Juan sat quietly in the flickering light of the fire. He watched his mother grinding corn on her metate (grinding stone) for the evening meal. Juan’s father was busy too. He was carving a wooden ball for Juan. The even, polished surface gleamed yellow in the firelight.
“Will it be ready for the race on Friday?” Juan asked.
“Yes. I will finish it tomorrow,” his father replied.
Juan smiled. He and his two teammates would run even better with such a well-made ball.
Juan was an Indian of the Tarahumara tribe. He lived high in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico. His family home was near Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon).
Juan’s father, Dionisio, was a great man. He was the best runner in the village—maybe the best in all the mountains! Wearing his “lucky” belt of deer hooves, he’d won many races. For the Tarahumara people, running was one of the most important things in life. In fact, they called themselves Rama Mure (foot runners). Men and boys ran along the rocky mountain paths, kicking before them a wooden ball carved from an oak tree root.
Juan was fifteen now. He’d been running almost since he could walk, and on Friday he and his teammates would run a big race against a team from the village of Pilares. Juan wanted to run as well as his father ran.
All the Indians knew Dionisio. “¡Kawira-ba (hello)!” people called whenever Juan’s father passed them during a race. It was nothing for Dionisio and his team to run for two days and nights without stopping for anything except a drink.
Juan loved racing at night by torchlight, but right now the race he was most interested in was the race against the Pilares team. Although it would only be twelve miles, it was still important. To Juan and his friends, every race was important.
There were other important things in Juan and his father’s life besides running. They planted corn, beans, and squash. They also tended their seventeen goats, corraling them each night. Each of the goats was named and was well known by the family. To have so many goats to provide milk and cheese was good. Seldom would Juan’s father kill one of the animals, for they were too precious to use as meat. Meat was provided by the deer and chipmunks of the mountains.
At the end of each day Father would take the handmade violin from the pegs on the wall and draw the bow across the strings, bringing forth sweet, sad songs.
In all things Juan’s father was his ideal. He did everything well—running, hunting, growing crops, playing music, carving from wood. Sometimes Juan became discouraged. He could not carve well—except the flesh of his own fingers! He could beg only mournful cries from the violin. And running? Not yet. Maybe this race against the Pilares team would be a turning point for him. Not only would my winning the race make father proud, he daydreamed, but it would also mean that one day I might be a truly great runner!
Early the next morning Juan went with his father to move the corral. Juan knew that besides giving them cheese and milk, their goats also fed the earth. He knew that seeds planted in the place where a corral had stood grew into strong plants. Juan was glad for so much work that day, because he would have less time to think about the upcoming race.
Friday dawned, and Juan tried to quiet his excitement. His father had told him that too much fear or excitement could take the strength from his body.
Today was also a holiday. Juan’s people celebrated many holidays each year, and running was always part of the festivities. Mother had prepared cedar tea so that Juan could bathe his legs in it. All Tarahumara runners did this before running. They thought it kept away evil spirits.
On his left foot Juan wore a sandal, as did all the runners. The right foot—the kicking foot—was bare. A runner must be able to lift the ball and kick it with his toes and foot. Although the running must be swift, the ball must go ahead. A lost one meant a delay until another ball was put into play.
Finally the Pilares team arrived. The signal was given, and the two teams ran. Juan’s new ball was painted with a red stripe. First it was kicked by Juan, then by each teammate in turn. Up and down the steep, rocky path they went. The boys had run this trail many times. They knew when to send the ball swiftly ahead and when to slow down for curves in the path.
On and on they ran. Many of the villagers ran behind them to see the outcome of the race. Juan knew that his father was with them.
When at last they neared the end of the twelve-mile run, Juan found himself running side by side with a Pilares runner.
I must win! I must win! Juan told himself. He ran faster and faster. He felt power in his tired legs. He felt the wind of his own speed rushing through his hair. He felt he could fly! The runner from Pilares was no longer beside him. Juan ran alone.
Then the wind was gone.
Juan looked up from the rocky path where he had fallen. The runner from Pilares sped ahead.
It was Father who tended the deep cut in Juan’s knee.
“I lost! I will never be a great runner,” the boy declared mournfully.
Father stopped wrapping the cloth around Juan’s leg and looked at him. Then he spoke. “I don’t know how many races I lost when I was young, but I know I learned something each time I raced.”
“But you are the best! You are a winner. Everyone admires you.”
“Ahhh. It is because they do not remember the times I lost. They remember only the times I won. I remember both.”
Juan sat amazed. His father had once lost races!
“You are not a loser, my son. You are a winner learning how to win.”