Last night at about midnight Dominic and I got in from the Seri town of Desemboque (or Haxöl), about two hours north of Kino. When we got there with our translator and guide, Elena Chavarria, we really had no idea what to expect. Well, okay, I had some notion. The Seri are reputed to be a fiercely independent indigenous community of 800 or so along the Sonoran coastline with a language unlike any other in the region (they call such languages “isolates”). In some ways, the Seri (or Comcaac) never really stopped resisting the conquest of the Spanish. They have been a fishing community in and around nearby Tiberon Island for thousands of years and are notoriously mistrusting of outsiders. They hold turtles to be sacred and have many secretive ceremonies and traditions. Lastly, I had heard reports of bands of armed Seri roaming the waters, forcibly removing poachers who infringed on their sacred tribal land.
What we found was a bit different than expected. Yes, the Seri are definitely a different culture. They mostly speak to each other in Cmiique, their native tongue, and speak to foreigners in a slow, careful Spanish. They call Mexicans blancos (whites) and constantly distinguish themselves from Mexicans (who pushed for their extermination for many years around the turn of the century). They were friendly enough but both of us realized quickly that we were not likely to build up much trust in two short days.
However, there may be more in Seri country that the average Mexican would find familiar than alien. For one thing, they are mostly Christian. Their kids wear American T-shirts, obsess about cell phones, and listen to corridos and 50 Cent. The town has enduring poverty issues and the same scourges of drug use and crime found in other Mexican communities (though we personally saw neither beyond a little pot smoking). They eat the same tortillas, drink the same Coca-Cola, and get the same diabetes. They have the same overwhelming frustration from corruption in their leaders both on land and in the water and like everyone else have a long history of depleting that resource to sell to foreign buyers – Japanese, Americans, and now Koreans.
That’s not to say they are just like any other village on the coast. We talked to many people who are involved in wildlife monitoring. Essentially, these are people being paid by outside conservation groups to count birds, turtles, or other species of interest to biologists. In some ways, this is just the newest way that outsiders are paying the Seri for their natural resources. But, notably, many of these people could make a lot more money fishing than walking up and down the beach, moving turtle eggs away from danger. One group, led by a fisherman named Alburto Estrella, took enormous care as well as detailed notes tracking the breeding habits of something they called the “Gulf turtle” (still looking that one up). These folks clearly were devoted to the survival of the species.
Naturally, we made many more interesting observations and Dominic took many more pictures. But I am afraid for the rest you will have to read our story in Harper’s Magazine when it comes out next year.
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