YORO: Things don’t come easy in La Unión, a small community on the periphery of Yoro, a farming town in north-central Honduras.
Poverty is universal, jobs are scarce, large families are crammed into mud-brick homes and meals often are constituted of little more than the subsistence crops residents grow — mainly corn and beans.
But every once in a while an amazing thing happens, something that makes the residents of La Unión feel pretty special.
The skies, they say, rain fish.
It happens every year — at least once and often more, residents say — during the late spring and early summer. And only under specific conditions: a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning, conditions so intense that nobody dares to go outside.
Once the storm clears, the villagers grab buckets and baskets and head down the road to a sunken pasture where the ground will be covered in hundreds of small, silver-colored fish.
For some, it is the only time of the year they will have a chance to eat seafood.
“It’s a miracle,” explained Lucio Pérez, 45, a farmer who has lived in the La Unión community for 17 years. “We see it as a blessing from God.”
Pérez has heard the various scientific theories for the phenomenon. Each, he says, is riddled with uncertainty.
“No, no, there’s no explanation,” he asserted, shaking his head. “What we say here in Yoro is that these fish are sent by the hand of God.”
The phenomenon has happened in and around the town for generations, residents say, from time to time shifting locations. It migrated to La Unión about a decade ago.
“Nobody elsewhere thinks it rains fish,” said Catalina Garay, 75, who, with her husband, Esteban Lázaro, 77, raised nine children in their adobe home in La Unión. “But it rains fish.”
Some residents attribute the occurrence to the prayers of Manuel de Jesús Subirana, a Catholic missionary from Spain who in the mid-1800s, asked God to help ease the Yoro region’s hunger and poverty. Soon after he issued his plea, the legend goes, the fish rain began.
Subirana’s remains are buried in the city’s main Catholic church, on Yoro’s central square.
“The people loved him a lot,” said José Rigoberto Urbina Velásquez, Yoro’s municipal manager. “There are so many stories about him that you’d be surprised.”
Scientifically inclined residents posit that the fish may dwell in subterranean streams or caverns. These habitats overflow during big rainstorms, and the rising water flushes the fish to ground level. Once the rain stops and the flooding recedes, the fish are left stranded.
Another theory is that water spouts suck the fish from nearby bodies of water — perhaps even the Atlantic Ocean, about 45 miles away — and deposit them in Yoro. (In that way, fish would indeed fall from the sky, but the hypothesis does not explain how the spouts score direct hits on the same patches of turf year after year.)
If anyone has done a scientific study of the phenomenon, it is not widely known here. And anyway, a fair number of townspeople probably would not want one.
For them, religion provides the necessary explanation.
“The people have an intense faith,” said Urbina, who embraces the more scientific explanations for the phenomenon. “You can’t tell them ‘no’ because it will anger them.”
Nobody has actually seen a fish fall from the sky, but residents say that is only because nobody dares leave home during the kinds of powerful storms that bring the fish.
“It’s a secret that only our Lord knows,” said Audelia Hernández Gonzalez, the pastor at one of four evangelical churches in La Unión. “It’s a great blessing because this comes from the heavens.”
“Look,” she continued, “people who are least able to eat fish can now eat fish.”
The harvest becomes a communal affair for La Union’s 200 or so homes, and everyone shares in the bounty. Those who collect the most redistribute their fish to families who are unable to get to the field in time to collect their share, the pastor said.
Peddling the catch is prohibited. “You can’t sell the blessing of the Lord,” she explained.
The phenomenon has become intricately woven into the identity of Yoro and its population of about 93,000.
“For us it’s a source of pride,” said Luis Antonio Varela Murillo, 65, who has lived his entire life in the town. “When we identify ourselves, we say, ‘I’m from the fish rain place.’”
“What we don’t like is that a lot of people don’t believe it,” he added. “They say it’s pure superstition.”
For about two decades, the occurrence has been celebrated in an annual festival that features a parade and a street carnival. Young women compete to be elected Señorita Lluvia de Peces — Miss Fish Rain; the winner of the pageant rides a parade float dressed like a mermaid.
Yet, beyond the festival, there are no indicators in town of the phenomena’s central importance: no monuments, no plaques, no fish-shaped souvenirs on sale at shops around town.
Urbina said that the previous municipal administration had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful. Planners had drawn up a design for a fountain that would be illuminated at night.
But in place of a fountain, officials erected a sculpture of a mushroom — perplexing many.
“I don’t know what happened, but a mushroom appeared,” Urbina said.
Even if the municipality has underplayed the marketing potential of the fish rain, however, the Catholic Church has not.
In 2007, an office of the Jesuits in St. Louis conducted a fund-raising campaign that included a solicitation letter evoking the fish rain.
“Each gift, each prayer, is like one of the ‘peces’ found during each year’s ‘Rain of Fish,’” the letter said, using the Spanish word for fish. “And every one of these blessings, no matter how large or small, will bring much-needed relief to someone in need.”
The Jesuits have maintained a longstanding mission in Yoro.
The Rev. John Willmering, one of the mission’s current priests, is an American from St. Louis who has been living in Honduras for 49 years, much of that time in Yoro.
When he first moved to the Yoro region, he said, the population was majority Catholic. But since then, he said, the Catholic Church has “lost some ground.” The population is now about a third Catholic, he estimated, with the rest split roughly between evangelicals and those who adhere to no religion.
He is coy on the subject of the fish rain, allowing plenty of room for the townspeople’s religious explanations.
“I think most people who would investigate it would say there is a scientific explanation for it,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
But in the absence of such investigations, he continued, faith can fill the gap.
“It works with natural phenomenon when you need it,” he said, the suggestion of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I mean, God is behind everything.”