Josefina Hernandez does not read or write

Josefina Hernandez does not read or write. She does not know her birthday or birth year. She does not know how many tilapia fish her cooperative grows from fry each harvest. She does not even feed the farmed red tilapia at 6am when I arrived to cooperative’s tilapia ponds. What sort of maintenance work do the ponds require of you? She deflects the question to her grandson. How many more years of production would pay off the debt her family incurred purchasing this land? It’s not clear. My visual focus for the day smiles politely but does little else.

Josefina is the kind of source that leads to frustration, especially for a photographer like me. I awoke at 4am and traveled more than an hour to meet Josefina before dawn. Catherina, a local writer, and I started up a dirt path at 5:45am with headlamps, rubber boots, and several mean-looking dogs skirting about. Josephina’s house and tilapia ponds were only accessible to us by foot (a few locals traversed the path by horseback). At first, the painful, early morning rousing clouded my ability to wait patiently for Josefina’ knowledge and actions to come. I grew agitated by her inactivity and went off to photograph a sad-eyedhorse.

Ultimately, what Josefina said and did enhanced my reporting on Honduras’ aquaculture in a useful way. Josefina told us how she grew up eating fish from a very clean river that serves as a border between El Salvador and Honduras. She lived on the El Salvador side of the valley until the Soccer War of 1969. To flee border area fighting, she migrated to the Honduras side with over 300 people from her village and to the region we’re standing in now, Santa Cruz de Yojoa. Josephina tells me it was the mountain spring just a few hundred meters up the slope that made this new homeland special. For 35 years, her family leased this land, grew beans and corns, and saw successful harvest thanks to the reliable, pristine water source..

Water is key to successful tilapia production. Curiously, no one from my previous five days of reporting had raised the topic. Instead of answering my questions about tilapia, Josephina kept talking about the water here.

In my view, this water was the gamble Josefina made, decades before her late son betted their family saving on tilapia production in 2011. Josefina acted as though the tilapia business was a questionable venture. She was obliged, she said, to see it though since her now deceased son had purchased the land with this dream. It was her not dream.

Tilapia farming has experienced a meteoric rise in Honduras. My journalistic instincts tell me to question its sustained long-term trajectory. Josefina’s story helped me conceptualize and visualize the broader drivers of this boom: water access, unregulated water use, and a water-rich country.

I did not photograph Josefina working the tilapia ponds as I had planned. When walking us back into town, Josefina crossed one of the many streams coming off the mountain. I asked her to pause mid-crossing and snapped this shot instead.

– Clare Fieseler