An intimate look at the indigenous Seri people of Mexico

A light wind loaded with the smell of the sea softened the stifling heat: the temperature had reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was...


A light wind loaded with the smell of the sea softened the stifling heat: the temperature had reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was only 10 o’clock in the morning.

Salma’s house was at the end of the main road in Punta Chueca, a small town on the mainland coast of the Sea of ​​Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, about 75 miles west of Hermosillo , in Mexico. She was a young woman – 22 when I first met her in 2017 – with a serious face and few words. A member of the Seri people, also known as the Comcáac, she was the only woman to work in the traditional guard of the indigenous group, which had protected Seri territory for many decades.

“I like to defend my people and my land,” she told me proudly, while holding the weapon she used during her patrols. “If we don’t, no one else can.”

“We are the ones who can support and defend our identity,” she said.

In late 2016, I traveled to India to cover a story about a non-governmental organization that was training rural women to build and repair solar panels and storage batteries in their local communities. Four of the interns were Seri women: Guillermina, Veronica, Francisca and Cecilia. They would spend the next six months in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan learning solar engineering.

When I heard the women speaking Spanish, I went to greet them and listen as they told me their stories. Concerned about the survival of their people, a nation of only about 1,000 people, the four women had traveled thousands of miles – in a country whose language and customs were completely foreign to them – in order to acquire a set of skills who would help them. improve conditions in their own community.

I was moved by their struggle.

While documenting the work of the NGO, I became close to the Seri women, eventually promising them that when I could, and when they were back in Mexico, I would visit them to help share their stories.

Several months later, in 2017, I was finally able to keep my promise.

The Seri people live an austere and ruthless life – and intensely biodiverse — corner of the Sonoran Desert, northwest of Mexico. Most of its members live either in Punta Chueca or in the nearby coastal village of El Desemboque, about 40 miles to the north.

Traditionally, their communal homeland also included the island of Tiburón, where some bands of Seri have lived for hundreds or even thousands of years. Now the island – the largest in the Sea of ​​Cortez – is administered as a natural and ecological reserve. It remains a sacred place for the Seri, who retain exclusive fishing rights in the channel between Tiburón and the mainland.

The identity of the Seri people is integrally linked to their natural environment, which in recent decades has been exposed to an increasing number of existential threats: warming temperatures, intensification of storms, regional development, encroachment by mining companies, overfishing of surrounding waters and loss of traditional knowledge of local plants and animals.

For decades, the Seri have also struggled with limited access to fresh water – although the recent installation of a second desalination plant in Punta Chueca has brought some relief.

These threats have caused major changes in the habits and customs of the Seri. One consequence – the result of a decline in traditional diets that relied on once abundant fish and plants, coupled with the introduction of sugary drinks and processed foods – is a significant increase in the prevalence of diabetes. .

The community, whose territory lies along a drug trafficking corridor to the US border, has also seen an increase in drug abuse among its members.

And yet, the community remains fiercely protective of its territory and its heritage. In 2014, for example, a small group of Seri women – with the support of the tribe’s traditional guard – defended themselves and their land against a mining company that had started prospecting at a nearby site for gold. , silver and copper. The operation, they said, threatened a sacred site where the tribe traditionally gathered medicinal plants and cactus fruits.

Despite these challenges and a relative lack of economic opportunities, young people like Paulina do not want to leave their community. “We are the future,” she told me, adding that she considered becoming a lawyer so she could help her people.

“I won’t leave here,” she said.

Salma echoed that sentiment, telling me her dream was to study biology so she could contribute to local conservation efforts.

Her ultimate hope, she said, was to protect the flora and fauna that her people had relied on for countless generations.

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Newsrust - US Top News: An intimate look at the indigenous Seri people of Mexico
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