By Philip Burnham -- Today correspondent
HUEJUQUILLA EL ALTO, Mexico - Five hundred years after it started, the Spanish Conquest has finally reached the Huichol.
In this Mexican city perched high in the Sierra Madre, a small band of people is urgently recording native Huichol traditions, like monks preparing for the onset of a modern Dark Ages.
Using computers and cutting-edge software, the Huichol Center is spearheading an effort to preserve a culture thousands of years old - cataloguing images, teaching computer skills, burning language CDs and running a bustling crafts center to underwrite a shoestring budget.
Center founder Susana Valadez calls what's happening to the Huichol - one of the most remote Native groups in Mexico - a ''modern-day conquest.'' A core population of 10,000 people lives in isolated communities increasingly encircled by the electronic grid. So the center has taken up the fight by using the tools of the conqueror - to achieve different ends.
''If they're going to be able to be at the helm of their lives, not be victims, they're going to have a broad range of computer skills,'' Valadez said, pointing to a 13-year-old Huichol girl in the next office working away contentedly in Photoshop.
The center has a larger mission, she explained: ''The practical level of my work is to save the language and save the art so the Huichol people have it available to them.''
The Huichol of central Mexico have fiercely resisted all invaders. Neither Toltecs nor Aztecs could penetrate their mountain redoubts. The Spanish built missions, later abandoned for lack of use. Even now, most Huichol communities in Jalisco state live without modern conveniences like electricity.
But people are migrating out for lack of work. Roads and power lines are becoming more common. Even the language is endangered in mestizo towns like Huejuquilla. So the center has made conservation a priority, especially the thousands of Huichol paintings and masks whose images, inspired by peyote visions, have created a web of ancient and elegant symbols.
Maurilio Moreno Montoya, a Huichol from nearby San Andreas, has worked at the center for several years. His job is to translate colorful yarn paintings, the artistic product of shamanistic dreams, into electronic ''books of color.'' Montoya converts the paintings into black and white line drawings on screen before coloring them with sophisticated graphics programs like Flash. The paintings are then annotated with text from scholarly books and recorded interviews with elders and shamans.
''The primary objective is to rescue and save the images and symbols as a way to support the young people who leave the area,'' said Montoya, a University of Guadalajara graduate. Many Huichol young people migrate to Huejuquilla permanently and never go back to the communities. ''They don't know how to celebrate the fiestas anymore; some girls don't even know how to make tortillas.''
Montoya, who won a national competition in 2004 for an essay on preserving Huichol culture, knows that many Native schools lack computers and may never be able to see the fruit of his labor. ''My objective is to publish this work and get it into the schools and communities where it can be taught to children in Huichol.''
A printing press is the center's abiding dream. ''It's like they have this treasure chest, but nobody really knows about it because it hasn't been recorded or distributed in large amounts,'' Valadez said . ''A large volume of these publications would bring a lot of people back into the realization that their cultural heritage is their best asset and their best tool for survival in the modern world.''
A staff of 40, two-thirds of them Huichol, work at the center. Some are busy computing and word processing; others are producing arts and crafts, soymilk, copal, incense, blue corn and amaranth for local and regional markets.
Nonprofits have kicked in some funding, and the municipal government has given land for a future museum. But it costs $4,000 a week, Valadez said, just to keep the center running.
The Mexican government ''puts more money toward the preservation of sea turtles than they do towards keeping a fascinating Native culture that survived against all odds into the 21st century,'' Valadez said. She holds out hope that universities north of the border will become partners in a project racing against time to anchor the Huichol past.
The center also runs a day care facility and school for children ages 4 - 12. At the end of a normal school day, kids come to learn how to read their mother tongue in an environment far removed from the mestizo culture of the streets.
Valadez married her husband, Mariano, a renowned Huichol yarn painter, and together they founded the center in Nayarit state some 30 years ago. Later divorced, she moved the operation to Huejuquilla in the 1990s.
''If in 2055 some Huichol working in Mexico City says, 'You know, I can remember we used to make the peyote pilgrimage and I have these dreams I can't explain,' they can actually go back to the archives and find a road map to recovering this amazing tradition,'' Valadez said.