A light breeze laden with the scent of the sea softened the stifling heat: the temperature had reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit and it was only 10 a.m.
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 (75 km) 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 the Comcáac, she was the only woman to work in the traditional guard of the indigenous group, who had protected the Seri area for decades.
“I like to defend my people and my country,” she told me proudly, holding the weapon she used on her patrol. “If we don’t do it, 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 tell a story about a non-governmental organization that trained women from rural areas in building and repairing solar panels and 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 about solar energy.
When I heard the women speak Spanish, I went to greet them and listen as they told me their stories. Concerned for the survival of their people, a nation of only about 1,000 people, the four women had traveled thousands of miles—to a land whose language and customs were utterly foreign to them—to acquire a set of skills that would help improve conditions in their own communities.
I was touched by their struggle.
While documenting the work of the NGO, I befriended the Seri women and eventually promised them that when I could, and when they were back in Mexico, I would visit them to help share their stories.
A few months later, in 2017, I was finally able to deliver on my promise.
The Seri people live in a stark and brutal – and intensely biodiverse – corner of the Sonoran Desert, in northwestern Mexico. Most members live in Punta Chueca or the nearby coastal town of El Desemboque, about 40 miles to the north.
Traditionally, their common homeland also included Tiburón Island, where certain groups 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 retain exclusive fishing rights in the channel between Tiburón and the mainland.
The identity of the Seri people is inextricably linked to their natural environment, which has been subject to an increasing number of existential threats in recent decades: global warming, intensification of 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 struggled with limited access to freshwater, although the recent installation of a second desalination plant at Punta Chueca has provided some relief.
These threats have led to major changes in Seri customs and habits. One consequence – the result of a decline in traditional diets that relied on fish and once-abundant plants, combined with the introduction of sugary drinks and processed foods – has been 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 its heritage. In 2014, for example, a small group of Seri women — with the support of the tribe’s traditional guards — defended themselves and their lands against a mining company that had set out to dig for gold, silver, and copper in a nearby location. 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 communities. “We are the future,” she told me, adding that she intended to become a lawyer so she could help her people.
“I’m not leaving here,” she said.
Reiterating the sentiment, Salma told me her dream was to study biology so she could help with local conservation efforts.
Her ultimate hope, she said, was to protect the flora and fauna that her people have relied on for countless generations.