Christmas in Brownsville

It wasn’t often that I made it home, so when my friend Victor invited me over to help his family make tamales from scratch, I said yes. Soon I was staring into the eyes of a 120-pound pig.

December 2005By Comments

WE WERE ON OUR THIRD BEER when the pig finally showed up that morning. Someone had built a fire in the back, and we were all standing by the pit, trying to wake up and get warm at the same time. The burning wood seemed to be the only real light in the neighborhood. A mesquite hung heavy with scrawny icicles that were losing their courage with the approaching sun. It was cold for Brownsville, even for a Christmas Eve. My friend Victor had invited me over to his parents’ house, and now we were waiting around the fire with his two younger brothers, a nephew, and some friends of theirs I hadn’t met until that morning. The women were waiting in the kitchen, warm and dry. His family did this every Christmas—the men killed a pig and the women made tamales with the meat.

I hadn’t been over to Victor’s old neighborhood since high school. After graduating, he had moved away and gone to college but had come back a year later, married, and trained to be a surgical tech at the hospital. He and Maggie eventually bought a nice house, the highlight of which is the Cowboys Room, a shrine with a jumbo-sized TV screen and more Dallas Cowboys memorabilia than you’ll find anywhere south of Irving. I’d stop by when I was in town, but it wasn’t that often that I made it back. I was living in Austin, and over the years I’d made new friends at the ad agency where I worked. There were times I skipped Christmas in Brownsville and spent the holidays traveling outside the country. Maybe I’d visit my parents in the spring or summer, when the weather was nicer and I could go to the beach. I’d been traveling, on business, when Victor called my apartment and left a message on the machine. “Are you coming home this year or not, bro?”

This wasn’t the first time he’d invited me to his parents’ house on Christmas Eve. Since back in high school, every year I’d come up with some excuse why I couldn’t go, but mainly it was because just about anything sounded better than getting up at six in the morning to kill a pig. It was the same thought that crossed my mind when I saw the truck backing up into the driveway.

The pig was standing in the back, tied to the front corners of the bed with two ropes that didn’t look thick enough for the job. To call the pig a pig and not a hog was to flatter the animal. According to the farmer who sold it to Victor’s older brother, the animal weighed just over 120 pounds, which seemed kind of light whenever it shifted its weight and the truck rocked side to side. It was all white, though the patches on its haunches made it seem as if it had been darker once and over time had faded. Its feet and legs were caked with mud and something that smelled a lot worse than mud. One of the ears flopped forward, while the other stood rigid and perked up, as if it were listening closely, trying to understand what everyone was saying.

I was standing near the truck when the pig turned its head and looked straight at me. It was more of a glance, only a second or two, but the calmness of its eyes told me the animal had no idea what was going on. Then it cocked its fat head and the ropes went taut and looked ready to snap. About that time, someone made the first pig joke, one I can’t remember now, though I had the sense that it was the same pig joke in a series of pig jokes they’d made the year before and the year before that and so on, the same anytime a pig happened to arrive in the back of the truck. There were jokes about how the pig looked like it could be related to one of the friends. There were jokes about how the pig looked like a girl one of the guys had slept with once. There were jokes about how the pig looked a lot better than the girl one of the guys had slept with once, especially around the mouth. On and on, until it was time to figure out how to get the animal off the truck.

Victor’s two younger brothers dug out a pair of long planks from underneath the house. They rested the boards next to each other on the edge of the bed and let the ends crunch into the icy grass. The guys split up, one on either side of the truck, and the rest of us stood a few feet from the tailgate, forming a gauntlet that led toward the backyard. Victor and his older brother undid the ropes and led the animal to the edge of the bed, but when it reached the planks, it stopped and wouldn’t move any farther. It took a couple of tugs and some prodding from behind before it stepped onto one of the planks, felt the wood begin to give, and hurled itself forward with the grace and poise of a 120-pound pig. Its front feet hit the ice first, causing it to slide a bit to the right before it was able to correct itself and trot along into the backyard.

The pig seemed content to root around in the grass. A wooden table stood off to one side, where the yard dropped down to a canal. Victor walked into the house and came back a few minutes later with a small leather case that he set on top of the table. A few of us gathered around to watch him pull out a 9 millimeter and insert the clip.

“Who’s going to do it?” one of his younger brothers asked.

“Orly.” Victor held out the gun to his nephew. “It’s his time to do it.”

He seemed like a natural choice, given that he was graduating high school in a few months and then leaving for the Air Force. Orly laid his green letterman jacket over the fence and walked over to take the gun. He looked younger and smaller with only his sweatshirt on. The pig was standing a few feet away, its head down as it lapped up the last of the backwash someone had poured onto the ground. “What are you waiting for, man?” Victor said.

“It’s got its head down.” Orly cradled the gun in both hands.

“And what, you want to ask it for permission?”

We all laughed and waited for Orly to step a little closer. When he finally raised the gun, he didn’t exactly point it at the pig’s head but more like at its floppy ear.

“Man, what are you doing?” Victor snatched the gun from him.

“Let me do it,” one of his younger brothers said.

“Nah, you stick him with the knife.”

Then Victor pointed the gun sideways, pressed the barrel against the pig’s white forehead, and pulled the trigger. The sound was short and certain; the bullet left a hole the color and size of an ink stain. The pig jolted back a foot, then buckled and fell on its left side, wrenching in the dirt. Victor’s brother dropped to his knees and plunged the twelve-inch knife into the pig’s chest—to save the meat, the heart had to be stopped immediately. The animal continued to convulse, so he stuck it a second time, but with the same results.

After the third time, Victor stepped forward. “Pendejo, it’s on the other side!”

It took us a few seconds to flip the pig over, onto its right side. He stabbed it again, and this time the pig lay still.

Three of us lifted the body onto the wooden table. We spread an old bedsheet over the bulging figure and, from a nearby cauldron, poured small pots of boiling water over the pig. Then Orly and I pulled the sheet off and used long knives to shave the body, which revealed more of its dark skin. We had barely finished when a couple of Victor’s brothers wound rope around each of the animal’s front legs and tied it to a thick mesquite branch that jutted out, parallel to the ground. The pig hung five feet off the ground, front legs spread out, back legs dangling. Its head was drooping to one side when Victor’s older brother cut it off with a hacksaw. He dropped the head into the cauldron, where it would bob until it was ready to be plucked for the tamales. Then Victor slit the pig, and blood rained into a bucket. The brothers started pulling organs from the body and hurling them into the canal, each one landing with a heavy plop. Inside the kitchen, the women were already laying out the husks and the masa for the tamales.

My mother had always bought our tamales from an old woman and her only slightly younger daughter, who lived past the airport in what most people considered the country. When the order was ready, I would drive over with an ice chest, and the woman’s daughter would load dozen after dozen of these tamales, half of them wrapped in foil and labeled in black marker with “chicken,” “beef,” or “pork” and the other half with “pollo,” “carne,” or “puerco,” as if we might taste a difference between the English and the Spanish versions. This was the one time of year when everyone ate tamales, and so what you called them wasn’t nearly as important as getting your fill. At home, my mother would stack these aluminum bricks in our freezer, where they would stay until later that night when my parents threw a Christmas Eve party for our family and friends. There was my tía Nena’s coconut punch, my mom’s famous rice, frijoles a la charra in Styrofoam cups, a rum cake from a family friend. But everyone came for the tamales.

Like most people living in the city, my family had left behind the old tradition of making tamales at home. My father, who had grown up on a farm, used to talk about his family’s killing a pig for the Christmas tamales, but this was back in the twenties. When he spoke of that time, it was as if he were speaking of a distant world, which, in a way, he was. The matanza, or slaughtering of a pig, was brought to the Americas by the Spaniards, who had been practicing the tradition as a display of Christian faith against Moorish rule, which condemned pork. By the time Cortés arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs and their predecessors had been making tamales since at least 1200 B.C.

“It’s your turn.” Victor was holding the hacksaw out to me.

“For what?”

“To cut something off, man,” he said. “You do the ribs.”

He showed me how, and I stuck my arm into the dark cavity. For the next fifteen minutes I worked with the cold air pushing me from behind and the heat of the pig’s remains rising up to my face. I tried to concentrate on what I was doing, but I kept wanting to stop. I wondered if it were somehow possible to start over, take it all back, sew the head on, remove the bullet from its skull, patch up its heart, let its hair grow back. When I felt the animal’s frame breaking into two separate parts, I knew just how crazy this idea was.

After I finished, I pulled away and wiped my hands on my jeans. I walked to the ice chest for a beer, relieved that I had finished and could say good-bye to everybody. Orly was standing with his girlfriend near the back door, showing her the pig’s heart, which he had managed to save.

I drove back to my parents’ house, hoping to take a shower and sleep the rest of the day, until the guests started showing up that evening for Christmas Eve. It was then I remembered that I had the ice chest in the backseat and was supposed to pick up the tamales for the party. I turned the car around and headed toward the airport. It was the middle of the morning, and the clouds were breaking up some. As I drove there, I thought maybe this year I’d buy an extra dozen tamales, just to take with me when I left home again.

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