April 20-21, 2019
Tiburón Island, Gulf of California
Students and Seri gathered around the fire under a starry sky (PC: Joshua Chin)
Every night on our three-day camping trip on Tiburón Island, we gathered around a campfire for the sharing of stories and communal relaxation. Ironwood (Olneya tesota) burns best – slow, hot, and strong even when buried beneath the sand. The Comcáac, to whom the island belongs, have special rights in collecting this valuable resource to make traditional carvings or to use as firewood. Sprigs of Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla) were added to the flames to create a smoky incense aroma. Sitting in the sand with the sounds of the channel only a few steps away, we listened to Xavier, a Seri elder, tell tales that ranged from ghost stories of a headless apparition to fables about the creation of the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
The most compelling story Xavier shared with the group was that of old marriage customs he sees eroding way within his own lifetime. Xavier explains what his grandfather told him of traditional courtship: it all begins when a man (to us, only a boy) reaches about 13 years of age. His family will look into the community to find a suitable bride. A bride is judged on her characteristics, principle of which being hard-working. The family of the bride will perform a similar scrutiny of the groom to see if he is worthy of their daughter. After this initial test, the two young adults become a couple. To clarify, there is no dinner and movie date for these two – this time is for formal courtship and is the serious proving period of the groom. The couple gets to know each other during the daylight, three steps apart, and under strict supervision of the daughter’s father. The future groom proves his ability to provide for his bride through fishing, hunting, and gathering water in the desert. This trial – which may last as long as the bride’s parents desire – culminates with the groom constructing a house for the couple to live in and the giving of a dowry to the bride’s family.
If the groom has shown the proper skills and character to begin his new life with the bride, she will join him in his house on a moonless night. In customary style, a white sheet is placed on their wedding bed and the stains of blood in the morning are a source of pride for both the groom and the bride. These stains symbolize the virginity and purity of the woman and give sanctity to the marriage. The new life the two start together is forever. There is no concept of divorce. If one dies, the other will never remarry.
When Xavier asked our reactions to these crumbling customs, my response was to make a comparison to 17th century Puritan America, where couples were similarly distanced until marriage and where the virgin “purity” of a woman was so highly valued. This makes me wonder how much influence Catholicism played in the development of these traditions. Were marriages different before the arrival of Spanish missionaries and their value system? Perhaps what Xavier’s grandfather described to him is a hybrid of Catholic values (purity/virginity, parental supervision, lack of physical touch/sex before marriage) and Comcáac traditions (gathering food and water in the desert, wedding on a moonless night)? Other students in the circle went on to say that they value their liberty and freedom of choice over old marriage customs, a sentiment then mirrored by Claudia.
Claudia, a Seri woman in her late twenties and the mother of two young girls, expressed her opinion of these old marriage traditions. She explains that she has largely abandoned most of the customs in favor of her own life desires. When we met her future husband, they spent time getting to know each other as friends first. When they decided to marry, she felt pressured to stick to old customs by her older family members, but they decided to abandon most of them (her husband still paid a handsome dowry). She further went on to say she waited on having children – she valued her career life and wanted to wait three or four years before starting a family. Claudia expressed a lot of respect for her husband and said she was not opposed to divorce should they no longer feel happy together as a couple. Interestingly, Claudia and her husband are not legally married. They were married in front of a priest, but do not possess the legal documents of marriage. Claudia experiences pushback from her community on this basis.
Being the hopeless romantic that I am, I really do enjoy these kinds of stories of people coming together. I find it interesting how the mindsets of each generation changes, seemingly in a collective direction towards less tradition and more liberty. The wedding of my mother and father was already a watered-down dilution of their parents’ customs and traditions. I imagine, should I choose to marry, I would abandon even more customs and preserve my career ambitions over family life until I feel ready. Xavier thinks the old traditions are good. Claudia thinks the changing customs are good. Is this not the universal, intergenerational struggle in every community?