A Little Slice of Cuba

Welcome to Rancho Don Goyo, where the pork is fresh, the beer is cold, and the music is pure, rural Cuban

The girl nods. "I've been here for a year," she says. "I'm already crazy to get out of here and go back to Cuba."

With his gray work pants tucked into high rubber boots, Don Goyo steps from his white pickup truck and opens the gate to a sun-scorched field. Garbage bags full of decomposing food lie piled on the ground. It is a peculiarly warm afternoon in December and the sour smell is dizzying, but Goyo doesn't seem to notice.

He steps into a pen in which three dozen or so pigs are sleeping or eating slop from a trough. Joined by his two helpers, hard-looking men with sinewy builds and coarse, unkempt hair, he starts to yell and clap his hands. "AVamos, vamos!" he shouts, herding the smaller pigs and piglets into an adjoining yard, where they bask in the mud.

Some larger pigs are confined to another, smaller pen, and the men let these into the central area vacated by the younger animals. As Goyo starts to scrape a long, thin knife against a sharpener, the large pigs squeal and press against the fence.

Wielding the razor-sharp knife, the ranch owner walks among the pigs, then focuses on one and strikes it several times on the back with the butt of the blade, forcing the animal into a corner. Goyo paces back and forth behind the pig, then deftly sticks the knife into its side and pushes it to the hilt, piercing the animal's heart. He pulls out the knife.

"It's done," he says to his farmhands. "It's so fast, you can barely see me do it." The pig staggers, squeals, and with a thud falls down dead. The three men put on rubber gloves, lift the carcass into a tub full of hot water, and scrub it. Goyo scrapes the hair off its hide with the blade of a shovel. The men lift it on to a wooden table, where the now bald skin shines pearl white in the sun. Goyo slices the stomach and the guts spill to the ground. One of the men helps him split the skull with a rusty hatchet. They string the carcass up from a rafter, then hose down their work area.

The operation is unquestionably primitive, more reminiscent of ages-old backyard farming practices than the hygienic, mechanized methods used at slaughterhouses today. But for Goyo the ritual is just part of the way things have always been and always will be.

Growing up on a farm in the rural Cuban province of Matanzas (the name means "slaughters"), he learned to kill pigs, and to care for horses, cows, and chickens. As a young man he helped his father on the farm but eventually he went his own way, earning his living as a butcher. In the Sixties, when times changed in rural Cuba owing to the Castro government's appropriation of private land and agricultural reforms, Goyo moved to Havana. He labored as a carpenter, then found work as a restaurant cook. In 1980 he decided to leave the island, taking advantage of the Mariel boatlift. His son Mobel, then nineteen years old, left with him.

They arrived in Miami, but Catholic Charities, an organization that was working with the refugees, sent them on to Los Angeles. Alone and unable to speak English, Goyo earned what money he could collecting cardboard and soda cans from the garbage and turning them in for recycling. After getting to know some other Cubans in the city, he began cooking for Santeria ceremonies, weddings, and quinces. He had more success setting up his pork sandwich stand and was able to save enough to buy a neighborhood grocery store catering to Latin customers. Eventually he owned four stores.

Goyo's wife joined him in 1984, and in 1993 he gave in to her desire to move to Miami. He opened a grocery store in Hialeah but quickly sold it to buy the Okeechobee Road ranch, whose wide-open spaces so reminded him of home. "Nothing is like Cuba," he says, "but at least it's the country."

He gets up at four each morning to feed the animals. Later he'll make himself a lunch of meat, beans, rice, and salad, which he eats on the porch behind the store with his sister, who helps him run things, though she does not live on the ranch.

Friends tend to drop in for a beer in the early afternoon, driving over from Hialeah or Medley. Then Goyo goes back to work, getting to bed at ten or eleven. Around the holidays the restaurant is unusually crowded on weekends. (It is open Friday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday from noon until nine.) Goyo makes extra money in December selling some of his pigs for private Christmas dinners.

The ranch owner himself isn't planning on a Christmas feast. He doesn't celebrate much these days. It was just three years ago last November that he put his son Mobel in the ground. "One day we were out riding and he said his hand felt numb," Goyo remembers. "He went and had some tests, and it was cancer." He died four months later at age 34.

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