest city the reputation as the world’s murder capital. The tens of thousands of Chihuahua residents who have fled the state are also testament to high levels of violence and fear that have swept across the state like a desert dust storm that blasts all in its path.
For whatever combination of factors (including the resolution of inter-cartel conflict, the decrease in social cleansing carried out by government and organized crime elements, and cyclical shift in pattern of crime), the drug-war related violence has diminished considerably over the last couple of years in Chihuahua, most notably in the epicenter Ciudad Juárez.
There is widespread hope in Chihuahua that the state has seen the worst of the drug wars – a hope engendered not only by the falling murder rates but also by the end of the Felipe Calderón sexenio and the belief that Enrique Peña Nieto (the winner of the contested election of July 1) and the PRI will engineer a truce among the cartels when he becomes the new master of Los Pinos in December – although Peña Nieto has explicitly discounted the prospect of negotiating with the cartels.
Overgrazed grassland south of Nuevo Casas Grandes / Tom Barry
In any case, the drug-war crisis in Chihuahua seems likely to be overshadowed in the near future by the escalating water crisis and accompanying water wars.
Wherever one travels – through the heart of the great desert, past the parched and rapidly disappearing grasslands, into the sierra, and off the traffic corridors into the colonias of the capital city and Juárez – life in Chihuahua is threatened. The essential aridness that has defined the region –giving rise to the Páquime civilization a thousand years ago and birthing the Mexican Revolution a hundred years ago – is threatened by a still greater aridness that is marked by higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and rapidly depleting aquifers.