Story by Byron Thompson
Video by Jun Ma


The row boat, small and sturdy, resembles an old fish moving through the green water of Valle de Bravo’s lake. The nets bundled on the deck look like spider webs catching twilight.

With Erika Esquivel de Ponce steering and her husband José Ponce López standing at the bow, the boat approaches the next fishing hole. He raises his hand and makes a cutting motion. Esquivel kills the engine. Diesel lingers in the air.

“If we don’t have anything to eat I can just go to the lake and get fish. If we don’t have money, I can always go fishing and sell it for money.”

“There are walls beneath the water,” Ponce says. “The fish like to live in them.”

Before fish lived in these walls, farmers lived here and worked the land. They built homes and barns, and their relics remain at the bottom of the lake. Ponce and Esquivel’s grandparents started fishing when the Miguel Alemán dam was created in the late 1940s to make Valle de Bravo a tourist spot. Their lives are bound to the daily rituals and traditions of a way of life that has changed little over the decades.

Fishing is a profession dominated by men. But for generations fishing has also given some women a sense of economic independence. Mothers have dedicated themselves to the discipline of fishing, taking pride in supporting their families, even in the absence of a husband. But it’s difficult work.

As a child, Esquivel set aside her dreams and interests to help her single mother fish. “I wanted to become a doctor, but it wasn’t possible,” Esquivel says. “So I did what I could, and that was fishing.”

When Esquivel was young, her mother and brother taught her how to fish. After her parents divorced, there wasn’t enough money for Esquivel to finish school, but she is proud of her mother’s hard work.

She and her husband have done well, though. They live in a new home overlooking the lake that they hope to finish building this year. Still, she hopes her four children will not have to sacrifice their own dreams. At the very least, she wants to give them the choice to fish or not to fish.

Esquivel rows out toward the middle of the lake. She watches as Ponce flicks open a tilapia net. Esquivel stops rowing and gives him time to undo the knots.

Ponce swings the net’s anchor into the water with a splash. Esquivel starts the engine, and Ponce joins her at the back of the boat. Even sitting next to each other, they don’t speak much.


“It gets boring,” Esquivel says over the engine, looking straight ahead.

The next morning they rise before dawn to retrieve their nets. It’s a good catch of charal, the small and most common fish on the lake. Esquivel shakes the net out like a bed sheet and the small charales spill out onto a mesh on the ground at her son Jose Jr.’s feet. Under her stained apron, Esquivel’s brown sweater is zipped all the way up, the sleeves pulled up to her elbows and the hood pulled over her dark hair. Fish scales glitter on her face and hands.

José Jr. pulls out the remaining fish caught in the nets. Wearing his little red boots and a dirty white apron, he works quietly, breaking into a wide smile when his mother looks at him. While other kids are still sleeping or watching television, José Jr. does all this work before his Uncle Cruz takes him to school at noon.

Esquivel’s mother-in-law, Socorro, ties on an apron and joins them. Esquivel’s husband appears from behind the truck with two buckets of tilapia and bass. He slides the fish into a tub of cold water and then helps to empty the nets.

Their 4-year-old daughter, nicknamed “Puca,” squirms on a pallet of cement under a tent, waiting for her mother. She sees a few charal wiggling on the ground near her and picks them up. Holding the fish out at arm’s length, she tosses them into the pile and shakes her hands off.

Down the road, Esquivel’s eldest daughter, Jimena, 12, is at school, in math class, her favorite. Giggly chatter fills the room as the teacher writes the day’s assignment on the board. When Jimena’s notes don’t match her teacher’s exactly, she pulls the page from her notebook and starts again. She changes pens for each point, using a ruler to make straight and calculated lines. A classmate lifts her notebook for Jimena to check. She gives her an approving thumbs-up. The classroom is her domain. This is where Jimena thrives.

Later, after Esquivel drives her home from school, Jimena scoops up her cousin playing near the cobblestone driveway. He squeals with delight when Jimena’s sisters, Puca and middle child Camila, run to join them.

“Jimena likes what I used to like,” Esquivel says. “She likes the same kind of clothes, and Jimena likes to keep the house clean and in order and look after the children. But Jimena is not interested in fishing.”


Most days, Jimena starts on her homework right after school, so Camila takes her soccer ball outside. She twists through narrow spaces between her family and fellow fishermen’s homes. This jumble of homes was not designed by any city planner.

Palms and ferns reach for the sky and catsup cans hanging on walls hold various herbs and plants. Campanas, big white flowers known as Angel’s Trumpets, hang down from the trees toward the fishermen below.

Socorro, sits in front of a wide pan of charal. She flicks salt over a handful of fish, scooping them into a corn husk in her wet, wrinkled hands. She pulls another few husks from a wet bucket, patting the tamale shut.

Esquivel’s own mother lives across the lake, still fishing. She now takes care of Esquivel’s nieces and nephews after their mother, Esquivel’s sister, died.

“Women don’t have to depend on their husbands because they know how to fish for themselves.” Esquivel says, “Women know how to do the work that men do. We depend on ourselves.”

Ponce pulls up his net from the water. A pyramid of twitching silver charales rises from the surface.

Ponce and Esquivel’s mothers are two of four women out of 24 fishermen who hold licenses known as permissions on the lake. The permissions, required of all commercial fishermen, were a response to declining fish populations.

In 2004, researchers from the department of agriculture at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM) came to Valle de Bravo to understand the lake’s ecology and help fishermen hold on to their livelihood. They determined the lake could support twenty-to-thirty fishermen and implemented a fishing license system in 2005.

One of the university’s researchers, Ivan Gallego, says it wasn’t easy to develop new fishing regulations. The first time he approached the fishermen, machetes were drawn. When he came to study Valle de Bravo, his team worked with the fishing community and gained its confidence before suggesting regulations.

The fishermen were reluctant to use larger nets, because there were no larger fish at the time. But facing hard times, they took a chance.

“So they trusted us and put out bigger nets,” Gallego said, “and in 2009 they were catching bigger fish.”

But the fishing done today is described by state officials as a means of survival, not a large economic activity. Regulations have helped, but pollution and illegal fishing still threaten their way of life, a life Esquivel hopes her children won’t have to face. Some fishermen have turned to tourism as a new means of income on the lake.

As one of the state of Mexico’s three Pueblos Magicos, “Magical Cities,” the people of Valle de Bravo are well aware of the importance their government places on tourism.

Those who have profited most in this community are large landowners who use the lake for recreation. The economic impact and political clout of those who fish is small by comparison.


“If there is a shortage of water, local people will suffer,” says Romano Segrado, professor at UAEM’s school of tourism, “but tourists will always have access.”

When Gallegos sought a follow-up study for Valle de Bravo’s lake in 2009, the state of Mexico did not provide the funding. The researcher believes the university should conduct its own studies independently. “We care what is happening to the lake,” Gallegos says. “We care what’s happening to the people.”

Facing fishing’s uncertain future, Esquivel cares about what happens to her children. While the home they are building is comfortable and stable so far, she does not want to see her children fishing unless they choose to.

In the evening before she goes back out on the lake, Esquivel helps her children with their homework. Camila kneels in front of the black leather armchair her mother is sitting in. Esquivel points at the kindergartener’s workbook in her lap, showing Camila how the letter U curves at the bottom.

“I don’t like these ones,” Camila says, bouncing a marble on the floor.

“You have to do all of your work,” Esquivel responds, “even the parts you don’t like.”

The next page shows how to make a happy face. Esquivel watches as Camila’s happy faces slowly melt into happy houses towards the bottom of the page before showing her how it’s done. Esquivel pulls a pencil out of her ponytail and wraps her arm around Camila, guiding her hand like a golf instructor.

“Like this.”

This is what Esquivel lives for, her home and family.

Although she wishes fishing didn’t take up so much of her time, Esquivel appreciates the independence it affords her.

“If we don’t have anything to eat I can just go to the lake and get fish. If we don’t have money, I can always go fishing and sell it for money. The bad part about being a fisher is that even if it’s raining and windy, we still have to go fishing.”


Light and rain come softly over the lake. The early morning chill declares itself with a sharp breeze. Ponce and Esquivel are halfway to their furthest net when the shower comes in full.

Esquivel offers Ponce his jacket from the stern of the boat. He shakes his head, spreading his fingers over his short hair. She tosses him a brown straw hat. He tugs the wide round brim over his ears. He meets eyes with his smiling wife and laughs.


Reaching that damp green shore, quiet save the light pitter patter of rain on the lake, Ponce pulls up his net from the water. A pyramid of twitching silver charales rises from the surface. He pulls along the net until he finds the cross-shaped brick anchor and sets it on the boat.

They decide to empty the nets before returning home, and pull the boat onto shore. The drizzle has slowed but the clouds still hang heavy, rolling down over the mountains.

Ponce and Esquivel lay out their mesh sheet and stand opposite each other, swinging the nets hard at the ground. Most of the fish are caught in the mesh and crates. Some scatter into the grass.

“Look at the mess you’re making!” a man shouts from his dirty dingy that’s just floated into earshot. The words La Carpita are barely visible on the side. “You should have brought some chocolate or coffee.”

“I didn’t know it was going to rain,” Ponce hollers back to Fernando, the lake’s oldest fisherman.

“There’s been lightning since five this morning,” Fernando says.

Ponce smiles and climbs back into his boat, rowing out to pull in more nets and talk with the old man in the black rain poncho. Tugging in the nets, Ponce pulls his boat along the shore. Esquivel remains diligent, continuing the long, hard job of shaking the nets on her own.

The men come back to shore after half an hour and start weighing out Lobina. Ponce asks Fernando if he’s heard about the two fishermen who drowned the day before. He hasn’t.

“They were probably sport fishers.”

Esquivel and Ponce split the charales into crates stacked at the front of the boat. If it wasn’t so cold and wet they could feel better about the 25-kilo catch. It’s these kinds of mornings that Esquivel must wonder whether the work is worth it. But she never shows it. She and her husband keep moving forward.

Back home, Esquivel boils some water for coffee, the customary elixir after long mornings of rainy fishing. She pours tall steaming cups for her husband and children. Ponce, Jose Jr. and Camilla sit at the table where Esquivel sets a plate of pastries next to the instant coffee and sugar.

They take turns scooping coffee into their mugs. Camilla and Jose Jr. sneak extra sugar while their mom is upstairs grabbing some photos. She comes to the table with the few snapshots she could find. They pass around a picture of the second biggest fish Ponce ever caught, and another of him standing proud at the bow of his boat.

Esquivel lingers on one with a smile.

It is a simple snapshot taken less than a decade ago of her mother holding Jimena.

“I want Jimena to have a good profession. She studies hard.” Esquivel says, “I hope Jimena won’t suffer. I would like her to be a doctor. I would like that for her.”

Rowing to a Better Life

Erika Esquivel Santana lives in Valle de Bravo and is a fisherwoman. She has been fishing since she was 13. While she was growing up, she began to dislike fishing, but for lack of funds, she couldn´t study anything else. Now a mother of four children, she sacrifices in a trade that doesn´t like to bring them up. Still, she is optimistic about the future of her family, and expects them to follow their own dreams, though these are outside the fishery.

Erika Esquivel Santana

Erika Esquivel Santana is a fisherwoman who lives in Valle de Bravo. She beeging fishing at 13 and learn the trade from her mother, she says: “I put in the effort fishing and I liked it , well not much”.


The three boats float in the dam of Valle the Bravo. They belong to the Ponce López family of fishermen, one of the firts families get licenses to fish in the lake. Today the family has 4 licenses for fishing.


Picking Up

After three hours of fishing in heavy rain, Erika dumps “charales” she caught this morning in boxes on the boat,. Erika and her husband José Ponce go out on the lake every morning even during severe weather, she says: ” it is a bit ugly. Even if  it rains or blows, you have to go”.



Erika shakes out the charales from the nets while her 4 year old daughter “Pucca” (Ana Belén) sits  on cement sacks and watches. Erika has four children, Jimena Ponce, José Armando Ponce, Camila Ponce and Ana Belén.


Net and Fishes

Erika works, taking out all the fishes from the net. The little charales fall down on the black “mosquitero” fabric that they put on the ground. She says she doesn´t like taking out the fish,” it is tiring”.



Erika and her son José Armando gather the charales by hand and toss in to white buckets to prepare them to sell later. The family sells the fish in the Colorines market or sometimes costumers comes to their house to buy fish.



Erika stirs together meat, onions, and garlic in a clay pot as she cooks lunch for her family. Everday she cooks all the meals for the family, while also fishing every morning and night.



Erika and her daughter Camila draw little cakes in a book while Erika helps with her homework after Camila comes home from Kindergarden. When Erika was little she wanted to became a doctor, but for lack of funds she couldn´t study this profession.



Erika helps row while her husband puts the nets into the lake. She also knows how to put out the nets, drive the boat´s motor and clean the fish, she  says: “If we put forth the effort, we don’t need to depend on our husbands”.