By Emily Codik
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Valeria Nekhim
By Carla Torres
By Emily Codik
By Carina Ost
By Laine Doss
"Bingo!" Rafael announces as he tools his black Dodge Dakota toward a wooden sign wired to a chainlink fence and scrawled in orange spray paint with "Se Venden Puercos."
Only a mile into Hialeah Gardens on a late February afternoon, his quest for fresh pork is nearly complete. The Cuban-born truck driver might be mistaken for an aging pro wrestler: Jose Canseco-esque arms strain the dainty sleeves of a black DKNY T-shirt, and a stiff cascade of straight black hair reaches his shoulders. Reflective Oakley sport shades that hide his crow's-feet look as small as goggles on his bovine cranium. Tomorrow is his 57th birthday, and as he has done approximately 54 times before, Rafael will celebrate the occasion with lechón. "Even if I was dead-broke, I would roast a pig," he explains on the short drive from his Hialeah home. "Even if I had to steal the fucker from the guy next door."
As he steps from his truck, he remarks somewhat fondly, "It's a dump, no?" He's right: This minuscule farm sits on a tract of land sandwiched between two man-made lakes less than a mile from the Palmetto Expressway. It consists of only a three-room tin-roofed shack, a goat field of garbage-littered black soil, and a pig pen. Three young workers in grimy T-shirts, their tasks mostly finished for the day, pick at pork platters and drink bottled Presidente. A gutted hog hangs on a splintered-wood wall, its mouth curled into an unlikely grin. The air is acrid with the twin aromas of blood and shit.
After Rafael announces the reason for his visit, a worker named Miguel hops the fence of the nearby mud pen. A dozen small pigs squeal wildly and cram into corners to escape him, terror evident in their dark, dog-like eyes. Rafael is looking for an 80-pounder, and with some elbowing, a short, sturdily built carnicero named Miguel separates a skinny peach-furred sow from the pack. Rafael is handed a free beer as he watches.
At this ramshackle slaughterhouse, the animals are killed like Mafia capos. Miguel herds the chosen hog to a blood-soaked area behind the shack, where the creature digs into a metal bowl of dark-brown slop. As the hungry animal focuses on the grub — they're usually not fed for at least 24 hours before slaughter — Miguel grabs a heavy-caliber silver pistol that looks like it might be a Soviet-era antique. "You aim for an imaginary spot a little above right between the eyes," Rafael narrates. "It seems violent, but it's actually more humane."
The hog-slaying veteran nevertheless leaps when a hollow clap slumps the sow against a wall. Almost in one motion, Miguel drops the pistol onto a counter, picks up a hunter's knife, and rolls the hog onto its back. Then he burrows the blade deeply into its neck. The wound gushes blood into the dirt for about five minutes — just enough time for Rafael to pop open another beer.
Miguel and a husky co-worker expertly clean the carcass with the instruments of back-alley surgeons. After scalding the hog in a rusty tub of water heated by a propane tank, they shave its fur with pink disposable razors. They hang it from hooks, excise its steaming organs, saw off its hooves, and drop the remains into a black industrial-size garbage bag. About 20 minutes after spotting the roadside farm, Rafael heaves Sunday's party-starter onto the bed of his pickup. He pays Miguel with crisp $20 bills — six of them, a bit more than he might pay at Publix.
Today's shopping trip is light years from kosher — and a good trek from the realm of the legal. Miguel violated environmental, health, and animal cruelty laws. But it's business as usual at the tiny, often filthy farms of rural West Dade, where Cubans and other immigrants keep alive a cottage industry of unlicensed slaughter.
But please don't bother the birthday boy with your wimpy health qualms. "Dude, I just picked a pig that I saw was healthy — running around and frisky and all that — watched her be killed and watched her be cleaned," Rafael says impatiently as he heads home along Okeechobee Road. "How could it be safer than that? If you'd rather eat Hormel or something, go ahead."
A week after Rafael and friends have digested their birthday feast, a New Times reporter returns to the dusty roads of far Northwest Dade to conduct an unscientific survey. The first stop is a desolate animal farm overlooking a large blue reservoir a short horse trot from White Rock Quarries. The enclosure's lure: a sign that simply reads, "Animal."
"No problem," is the casual reply of a burly man in a cowboy hat and designer shades when asked whether he can provide a midsize hog for a hypothetical roast the next day. He is playing cards with three buddies as his watchful young daughter sucks on a Hubba Bubba candy stick.
Nearby, stacked cages contain pit bulls of all ages. Beyond that, vultures pick at leftovers in large cow-feed tubs. The farmer stands up from his game and walks 30 feet to a sty. He grabs a bored-looking pig by the ear and quotes a price: "$120, plus $10 for kill."