An Intimate Look at Mexico’s Indigenous Seri People

A light wind 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, some 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 the Comcáac, she was the only woman who worked in the Indigenous group’s traditional guard, which had been protecting Seri territory for many decades.

“I like to defend my people and my land,” she told me proudly, while holding the weapon she used while out on 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 cover a story about a nongovernmental organization that was training women from rural areas how to build and repair solar panels and storage batteries in their local communities. Four of the trainees 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 speaking 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 entirely foreign to them — in order to acquire a set of skills that would help them improve the conditions in their own community.

I was moved by their struggle.

While documenting the work of the N.G.O., I became close with 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 fulfill my promise.

The Seri people live in a stark and unforgiving — and intensely biodiverse — corner of the Sonoran Desert, in northwestern Mexico. Most of its members live either in Punta Chueca or in the nearby coastal village of El Desemboque, some 40 miles to the north.

Traditionally, their communal homeland also included Tiburón 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 administered as a nature and ecological preserve. It remains a sacred place to the Seri, who maintain exclusive fishing rights in the channel between Tiburón and the mainland.

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

For decades, the Seri have also contended with limited access to fresh water — though the recent installation of a second desalination plant in Punta Chueca has offered some relief.

These threats have caused major changes in the Seri’s habits and customs. One consequence — the result of a decline in traditional diets that relied on fish and once-abundant plants, paired 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 corridor for drug trafficking to the U.S. 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 begun 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 opportunity, young people like Paulina do not 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 won’t leave here,” she said.

Salma echoed the sentiment, telling me that her dream was to study biology so that 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.