Prose / Writers

The Seri Hills by Natalia Magnani

“It is the drugs.” The elderly Seri woman turned away from the mid-day sun, contemplating the approaching years of her village. “We have always lived to 100, but the young people are choosing a different path, growing thin and dry.”

Punta Chueca, or Crooked Point, is situated where the sands of the Sonoran desert blow into the Sea of Cortez. The indigenous group known as the Seri, or Comca’ac, reside in this space, numbering a modest 500. Our team of four from the University of Arizona arrived to study various scientific concepts. We observed the behavior of the children, took genetic samples, and conducted health measurements. However, we noticed a pattern beyond the neat squares on the data charts; silently, a drug culture was permeating the pueblo.

Punta Chueca was built by the Mexican government, comprising predominantly one-room cinder block houses fitted into the sand between the Sea of Cortez, the Saguaros, and the bare hills beyond. Walking along the water, one can look out to the straw-roofed palapas that stand with their feet submerged by the tide, as if they have been growing there all along. A fisherman is often spotted on the bow of a boat, his silhouette dark against the thinning path that the sun pulls on its way behind the horizon.

Past the fishermen and the palapas, Isla Tiburon, or Shark Island, stretches for miles and watches over the people who hold it sacred. In 1963, the Mexican government turned the island into an ecological preserve, resigning residents to the mainland of concrete housing projects. The once nomadic people no longer traverse long distances; instead they regularly move from one vacant house to the next, stuck in a labyrinth of government handouts. Many homes have outhouses in the yard and small satellite dishes on their roofs, with potable water flowing nearby from the nozzles of delivered water tanks. Each day, soldiers drive by the houses, looking out from the top deck of their truck. As a road is paved from Punta Chueca to the major town, Bahia de Kino, the Cmiique iitom language finds itself falling away with the older generations, and the children carry on in Spanish.

The first few days our presence excited suspicion. Men and women watched silently and teenagers cast sideways glances as we drove by in our white Nissan pick-up. Often the young people’s thin frames could be spotted in groups, wandering across the desert sand. Many covered their mouths with bandannas or other fabric. “It’s for the dust,” a villager explained. The eyes that peered above the cloth asked, “Why are you here?”, then turned away.

One day while walking through the village with another student, a middle aged man drove up beside us and motioned, “Venga.” Gingerly we walked closer. “What are you doing?” he asked through missing teeth. Knowing a few more words in Spanish than the other student, I stumbled to explain about the salud de pueblo and the children, then stopped. He waited and smiled, and we smiled and dug our feet into the sand. Then he laughed and shook our hands again, exchanging mucho gustos for the second time before driving away.

Soon the villagers grew accustomed to our intrusion, their confused faces melting into como estas and warm nods. Often we would take breaks to talk to José, a friend from previous expeditions. In the past he worked in air transportation for the Mexican drug cartels but now led the quieter life of a Seri fisherman. His usual grin faded as he told of the man who had guided the researchers to Isla Tiburon several months ago. José’s friend was shot by Mexican police after robbing a store in Bahia de Kino. We heard another version of the tale from a ten-year-old girl named Daniella. “Cops came to the pueblo to find him and his friends. But then other villagers shot back at the police.” She added that there are “asaltantes” who frequent the road between Punta Chueca and Bahia de Kino, the road by which we travelled each day. They rob and hijack, hurt if the need arises. Daniella made a cutting motion on her wrists to explain, “They target people like you.”

Half way through each day, as the 110 degree sun played with the moisture of the sea, we ate lunch in the shade of an old concrete structure. The faint smell of urine wafted from a room with no door, filled with debris and graffiti. On one of such days, as we ate in silence, a man in a pink button-down shirt came to stand several yards away. After a few minutes, he moved closer. “Why don’t you guys talk?” he asked. His teeth were coated in brown spots, and two front ones were missing. We offered him food as he told of his brother, the chief of police. “Let me know if anybody gives you trouble.” We thanked him and moved toward the truck to continue work.

~~~

 “Tienes money?” Daniella peaked in our car window with quick eyes that held a façade of innocence. Her skin was a deep chestnut that did not carry the same golden tones of the other children. She had led us to her mother’s house, a contraption of material resembling cardboard plastered into walls around a single room. We were giving away groceries and toothbrushes to families in the study, and she had lured me to the house with smiles and eager gestures, insuring her family’s participation. An uncomfortable odor hung over the yard, and the town’s stray dogs, matted hair on bare bone, walked freely into and out of the home. Daniella’s little sister blended into this setting, faded skin behind straw-like hair, while Daniella stood beside her with dark brown strands that reflected and played the sun’s images like film. Every day we watched Daniella at the tables of others, growing in height and strength.

As we prepared to do cheek swabs for genetic sampling, Daniella’s mother appeared by the door, leaning against the wall with a loose, dazed smile. A slightly overweight woman in her early 30s, she bit down on a head scarf that wrapped around her face. “What is the saliva test for?” she asked. We produced our usual explanation about village health but she continued smiling, muttering that she would not do it. “The study is anonymous and the Mexican government is not involved,” we persisted. But she said, “No, no,” and bit down on the cloth and smiled. Other participants were not concerned. “Is it alright if I just did a little drugs?” a man asked as we took out a scraper for the cheek swab.

The son of the Seri leader had succumbed to the methamphetamine too. One afternoon I noticed the lanky, stooped man through the glass of our car, his middle aged eyes sunken and skin taught from narcotics. He walked in the direction of the vehicle, and then leaned forward to pick up rocks from the ground. Instinctively I ducked. When I raised my head again, I saw him behind me, still walking, approaching a large group of emaciated dogs who had claimed the village playground. The villagers fed the dogs leftovers and occasional threats. Thus the dogs took their place at Punta Chueca, dependent and beaten.

Daniella’s mother eventually agreed to the genetic test. “When was the last time you ate?” we asked as we moved through the standard questions, our work day ending. She had not eaten since morning. Before driving away, we handed her the promised groceries. “Mom told me you didn’t bring the food,” Daniella later mentioned.

Before I left the Seri hills, Daniella gave me a large stone. One worn end was shaped into the curves of a sea shell, with grooves circling toward the top. “It’s the only one of its kind, I found it in the hills.” I felt its heaviness against my body. It had been left behind by the Seri of the past, resting for decades, possibly centuries, in the Sonoran desert. Daniella looked up at me, the usual shrewdness in her eyes replaced by something different. She wanted me to have it.

The internet does not reach the homes of Punta Chueca, and neither does the postal service. There on the dimming shore of the Sea of Cortez, Daniella rocks her little sister while her mother bites down on her scarf. Nearby soldiers in camouflage walk by the fishermens’ boats, guns held at their sides. The men collect their nets and start toward home, where children chase each other and echo laughter. Never in a rush, the stifling heat recedes as the sun sets behind the Isla Tiburon; the people retreat behind walls and the dogs settle into the shadows.

Natalia Magnani is the founder of the Undergraduate Psychology Review and previous Editor of the Journal of Undergraduate Anthropology. Her work has been published in The Forum, the magazine of the International Foreign Language Honor Society, and Bare Essentials. Her passion for writing joins with a great love for languages, both written and spoken. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore speaks Russian, as well as French, which she studied for years and then mastered while spending time abroad in Tours, France. More recently she has been learning Spanish, Norwegian, and Skolt Saami. She was honored with a Rosefsky Scholarship, for the understanding and improvement of communities through language.

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4 thoughts on “The Seri Hills by Natalia Magnani

  1. The sense of place conveyed in this piece, along with the people of the Seri Hills, transports the reader from the convenience of the well-lit laptop to this foreign and arid world. There is a beauty and strong relevance in Natalia’s writing which illustrate her love of language, the written word and these struggling people.

  2. An incredible journey. Accessible and painfully lyrical writing. The blazing, gritty sand, the sad and hungry dogs, and the skeptical forlorn natives, grinning from toothless mouths at the dust tossed up from surrounding truckloads of armed soldiers. A sense at once so alien, and so real. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: It’ll All Work Itself Out | Acrobatic Thoughts

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