A fish whose anatomy has barely changed in 100 million years is a local staple in the Mexican gulf coast. But the humble peje is also becoming a political flashpoint.(Nathaniel Flannery)
Guadalupe Jimenez stands with his knees slightly bent, dipping his paddle and pushing through the water in smooth, silent strokes. The sky is dark. Guadalupe, or "Don Lupe" as he's known on the small island where he lives, looks out over the still, glassy water. "Here the current runs more," he says. The water burbles as it streams past thin trees. The boat picks up speed, moving out into the center of the isolated lagoon, located down a dirt road in the lush and green ranch country 45 minutes south of the city of Villahermosa, Mexico. The area, in the Atlantic coast state of Tabasco, is famous for being home to the pejelagarto, an ancient species that still swims slowly through the region's lakes and lagoons, making its way into fishermen's nets and onto dinner plates throughout the state. Don Lupe hopes to catch one.
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On the outskirts of Villahermosa, Lenin Arias, a mid-career biologist who studies the peje, stands next to a bubbling tank that contains a few large fish, inside a laboratory at the Juarez Autonomous University of Tabasco. Lenin and his team are working to study the genetic code of the fish, which is being over-fished since the industry, so important to the local economy and culture, is not regulated. The scientists are also developing techniques for in-tank feeding and care that could be used to help create commercial fish-farming operations to supply peje for human consumption.
"In [Tabasco] culture, peje is an ancient fish," Lenin explains.
"It's part of our tropical cuisine," he adds. In the wild, the fish "is over-exploited, but it's not regulated," Lenin says. The peje, a 100-million-year-old species, has a long history in the region. It is a living fossil. People in the area place a tremendous level of importance on the fish and even refer to each other as "pejes." Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a two-time Mexican presidential candidate who grew up in Tabasco, is known across the country as "El Peje."
In the 2012 election, Lopez Obrador surprised supporters and rivals alike when he refrained from attacking Enrique Peña Nieto, a controversial young politician who eventually won the July 1 election. "In the second debate, [Lopez Obrador acted like a pejelagarto, very tranquil," Lenin explained, laughing.
Inside a tank at Juarez Autonomous University, a few gray, spotted fish circle lazily in the water. One fish, almost a yard long, lets out a bubble of air as it swims near the surface of the water. Its long sloping snout pokes out into the air. Its sharp teeth are hidden. "They're carnivorous, but easily hunted," Lenin explains. "They're very docile," he adds.
Local fishermen sometimes call them "dinosaurs." A gene buried within the fish's genetic code prevents it from mutating. The peje fish Lenin studies are more or less the same as their predecessors who swam through the same lagoons millions of years ago. As a species, "they're older than oysters," Lenin explains. They look like fat, legless alligators with scary, pointed jaws. "The teeth are like saws," Lenin says. The fish do not fight each other in the tank and they do not attack swimmers in the region's ponds. "As a primitive, carnivorous fish, they should be violent but they're not," Lenin says.
"They don't have the capacity to attack because their bodies are heavy and they don't have the ability to move rapidly," Lenin said.
It's only when they are caught that they become animated. "Then they fight, they move a lot," Lenin says. Local fishermen, many of whom have been bitten by a struggling peje, whack the fish with a club or stab them with a harpoon once they pull their nets into the boat.
Juan Carlos de la Cruz, a twenty-two year old lab assistant wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts and sandals, dips a net into one of the tanks.
He scoops a yard-long, slow-swimming peje into his net. As he pulls the net upward, the fish's fat body tenses, and then thrashes furiously, folding and snapping. Juan Carlos lowers the net and the peje, now calm, slithers out, swimming down into the tank's water.
"We call them stupid [because] the fishermen can catch them very easily," he says.(Nathaniel Flannery)
Tabasco's most famous denizen, Lopez Obrador started his career working as a political organizer for Peña Nieto's party, the PRI, building a grassroots network of supporters among the residents of marginalized communities in the isolated corners of the state. He maintains a strong emotional connection with the people of his state and has stubbornly refused to evolve along with other leftist politicians in Latin America. While left-wing firebrands such as Lula da Silva in Brazil and Alan Garcia in Peru, as well as socialists such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, have built broad coalitions by tempering their rhetoric, embracing orthodox economic policies, and financing a broad array of social programs, Lopez Obrador has remained fiercely nationalistic and anachronistically anti-capitalist. To his supporters, he is a beloved and charismatic leader, but his timeworn economic proposals discourage many moderate voters from taking him seriously.
Rather than focusing on his expertise in managing social programs, a task he handled with aplomb while mayor of Mexico City, Lopez Obrador said "We're going to change the economic policy [because] it hasn't worked for the people" and told voters that "Real Change Is in Your Hands." At his final campaign speech in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador told the crowd that if elected president, he would ensure that Mexico would "produce what we consume," a protectionist economic argument that has long-since lost favor among Mexico's technocratic policymakers from the country's PAN and PRI parties. During his campaign, Lopez Obrador crisscrossed Mexico by bus, holding rallies and speaking out to the segments of the country's society that have been left out as the economy modernizes. In Tabasco and many other parts of the country, "El Peje" maintains a following of ferociously loyal supporters. "It is an honor to be with Obrador!" the crowds chant at his rallies.(Nathaniel Flannery)
Inside the Pino Suarez fish market in Villahermosa, Tabasco's capital city, vendors stand behind tables heaped with fresh vegetables, meat, seafood, and spices. Standing next to a pile of slimy, freshly caught peje fish, Reyes de la Cruz, an elderly man with a round belly and a serious demeanor, who leads the city's fish and shellfish vendors union, explains simply "we buy the product and sell it to the public, the restaurants. It's a tradition." A stack of small, eight-inch-long smoked peje sit on the board. There are only two fat, four-foot-long pejes on display.
After 35 years working in the market, he's still an avid fan of the fish.
"Of course, it's the best!" he says, smiling, his eyes flickering behind his black-rimmed glasses.
The most common way to cook it is to rest it on a grill above hot charcoal embers. "It's so flavorful," Reyes says. Cooked whole over the coals, the peje takes on the texture and taste of smoked trout. Diners peel away the tough scales, which hold the meat like a burned hard taco shell, and scrape chunks of white flesh off the clear bones. Most restaurants serve it with lime juice and thick slices of hot habanero peppers.