I called the slaughterhouse and they told me the pig would be ready in time for Christmas. My stomach turned a bit, the first of many turns until Christmas Eve. I can imagine the pig already: cute little snout, bristling, a regular Peppa. I shake the thoughts from my head. ‘Tis the season, after all, not of the sacrificial lamb, but of the sacrificial cochinito. Because Noche Buena is upon us—even me, the vegetarian.
As a kid, I used to count the sleeps until Noche Buena as early as summer. The 24th of December was my lighthouse, shining bright at the end of the calendar’s long, twelve-month crossing. The date held so much promise. It was when the whole family gathered to tell stories—no matter where we were, we came together. My exiled parents and grandparents talked about Cuba and carved her out before us, bringing Havana to us even when we could not go to her. It has always been a symbol of refuge for me, of everything my parents lost fleeing their homeland, and everything they gained when they reached the U.S. At the center of all of it, there was a tradition the family carried over: the Cuban pig roast.
Noche Buena literally translates into “good night,” and for Cubans and other cultures, like Mexicans and Filipinos, it’s what we call Christmas Eve. Whereas many cultures place the celebration emphasis on Christmas day itself—the day of Jesus’ birth—we’re all about the pre-game. Noche Buena is, in essence, that last hurrah before the baby comes.
Growing up Cuban, Christmas Eve called for lechón (suckling pig), which meant staying up on Christmas Eve’s-Eve to prep the pig. My dad would sit at the counter, marinating, elbows deep in Cuban adobo and mojo, which included garlic, oil, sour orange, cumin, pepper, and bay leaves. The stubborn smell of the sweet, tangy marinade lasted for days on my dad’s fingertips and on our countertops. But it was worth it, because once that mojo hit the heat, its scent wafted through the house and the patio, from one yard to another, enveloping us in a warm blanket.
“That pig roast was a playground and a field of learning. I learned to play dominoes around it, and to dance and play the guiro.”
The roasting always started early on December 24th. The pig was mounted onto La Caja China—“The Chinese Box”—a wood and metal box with charcoal at the top, which slow-roasts the pig. This tradition, most agree, comes from Chinese migrant workers in Cuba, which eventually made its way to my backyard in Miami, Florida.
In the 1980’s, my dad would take turns with my uncle, who would take turns with his dad, who we’d all nicknamed “Carne Puerco” (Pork Meat), who had a belly that matched his moniker. It was practically all he ate, putting it on everything as if it were salt and pepper.
That pig roast was a playground and a field of learning. I learned to play dominoes around it, and to dance and play the guiro (though neither very well). I breathed in Miami winter air, crisp and fresh, as I ran around el patio and played basketball with my cousins on a makeshift court. The carefully coiffed bows my mom set on my sister’s head and mine unfurled into loose curls as the excitement of the day ensued. The sound of Cuban Spanish danced all around us as the skin of the pig became toasty and crisp like candy. It was pure bliss.
Until I turned twelve.
One day at school, in the middle of the year, we had a substitute teacher who played a documentary for us on factory farming. The images of chickens crammed into crates (unable to move, let alone roam), shackled cows, the assembly line of animals splayed open at the end of the line—it all made my stomach sink into a queasy mess, and I felt as if I could never eat an animal again. I came home and told my mom I was going to become a vegetarian. She thought it was a phase. What kind of Cuban would become a vegetarian? But here I am, 39 years later, still going strong.
I might have become a vegetarian anyway, factory farming documentary or not. If you were watching me closely, you could see it coming. From a very early age, I avoided meat. Burgers were once cute little cows, I remember thinking. The same applied to pork. Every year, the morning before Noche Buena, my dad would go choose the pig at the matadero, or slaughterhouse. My sister loved to go with him, always racing to lace up her sneakers and run out the door. When they got there, she’d point with glee, shouting: “That one!” My dad used to chuckle about it when he got home; I, on the other hand, never went. It was too sad to look a pig you were about to eat in the eyes.
Slowly, the family tradition died. Not as a result of my vegetarianism, but because of my parents’ divorce. Years later, my dad—the real down-home-Cuban in the family, the “Cubiche”—passed away, and with him, the last remnants of the pig roast.
My sister and I went off to college, pursuing higher (and higher) education. We moved around the country from New York to Los Angeles, traveled, dated, sunk, swam and succeeded—all the things you hope to do in your twenties and early thirties. We assimilated, to a certain degree, though we always came home for Christmas. Still, the Noche Buenas weren’t the same—quiet, with no kids underfoot. Our careers had delayed family plans, and we were well into our thirties when we got married.
Those adulthood Noche Buenas consisted mostly of lomo, or pork shoulder, instead of the whole pig; others were potlucks. My grandfather’s Spanish traditions still managed to make it to the table—strong Iberian flavors like Serrano ham, perfectly textured Manchego cheese, crispy fried garbanzos, olives, and European nougat, or turrón, for dessert, which always left a little almond oil on your hands for licking after eating. And, of course, endless amounts of red wine to go around. But the sound and scent was different, and the thing I missed most were the stories my dad told about his friends—kids with names like “Pirata” running around Miami in the 60’s, barefoot refugees in the sand, chasing lighthouses, reaching for more. I missed those tales, long and short, and some of the best jokes in the world, moving across the lawn to meet the songs you’d known forever since the first time you twirled in the womb. The lomito Noche Buenas that came in our 30’s were “ito”—small.
But, when I was 38 years old, my husband and I welcomed our first baby. And I couldn’t shake the fear that my son would grow up not knowing what a real Noche Buena was like. I kept thinking, What are we doing? Where are our roots? By December of that year, I’d turned into a lion, roaring: Bring back the pig roast! Bring back the pig roast!
So, despite my commitment to being a vegetarian, I chose to take the baton—in the spirit of my father, and my early immigrant refugee family—and I gave Noche Buena the honor and upgrade it deserved. On my son’s first year around the sun, I opened the doors to my house on Christmas Eve and invited my whole family in again. I sent out “Save the Dates” early (“NOCHE BUENA, people, it’s back!”); I invited neighbors and friends and actors I’d been working with on a play about Cuba that had taken Miami by storm. Everyone who had found a place in my heart got an invitation.
And then, I got stuck. I’d forgotten how to do it. Where do you get the pig again? How do you actually cook it? How long?
I had my personal assistant investigate where to find a pig (my parents didn’t have assistants, needless to say), and she learned that the same matadero my dad had gone to was still around (!), so that’s where I went. By December 23rd, I had a whole pig inside my house—dead, pink, and ready to roast. It was big enough to feed 100 people. And I had no idea what to do with it.
I looked around, listened, and felt a swelling of pride; my little refugee family had come a long way.
I called my mom, who called a friend who had come from Cuba more recently than us. When he came over, he asked for a hammer and some tools, and he used his hands to break the pig open, the sound of cracking bones bouncing off my deck. He showed us, once again, how to get in there, and he talked about how they dreamed about this kind of pig in Cuba today, where the regime had taken everything from human rights to basic necessities, like food. Despite tradition, the Cuban revolution had abolished Christmas in the early years, and even when it made its way back, you had to fight for a pig like this. I looked around, listened, and felt a swelling of pride; my little refugee family had come a long way.
As I heard the ribs crack, my vegetarian heart cracked a little, too. But my Cuban heart sang and drowned the veggie part out. Because there we all were again, with drinks in hand, telling stories while my sister’s kids ran around and my first child waddled at my feet. Before we knew it, the pig was face down in the middle of my living room, all of us marinating it. I was afraid our kids would be scared, but they didn’t even flinch—Neanderthals, all of them. Or maybe the Cuban in them made this seem like the most natural thing in the world.
The next morning, bright and early, my step-dad arrived at my door. It was Christmas Eve and he was ready for his post at La Caja China. For hours and hours, that pig cooked. My Uruguayan husband, who was used to asados (a different kind of roast), helped turn the pig, and the stories came back. The door stayed open all day and night, and people came and went—just like the old days. That’s when it all came flooding back: the pure joy of being Cuban and the beauty of my roots, re-rooted in this country, which had its own complexities but had welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to grow. It hadn’t always been easy and the road was never straight, but here we were, old and new. I couldn’t think of anything better. My physical body may be vegetarian, but my Cuban heart is carnivorous.