When a Misunderstanding was Diagnosed as a Mental Illness

In 1983, a woman named Rita Quintero was found in a small Kansas town, wearing eccentric clothing and rummaging through trash cans for her next meal. Officials approached her, aiming to take stock of the situation, but Quintero appeared uncooperative. Instead of replying to their questions in English, Spanish, or anything else which resembled a common language, she began babbling in gibberish. From her perspective, officials concluded, Quintero was speaking in a clear language, but from the viewpoint of anyone listening, it was a mess of incomprehensible sounds. After a while, she finally said something discernible (although it’s unclear in what language), stating that she “fell from the heavens.”  Officials concluded that she was schizophrenic. For for the next twelve years, Quintero, deemed to be hopeless per one account, lived her days in a state mental institution.

But she wasn’t hopeless. She was Mexican. Just a different type of Mexican — one that Kansas officials weren’t familiar with.

The Mexican state of Chihuahua is located on the nation’s northern border, just to the southwest of Texas. (Here’s a map.) It is home to just under 3.5 million people. Of those 3.5 million, about 50,000 to 70,000 are members of an indigenous culture known as the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara people are known for running; as National Geographic reported, the Tarahumarans “are extraordinary endurance runners, having lived for generations amid a transportation network of narrow footpaths through the canyons [… .] and they’ve been known to irritate American ultramarathoners by beating them while wearing huarache sandals and stopping now and then for a smoke.” The Tarahumarans are also known, at least in Chihuahua, for the brightly-colored wardrobes of the women in their communities (here’s a picture) and their basket weaving skills. But these aren’t the only things that set the Tarahumara people apart from the rank-and-file Mexicans. The other big difference: Many Tarahumarans don’t speak Spanish. They have their own language, one which sounds very different from Spanish.

Quintero, when officials found her at those trash cans, was speaking using the Tarahumaran language. But of course, the Kansas officials were entirely unaware that the language even existed and, instead, decided she needed to be removed from society. Somehow, a dozen years after she was locked away, a patient advocacy group learned about her situation and lobbied for Quintero’s release, according to an article in the Kansas City Star (republished here). The group sued the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and the hospital in which Quintero was held, demanding $10 million in compensation. According to the Topeka-Capital Journal, the parties settled out of court and the case was dismissed in the fall of 2001.

It’s unclear how Quintero ended up being one of the few and perhaps only Tarahumaran in western Kansas. According to press reports, she rarely if ever talks publicly about her ordeal. However, in 2003, a Mexican playwright named Victor Hugo Rascon Banda adapted her story into a short play, a performance of which can be viewed here.



Bonus Fact: The chihuahua dog is named after the state of Chihuahua (which is itself named after the Chihuaua Desert). The dogs can be a menace. In early 2014, packs of stray Chihuauas ran throughout a small Arizona town, and, in the words of the New York Daily News, the dogs were “terrorizing children and defecating anywhere they want,” and animal control couldn’t seem to stop it. Government officials suggested that residents who come across a stray dog try and trap the pup in their yards, because animal control was too understaffed to arrive on the scene quickly enough otherwise.

Take the Quiz!: Mexico has 31 states. Choose them from these choices.

From the ArchivesWi-Fido: Dogs in Mexico which provide free wi-fi — if you clean up after them.

Related: “Born To Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougall. A book about the Tarahumara people and their proclivity for long distance running. 4.7 stars on well over 2,500 reviews, and mentions Quintero’s story