EL DESEMBOQUE del RIO SAN IGNACIO, Sonora — Somewhere near the crossroads of the sun, the sea, the dust and a fiercely guarded isolation is the essence of this tiny Seri village on the Sonoran coast of Mexico.
El Desemboque is a wild study in contradictions, both rich and subtle, starting with its thudding juxtaposition of desert and sea. As well as I know and love the Sonoran Desert, it seemed inconceivable to stand on the edge of a low-tide beach, staring at waves in one direction and saguaro in the other.
My visit was unexpected, a short-notice invitation from a linguist friend who studies the one-of-a-kind Seri language and how it intertwines with the spectacular landscape. The systems of classification in the Seri language – spoken by just a few hundred people – for animals, plants and the landscape is a window into their unique and shifting culture.
We left Tucson early Monday morning, speeding away in a Chevy Tahoe before the day’s heat could catch up with us. The road to El Desemboque, which was new territory for me from the moment we crossed the border into Mexico, took us through Hermosillo before heading west. The final hour or so of dirt road was spent trying to sit tight despite the relentless washboard bumps.
We stayed in a decades old brick house that like the rest of the structures in the village emphasized shelter over comfort. The electricity had been cut the week before we arrived, and an outhouse served for nature’s business. We cooked with a camping stove – and actually ate very well. The landscape is absolutely beautiful and the sea breezes were a great respite during the day’s peak. I captured some pictures of the setting sun as it lent a tremendous bright orange glow in between the ocotillo branches that made the fence around the house.
The people of the village speak Seri – or cmiique iitom as they call it – and most speak Spanish as well. My friend and our hosts – a Mexican anthropologist and his wife – were the only people there who spoke any English. I speak – or rather, I understand – very little Spanish. So I just took it all in, making sense of some things along the way, but generally feeling a bit removed.
I spent most of my time sitting in the shade outside the house, watching the coming and going of Seri visitors and the rhythm of the interactions. It was mostly women who came, dressed in colorful long skirts and usually bringing shell necklaces to sell. They talked with my linguist friend and the anthropologist, spreading news of the village and the upcoming Año Nuevo celebration.
My linguist friend and guide, Carolyn O’Meara, is from Tucson but is finishing her Ph.D. at the University at Buffalo. She’s been spending weeks and months at a time in El Desemboque for the past five years, documenting and describing the language of the Seri.
The relationship between language and culture is the core of her research, which is described as ethnophysiography. Approaching the Seri language from how it describes and classifies the landscape allows O’Meara to analyze the extent to which those classifications are unique to the Seri people.
The Seri territory is comprised of arroyos, mountains, islands, the beach and the desert, and the descriptions of the various places derive mostly from how the Seri people use the land. For example, the name for the stretch of beach that was the original settlement of El Desemboque loosely translates into “the place where the clams are.”
Comparing the different landscape categorization systems in languages, linguists, anthropologists and geographers seek out where there might be universal tendencies common to vastly different human languages and what aspects of landscape classification differ from culture to culture. At the root of that difference is the question of what role language plays in distinct cultures, and what is lost when the languages of indigenous people are lost to the dominant language and culture.
In connection with the classification of landscape, O’Meara studies the Seri grammar of space and spatial relationships. Locations of objects, frames of reference and the description of objects in motion are all crucial to how people interact with their landscape. O’Meara documents these aspects of the Seri language for cross-linguistic comparisons.
The fascination of the Seri language is rooted in its distinct and isolated status. Though some researchers have suggested the language is related to the Yuman-Cochimí family, historically spoken in Baja California and along the Colorado River valley, most linguists agree that it is a linguistic isolate, with no demonstrable genealogical relationship to any other language.
I didn’t have an agenda or expectations other than to see El Desemboque, to tag along out of curiosity and just mainly for the experience. And, like the Seri language itself, El Desemboque was like nothing else I’d seen or experienced before.