This is a reflection about how “caring for a dish is caring for the river.” The viudo de pescado (the widower of fish) is an emblematic dish that is part of the fishing and riverside traditions along the río Magdalena in Colombia, South America. The ingredients used to cook the dish, the locations where it is eaten, and the steps taken to protect this tradition illustrate the enormous complexities of environmental justice as seen through the lenses of rural communities.1 Environmental justice, understood as the meeting point between environmentalism and social justice, calls for the fair treatment and meaningful participation in environmental management of all people, regardless, for example, of ethnicity, nationality, income, or gender. It also entails understanding notions of co-responsibility at the local, regional, and global levels: whose actions will be taken into account in order to understand and reverse pollution, to mitigate and better adapt to climate change, and to promote strategies of environmental care. Caring for food, and in this case fighting for the tradition of cooking viudo, is a way of understanding how local fishermen and riverside communities live with the complex changes of the river, especially water pollution and fish scarcity, and how they aspire for a good—or at least better—life, including the life of the river. The ingredients of this dish include the cultural and biological notion of “living water,” white river fish with its associated fishing arts and other remaining land ingredients.
“Living water” is the open secret of the dish. This local expression refers to water that hosts and sustains the many different life forms around the Magdalena River in Colombia, such as plants, wetlands, forests, turtles, manatees, otters, capybaras, fishermen, and riverside communities. Fishermen used to cook viudo along the shores of the Magdalena, and viudo also became a cherished women’s recipe for family dinners and for tourists. Along the 1,500-kilometer journey of the Magdalena River, from the Andes, at 3,327-meter altitude, to the Caribbean Sea, many communities consume river water, which is also one of the main sources of food. The viudo embodies the endurance of cultural practices imbued with the aspirations and sorrows of the many lives that try to survive the river’s many changes. So, what is in this dish? The short answer is: both living and sick waters. In fact, river changes are closely associated with the history of the state in Colombia, as the Magdalena River is known to be the “homeland river” (río de la patria): an idea full of promises linked to the history of infrastructures that long sought to tame the river to ensure commerce, navigation, mining, or hydroelectric plants. This official history, which tends to neglect the consequences of all these promises for living waters, contrasts with the daily life of fishermen and riverside communities, including women, children, alligators, otters, birds, and manatees trying to survive the enormous transformation of the river and its surrounding ecosystems.
White river fish typically include bocachico, catfish, capaz, and nicuro, but also pacora, pataló, and mueluda. These fish live in the river among 233 species, more than half of them endemic and unique to the Magdalena.2 Some of them take a distinctive migration path from the marshes (ciénagas),3 traveling upstream toward the mountainous river basin in a beautiful spectacle that fishermen call la subienda. La subienda is a fish migration phenomenon filled with stories of past abundance and joy, with children and fishermen who fished only with baskets or hats, and the incredible spectacle of seeing fish swim and jump against the current. Those years of perfect climate seasons—“tiempos perfectos,” as some peasants call them—during which they knew when to cultivate and fishermen expected a bounty of fish are long gone. The viudo remains a celebration of fish biodiversity and, more importantly, of many lives along the Magdalena.
Caring for food, as well as the persistence of this specific dish, means caring for fish, at least as much as fishermen can. The Madgalena River hosts a wide variety of fishing arts: nasa, a cage of various shapes in which fish are trapped; atarraya, a circular net sewn by fishermen in different sizes and weights depending on river current, where the net is used, and the fish to be caught; calandrio, a main nylon line to which secondary lines are knotted and to which baited hooks are tied; and cóngolo, a basket-shaped net supported by a wooden rod. In certain areas fishing is also done using bows and arrows. Trasmallo and chinchorro nets, though illegal in many areas of the river, are also used. These nets, which usually have small holes that trap smaller fish, are dragged to the bottom using weights, thus trapping all sorts of animals and vegetation. Committing to artisanal fishing is becoming increasingly difficult due to the fishing crisis and the lack of new livelihood alternatives. Fishermen claim that their craft and trade are not primarily to blame, saying, “We ought to think seriously about who is mainly responsible for water sickness.” The true culprits, they say, are oil spills, the construction of two hydroelectric plants, growing deforestation and erosion associated with large agricultural and cattle ranching industries, and pollution from the wastewater of the country’s main cities.
The remaining ingredients used in cooking viudo include yucca, plantain, tomato, onion, potatoes, coriander, and salt, and for those who like making a hearty soup called sancocho, you can add squash and corn. These ingredients symbolize what is locally termed the amphibian life of fishermen, meaning that riverside lives are shaped by the fluctuations in water flows and by rainy and dry seasons that determine when to fish and when to cultivate. Many fishermen say that “during the old good days” they used only those ingredients cultivated with their own hands, or those they could exchange with neighbors. “Now you can also find those ingredients in the market,” they say, “and that is also valid as long as we keep on fighting to maintain the viudo.”
Where to Eat It: History and Stories on the Riverbank
As Milagro, an elderly fishermen from Caracolí (Honda), one of the many old fishermen towns along the river, explains, “El Viudo is a dish that was born in the river and meant to be eaten on the riverbank while watching the various landscapes and passing animals. Eating Viudo is an experience like fishing or canoeing and is part of life by the river, including both good and bad aspects of that lifestyle.” The viudo fish does not have the river as a backdrop, nor is it part of a static landscape or scenery. Rather, the dish is part of the history of the many human and nonhuman entanglements of the Magdalena, of its ecologies of life, death, abundance, and longing. Such a history dates back to the different ways Indigenous communities inhabited areas near the river, to how Spanish colonization was carried out along the river, and to complicated commercial navigation that evolved from cargo canoes manned by freed slaves to steam boats and now oil barges.
Stories also proliferate: some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers narrate tales of brave and intrepid explorers and politicians navigating a difficult river of murky waters filled with sediments and without the necessary knowledge to develop a modern navigation fleet. But el viudo evokes other stories, in particular some of the legends and ghosts of the Magdalena River. One story we heard from fishermen about the viudo fish dish involves love and betrayal. When a fisherman’s wife is betrayed by her husband, she avenges herself by killing him and his lover, and then takes her own life on the riverbank. It is uncertain which of the two women appears as a ghost on the river, but what is clear is that she sometimes scares fishermen. Some say that when fishermen cook this recipe on the riverbank, the dish appeases her soul.
Eating viudo on the riverbank also relates to the spectral creature called el mohán, a large figure with a long, abundant, and unkempt head of hair covering much of its body. Riverside dwellers say that el mohán is a mossy being with bright eyes and long, sharp nails. It is a frightening and mischievous creature who lives in the river and entangles fishing nets, or loses them. Fishermen are supposed to bring el mohán tobacco and liquor as payment for letting them fish in peace; sometimes the creature even helps them by showing them where the fishing is good. Other odd creatures or specters appear in some ciénagas in the lowlands; for instance, people heard the sound of horses coming out of the water, and viewed the ghost of a girl emerging from the marsh in the form of a lamp (lámpara) to scare fishermen at night.
Once again, between history and stories, the dish embodies most of the rich fishing culture as well as the sorrows of these communities and of the entire country. There are many other ghosts in the history of the river, such as those of the many victims of the country’s numerous violent episodes, whose victors have used rivers such as the Magdalena as vast graves. In addition to the tales of fishermen, other rich narratives include those passed on by local and national poets, writers, and artists, which help us understand the brutality of violence and how to mourn the many deaths caused by the country’s conflicts. In her novel En el brazo del río (In the Arms of the River), Marbel Sandoval writes powerfully about living with oil exploitation and death:
Paulina Lazcarro’s body was never found. I think it was left to the vultures or, why not, was buried at the bottom of the river and fed to the coroncoros [a fish]. Anyway, there are nights when I feel her calling me. It starts to bother me and I have to go down to the riverbank, where I carefully push aside the sheds and watch how the water licks the gray sand. Here everything smells of oil, it always has, since before I was born. I can’t remember a single day when the smell didn’t surprise me and a single night when I didn’t stare at the oil flare-tips that spit fire like dragons. I used to tell my mom that catfish and coroncoros tasted like oil to me and she would scold me. Now, over the years, I have chosen to keep quiet; no one seems to care and I have given up on the idea because I think I am eating a little bit of Paulina in the fish stew, because she was never found (2018).4
Justice to the Viudo de Pescado
The fight to preserve the viudo dish is framed within complex discussions of environmental justice. The battle over food, in this case the viudo, is fought by riverside communities from their active, grounded experience of dealing with sick yet living waters. Sustaining the tradition of cooking, it openly implies “staying with the trouble,” an expression coined by Donna Haraway that invites us to think about the tradition of this dish from the perspective of the complex history of socioenvironmental processes that define the (im)possibilities of living waters. The viudo does not represent a socioenvironmental challenge: in the dish, many such challenges are, literally, constituted, eaten, smelled, and partially resolved.
The fight to protect the dish illustrates how riverside communities join forces to reconstitute and rebuild living waters, even if only partially. Indeed, while narratives about amphibious river cultures are often romantic, they may also have a disturbing connotation. Orlando Fals Borda (1984), the sociologist who developed a version of this narrative, writes in his transcription of a conversation with a fisherman, “This is what we poor people of the river can become: turtle-men (hombres hicotea): enduring, patient, tough, hard, human types. This is what the landowners and politicians have been trying to reduce us to for a long time, to eat us one by one.”5
Some riverside dwellers say, “the river has brought us this far!,” a popular expression illustrating a sense of urgency, but not hopelessness. The global call to care for rivers and ecosystems has been a task that riverside communities have been trying to mobilize for years and decades. Local agreements and community decisions include how to deal with sudden (or habitual) climate and/or pollution emergencies, when, how, and how much fishing is done, what water is drinkable, where and how crops are grown, what trees are cut down and/or planted, what livelihoods are maintained, and how to promote the multiple values attached to the river, soils, and forests. All of these agreements are defined among local people, and also sometimes with companies, foundations, youth groups, academics, and government institutions, among others. Those agreements and interventions are drawn from claims for environmental justice that actively include notions of social justice. Indeed, as we know, even in the most biodiverse areas of the planet, the people most affected by drastic climate changes are the most vulnerable; in this case, it is those who live directly on the resources of living waters. Cooking, eating, and sharing the viudo dish is nothing less than a venue for promoting the environmental and social well-being of the community—this in addition to the many provisions for restoring and rehabilitating forests, initiating fishing agreements, formulating management plans, and other ventures.
Such practices subvert some of the prevailing common sense about the Magdalena and other rivers: the notion of an untouched natural river cared for by environmental conservation, or that of a completely domesticated river. The viudo fish dish illustrates how using, fishing in, eating the bounty of, and living with the river may be a way of caring. To do justice to the viudo dish is to do justice to the socioenvironmental frameworks that may help to repair and reimagine living waters in times of crisis.
This is a short reflection, part of a broad research initiative and active intervention by anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, engineers, and artists to understand and strengthen environmental conservation in conjunction with fishermen and peasant populations.
Bagre rayado (Pseudoplatystoma magdaleniatum), bocachico (Prochilodus magdalenae), blanquillo (Sorubim cuspicaudus), pataló (Ichthyoelephas longirostris). See Luisa F. Jimenéz-Segura and Carlos A. Lasso, eds., Peces de la cuenca del río Magdalena, Colombia: diversidad, conservación y uso sostenible. Bogotá: Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt, 2020.
Tropical inland lagoons connected to a main river or river affluent.
Marbel Sandoval Ordoñez, En el brazo del río. Bogotá: Editorial Diente de León, 2018.
Orlando Fals Borda, Historia doble de la costa, vol. 3. Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1984.