By Michael Mitchell
I came to Tabasco, Mexico with a Fulbright research grant in August 2014 to study the socio-economic impact of small-scale fish farming in rural communities. Nestled between Chiapas and Campeche, Tabasco shares a southern border with Guatemala and is one of the primary transit points for Central American refugees and migrants into Mexico. Over 13,000 families in the state depend on the expansive network of rivers and lagoons to sustain themselves through fishing. Though Tabasco was the epicenter of the Mexican oil boom of the 1980s through the mid 2000s that brought significant wealth to the Mexican economy, Tabasco has remained one of the poorest states in the country.
I landed in Tabasco with high expectations to study fish farmers. However, once I started visited fishing communities to execute pre-survey interviews, a completely unexpected issue came up repeatedly – the “pez diablo”. The “pez diablo” or devil fish was ruining the livelihoods of the fish farmers. “There’s no longer any other fish, just this useless trash fish,” they would say. Not having a clue as to what they were talking about, I began asking around at the university where I worked, seeing what could be done with this ‘devil fish’. I soon realized that it’s a common aquarium fish! In fact, I had dozens of them growing up – these odd-looking ‘cleaner fish’ that spent its days vacuuming up algae, in turn cleaning fish tanks.
The ‘devil fish’, also known as the suckermouth or armored catfish in English, had first been found in Mexico about 15 years ago. Many estimates calculate that 70%-80% of the wild capture today is comprised of the suckermouth catfish. This has been devastating to the thousands of Mexican families that depend on fishing as their primary economic activity. Because of its ugly appearance, as well as the stigma and lack of information, people have generally refused to consume the suckermouth, often believing it to be poisonous. However, it is completely edible and is commonly consumed in its native Amazon region of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. I learned that it is even sold in the markets in those countries!
To demystify this foreign creature I began giving informal community presentations to share the information I had learned at the university. After witnessing the success of these workshops I asked myself, “Well heck, what if we just change the name and start selling the fillet?” I’d seen this done with other fish before – the Chilean Sea Bass, Swai, Orange Roughy – all these fish had terrible names and reputations before getting a “makeover”. So I started to ask around and talk to different restaurants in the capital Villahermosa. After being laughed out of several meetings, a friend put me in touch with Chef Lupita Vidal from La Cevichería.
With Lupita’s help, we soon created the “Pez diablo burger” and began marketing the fish as “Acarí”. Lupita took the plunge and included the burger on her menu, which was met with a sharply divided response. Many applauded her efforts though many more responded with repugnance – one woman even said she’d never return to her restaurant again!
Through our persistence and guerrilla marketing, we’ve started a company named Acarí that has sold hundreds of pounds of suckermouth fillet across the country. Lupita’s burger has become a hit in her restaurant. Most importantly, the fish farmers we partner with have found a new source of income. As I am writing this article, they are currently filleting over 200kg of fish that would have previously been thrown to the riverbank. The end product will net them around 700 pesos, about half of their monthly salaries before Acarí.
During my first year in the Berkeley MDP program, I worked to further develop Acarí in several of my classes including the Food Venture Lab. I also had the opportunity to participate in Innovation for Equality, which spurred me to explore other markets or innovations. Thinking about the relationship between social necessity and profit, I began to think about who could benefit the most from our products in Southern Mexico. What, I wondered, was being done for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees crossing Mexico each year? It turns out that many of these folks lean heavily on a network of NGOs and nonprofits like La 72 Immigrant and Refugee Shelter across Mexico. These organizations depend on donations and are often only able to provide basic staples like rice, beans and some vegetables to these people. Among the people fleeing rampant violence and poverty in Central America include an increasing number of women and young children. I knew we had an opportunity to do something.
Through Lupita’s guidance, we’ve developed an Acarí croquette with chaya that’s packed full of essential vitamins and nutrients. We’re rolling out the croquettes in July under the slogan “turning the devil into an angel”. For every croquette we sell in Mexico and the United States, we’ll donate one to the immigrant shelter La 72 located in Tabasco. Our hope is that as we expand sales, we’ll able to expand our network of shelters, eventually providing vital nutrition to these vulnerable populations from Tapachula to Tijuana.
Michael Mitchell is MA student at University of Calfiornia, Berkeley, in Master of Development Practice program. His academic focus is Mexico and Central America. He is currently working in Tabasco, Mexico with his company Acarí.