Not Your Average Birthday: A Day in Seri Territory

“Te lo regalo,” – a gift for you – the young fisherman named Ramiro said as he placed the lifeless seahorse in my palm. Ramiro didn’t know that it was actually my birthday when he gave me this peculiar gift, and I chose to smile privately at the coincidence rather than tell him. Looking down at the golden animal, its brittle form so perfect it hardly seemed real, I felt simultaneously troubled and fascinated. In a crate near my feet at the bottom of the panga, several other seahorses lay atop a pile of pen shell intestines awaiting cleaning. These fishermen were divers, working on the seafloor of the Infiernillo Channel to collect pen shells by hand. It didn’t make sense that they should have any sort of bycatch, beyond the barnacles and seaweed that attach stubbornly to the pen shell’s exterior, or the commensal crustaceans that bury themselves amidst the pen shell’s internal organs. So why did they capture these seahorses?

“They’re a curiosity, nothing more,” was Ramiro’s reply. With mixed feelings, I clutched my little curiosity firmly but gently between two fingers, my other hand grasping the bench as we bumped over the waves at full speed in the tiny boat. Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that on my 25th birthday I’d be riding on a panga, a small, open-air boat, in the Gulf of California, having just witnessed pen shell divers undertake their difficult, dangerous work firsthand.

Drawing near shore, my eyes fell for the first time on Ramiro’s worn baseball cap. Taking in the Boston Red Sox logo, my mind immediately went to the tragic bombing that had occurred at the Boston Marathon only days prior. Seeing that hat in the remote Seri village of Punta Chueca was a little surreal. I wondered if Ramiro had heard about the recent terrorist attack. Was he an actual Boston Red Socks fan, or did he come across the hat by chance? Before I could find out we were back at the village, the fishermen springing out of the panga to unload their catch.

Onshore, the surprising cultural clashes continued. Parked on dusty, unpaved roads alongside houses in need of repair were pickup trucks that looked brand new. These cars, some of which are stolen in the United States and driven across the border for sale in Mexico, are purchased by the Seris for dramatically reduced prices. The contrast between the modern vehicles and the run-down buildings was striking.

Further down the street, I watched women wearing traditional floor-length skirts as they supervised children who played among trash and discarded tires in the front yard. I reached an open square where rusty swings and slides sat unused as a group of boys played on roller blades and bikes atop a basketball court. For some reason this surprised me, too, as though I hadn’t expected to see the same toys and the same games being played in this traditional village as elsewhere in Mexico and the world.

A sudden gust of wind brought with it a sound that threw me for an even greater loop! Was that….punk rock? And were my ears playing a trick on me, or did that music sound like it was live? I walked in the direction of the sound. A few blocks away in a plain, grey cinder block house were four men dressed in almost all black, their long black hair flowing around them wildly as they rehearsed what I thought were incredibly catchy punk rock tunes in the native Seri language. I stood peeking in the open door in disbelief. This seemed so completely out of place in this quiet, sleepy village. And this was not the type of music that I expected of the ancient Seri people! A poster on the window identified the group as rock band Hamac Caziim. From further research I’ve learned that Hamac Caziim has performed all over the world, and was originally formed with the permission of the Seri Council of Elders to engage members of the younger generation in the history and culture of their own people.

This fusion of old and new, of traditional and modern, will probably only become more pronounced with time. Ever since the main road connecting Punta Chueca and its neighboring communities was paved, industry groups and developers have expressed increasing interest in the Seri’s government-granted land and resources. So far, the Seri people have voted against any major projects. However, as time goes on, outside cultural influences and mounting economic pressure may make such propositions harder to resist. But the Seri are notoriously strong and willful people, and as they adapt to an ever-evolving world, I have no doubt that they will find creative ways to hold tight their rich and beautiful heritage. Hamac Caziim is a perfect example of that.

Earlier that day, standing with my classmates at scenic Punto Círculo on Tiburón Island where Seri bands historically gathered to swear allegiance to each other against their common enemies, I registered just how very unique this visit to Seri territory was. These moments, impossible to ever recreate or even to adequately describe, made for the most unforgettable birthday of my life thus far. I will cherish my birthday presents – the photos, memories, and my little preserved seahorse – long after leaving the Gulf of California.