Inside a Peyote Pilgrimage ~ NYT

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The Chihuahuan Desert in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. The Wixáritari, an Indigenous group, return here every year to collect peyote.

Photographs by Matt Reichel

Text by Robyn Huang

  • July 5, 2021

Mario Bautista was digging relentlessly at the ground. Deep in the vast and unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert, in northeastern Mexico, he had spent nearly eight hours wading through a seemingly endless patch of thorny brush. Surrounding him were 25 members of his community, including his wife and children.

Everyone in the group was searching for one thing: the psychedelic plant known as peyote, or hikuri — a small, squishy cactus camouflaged underneath the shrubbery.

K’kame, at left, an elder among the Wixárika, takes part in a ritual in central San Luis Potosí, near a naturally bubbling spring. Here, the pilgrims use brushes and candles to collectively baptize one another.
K’kame, at left, an elder among the Wixárika, takes part in a ritual in central San Luis Potosí, near a naturally bubbling spring. Here, the pilgrims use brushes and candles to collectively baptize one another.

Mario and those alongside him are members of the Mexican Huichol, or Wixárika, people, and hikuri is their lifeline. Whatever they found would be brought back to their village for use in their daily religious rituals.

Mariana Bautista prepares blue corn tortillas over an open stove in the village of La Cebolleta.
Mariana Bautista prepares blue corn tortillas over an open stove in the village of La Cebolleta.
A Wixáritari woman washes vegetables inside her detached kitchen. The Wixáritari grow a variety of produce, including beans, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos, chilis and squash. They also make homemade cheese.
A Wixáritari woman washes vegetables inside her detached kitchen. The Wixáritari grow a variety of produce, including beans, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos, chilis and squash. They also make homemade cheese.

Spread across the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental range, the Wixárika are an Indigenous people with an estimated population of 45,000. Within their culture, peyote is far more than just a hallucinogenic cactus. The Wixárika believe that the plant allows them to connect with their ancestors and regenerates their souls.

Every year, Wixárika communities make a several-hundred-mile pilgrimage to a sacred place called Wirikuta, near the northeastern city of Matehuala. Groups travel — these days by car, trucks and buses — under the direction of a leading shaman, or maraka’ame.

Under Mexican law, only Indigenous groups are authorized to harvest and ingest peyote. But in part because of its increasing popularity as a recreational drug, the plant has become harder to find. If their holy lands continue to be threatened — by drug touristsmining companies and farming encroachment — then a core aspect of the Wixárika’s identity will be in danger.

Mariana Bautista prepares tortillas for her daughter, Montse. She makes all of her own clothing. 
Mariana Bautista prepares tortillas for her daughter, Montse. She makes all of her own clothing. 

This past March, the photographer Matt Reichel and I were invited to join Mario and his family on their pilgrimage.

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Pilgrims are divided into groups based on their ancestral family lands, and each group can only access a particular area within Wirikuta. They must also receive an initial blessing in their homeland before setting out on the journey; for Mario’s family, the blessing took place in Rancho La Tristeza, near the village of La Cebolleta, in the Mexican state of Nayarit.

The next day, the group embarked on the pilgrimage adorned in their traditional dress. The women wore vibrant colored, hand-sewn dresses. Scarves protected their hair from the sun.

The Wirikuta desert outside the village of Real de Catorce comprises dense scrub brush and thorns. To find peyote, the pilgrims must search among thorn bushes.
The Wirikuta desert outside the village of Real de Catorce comprises dense scrub brush and thorns. To find peyote, the pilgrims must search among thorn bushes.

The men wore white shirts and pants, with embroidered depictions of deer, peyote and other symbols. They also wore wide-brimmed hats with plumed feathers. One particular man, K’kame, the guardian of the community’s ancestral pavilion, was a visual splendor: His hat held more plumed feathers than those of other pilgrims, and he was chaotically energetic during all the rituals.

During the harvest, families collect crowns of peyote, or hikuri, which they will re-plant when they return to the mountains and consume in ceremonies throughout the year. Plants from the day’s harvest are left out to dry for a few hours in the desert air before they are packed away in large plastic bags.
During the harvest, families collect crowns of peyote, or hikuri, which they will re-plant when they return to the mountains and consume in ceremonies throughout the year. Plants from the day’s harvest are left out to dry for a few hours in the desert air before they are packed away in large plastic bags.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

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