A light breeze charged with the smell of the sea softened the suffocating heat: The temperature had reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was barely 10 in the morning.
Salma’s house was at the end of the main highway 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, Mexico. She was a young woman—22 years old when I first met her in 2017—with a serious face and few words. A member of the Seri people, also known as Comcáac, she was the only woman working in the traditional guard of the indigenous group, which had been protecting the Seri territory for many decades.
“I like to defend my people and my land,” he told me proudly, holding up the gun he used while on patrol. “If we don’t do it, nobody else can do it.”
“We are the ones who can support and defend our identity,” he said.
In late 2016, I traveled to India to cover a story about a non-governmental organization that was training rural women on how to build and repair solar panels and storage batteries in their local communities. Four of the apprentices were Seri women: Guillermina, Veronica, Francisca, and Cecilia. They would spend the next six months in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan learning about solar engineering.
When I heard the women speak Spanish, I went to greet them and listened 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, to a country whose language and customs were completely foreign to them, to acquire a set of skills that would help them. improve conditions in their own community.
I was touched by his fight.
While documenting the NGO’s work, I became close to the Seri women, eventually promising that when I could, and when they were back in Mexico, I would visit them to help them share their stories.
Several months later, in 2017, I was finally able to keep my promise.
The Seri people live in an austere, unforgiving, and intensely biodiverse corner of the Sonoran Desert in northwestern Mexico. Most of its members live in Punta Chueca or the nearby coastal town of El Desemboque, some 40 miles to the north.
Traditionally, their communal homeland also included Shark Island, where certain bands of Seri lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Now the island, the largest in the Sea of Cortez, is managed as a nature and ecological reserve. It remains a sacred place for the Seri, who maintain 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 susceptible to a growing number of existential threats: higher temperatures, increasingly intense storms, regional development, encroachment by mining companies, overfishing of surrounding waters and the loss of traditional knowledge about local plants and animals.
For decades, the Seri have also faced limited access to fresh water, although the recent installation of a second desalination plant in Punta Chueca has offered some relief.
These threats have caused important 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.
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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 continues to fiercely protect its territory and heritage. In 2014, for example, a small group of Seri women, supported by the traditional tribal guard, defended themselves and their land against a mining company that had begun prospecting a nearby site for gold. , silver and copper. The operation, they said, threatened a sacred site where the tribe traditionally collected medicinal plants and cactus fruits.
Despite these challenges and a relative lack of economic opportunity, young people like Paulina don’t want to leave their community. “We are the future,” she told me, adding that she planned to become a lawyer so she could help her people.
“I’m not leaving here,” he said.
Salma echoed the sentiment, telling me that her dream was to study biology so she could help with local conservation efforts.
His greatest hope, he said, was to protect the flora and fauna his people have depended on for countless generations.