When the first goat was killed, it took me by surprise.
My husband Jorge and I had been invited by one of Jorge’s photojournalist friends to this nondescript compound in La Mixteca, the most impoverished region of Oaxaca, Mexico’s most impoverished state, to watch the annual slaughter of thousands of goats.
As the poorest of Oaxaca’s eight regions, La Mixteca sends the most migrants to the United States each year: 18 of its municipios, or counties, have extremely high rates of migration, as compared to only 7 counties in the Valles Centrales and 4 in the Sierra Norte.
Each year, hundreds of herds of goats roamed the Mixteca’s rocky, arid, unyielding hills, the hills from which millions of migrants fled northwards, and in October their shepherds led them to this Spanish hacienda for slaughter.
I had wanted to see the slaughter because I assumed that I’d be appalled: that this would be the final push I’d need to become a full-fledged vegetarian instead of one of those vacillators between weeks of beans and virtue and weeks of chorizo and guilt. This, I thought, would be the horror I’d need to convince myself once and for all to forgo the tasajo, in which it was so easy to indulge without consideration of the environmental and ethical effects. And of course, I was drawn to the sheer spectacle: the premise of hundreds of goats, hundreds of people, the blood, the drama, played out on the stage of colonial Mexico.
This slaughter was the beginning of a weeklong festival called el molé de caderas (the molé of hips.) The choicest cuts went to Oaxaca City, where we were living, to restaurants that prepare their own version of the celebrated dish. But every part of the goats would be sold or eaten. Oaxaca state is celebrated for its molés, thick sauces made from dozens of crushed spices, herbs and vegetables. Molé negro, the molé of weddings and funerals and baptisms, is the most famous; it is ground, blended, and packaged by two companies, La Soledad and El Mayordomo, whose main markets are tourists, migrants heading to the U.S., and families sending Oaxacan staples to their relatives in the U.S.
In “La Cumbia del Mole,” Lila Downs sings,
They say in Oaxaca
you drink coffee with mezcal
Herb and smoke a plenty to chase away evil eye
I like to try the molé that Soledad is going to grind
Oh my darling Soledad,
she’s gonna cook a molito
By the skies of my Monte Alban,
at night I’m dreaming to see you
First need to get the peanuts,
to get the salt and the bread
you grind and you fry the chiles,
you boil the chocolate
get cinnamon and banana, get cloves and oregano
get thyme and the blackest pepper
you grind it in México.
The molé de caderas isn’t one of the seven traditional Oaxacan moles; it is a specialty made only during this one week of the year, from the fruits of the slaughter. Its roots go back to Spanish colonial times in Mexico, when the peasants working for the hacienda owners would take the hip bones of the goats – the only parts left to them after the annual slaughter – and make a molé.
As was the case with bouillabaisse and ratatouille, this peasant food has been appropriated by city chefs and rendered haute cuisine, sold for up to 200 pesos in Oaxaca City’s nicest restaurants (around $16; in comparison, most Mixtecos earn less than $5 a day). Now, the best parts of the goats are carefully extracted and preserved for the restaurants; the peasants, whose situation has not changed substantially in the last five hundred years, get a small cut of the profits, the goat blood, and the castoff innards.
In La Mixteca, far from the Pochote-dotted restaurant gardens of the city, I’d been mentally gearing up for the slaughter all morning. Those of us (journalists, curious Mexican tourists, a few locals) who’d come up for the slaughter had been milling around, making jittery, brief conversation, standing in the brutal Mixteca sun I could feel baking my skin a deep maroon. We’d spent hours in the killing courtyard: the most interior part of the hacienda, a thirty-meter long by twenty-meter wide space with stone walls, a cement floor and the cloud-dotted sky for a roof. Our noses had grown accustomed to the stink, the dark purple stains on the cement were no longer shocking, the sun was increasingly uncomfortable; people stood with their backs pressed to the walls trying to avoid it.
Early in the morning when the day’s goats had been let in, about a hundred of them streaming through a gate at the far left end of the room, we thought it’d happen right away. There was a general bracing and a backing up and an exchange of nervous, sideways, half-smiles, and the documentary film crew pushed its microphone determinedly above the herd…but nothing happened. At the room’s opposite end the cocky long-armed men with knives in their belts grinned and slapped each other on the back, kicked at the ground, and did nothing.
So we kept waiting, waiting with the goats, who bit each other and shat and pissed on the ground and farted and roamed, seemingly unaware of stepping on the dried blood of those who had come before, of the tense close buzz of the spectators who reached out their hands to pet the goats – a gesture of both curiosity and consolation. The animals jerked away in irritation.
We spent hours with these goats, while the popsicle man came and went and small children ate green popsicles, and the torta man came and went and said, “Guera! Eat! Eat, guera!” to the laughter of the men with knives, the slaughter men. Their machismo was of a different breed than that of the young, pierced and tattooed migrants in nearby Huajuapán, who drove tricked out cars with Washington State plates and frightened me far more than any of the rough men in this bloodstained room.
Eventually after hours of waiting without knowing, the sun pounding down on everyone and drying the old blood a parched shade of violet, we grew restless. The slaughter men were relaxed, unconcerned, bemused at our shuffling unease. Maybe this delay bled the assumptions and expectations out of us, the urban spectators trying to frame and define this into a relatable experience; maybe it emptied us of the desire to conjure up advice or morality; maybe the unrelenting sun slammed its way into where our thought and reasoning were and wiped that space blank.
We began roaming as dumbly as the goats, from the innermost killing room to the large, long interior courtyard where the skinning and gutting would be done. Most of the courtyard was under direct sun, a bright central rectangle which stood in bold contrast with its frame of dark, cool shade, where the tiled roof extended about a meter and wrapped around the courtyard’s border. Thin straw mats covered most of the courtyard, overlapping, reeking of grass and goat and sweat and blood. Stretched flesh hung above the mats on clotheslines that crisscrossed the long patio; skin, yellowed and thin like dirty underwear, was silhouetted against the sun and the intermittent clouds. Brilliant rays of sun shot through hanging red carcasses. Everywhere goat, and people working on the goat. Along the courtyard’s edges in the shade, under the short stretch of red-tiled roof, lived the workers. They sat and played and slept and drank on the straw mats caked with blood. Children rolled around and wrestled one another on the mats; the slaughter men, in shorts and clingy tank tops covered in blood, in huaraches soaked in blood, sat backs to the stone walls cracking jokes or stared off into the courtyard, sweating.
It smelled. Smelled like being inside a goat. Smelled like the goat fat and carcasses being fried in a long narrow frying room that seemed like a nonchalant version of hell. The room was filled with smoke and purple-red rib cages were piled up in the corner against blank white walls. Huge vats of oil sizzled with goat fat and goat bones. Men in bandannas stirred the vats with wooden spoons two times the length of my body. The smoke was so dense it was hard to breathe without choking a little. At a safe distance far across the room, through the slow billowing smoke, I took a picture of the men sitting on a bench in the far corner: two men in their twenties and a few teenagers seated below them on the floor. They raised their machetes with the stoic looks of hardened killers, then laughed.
I stepped out of that room into a smaller one where it seemed a few of these men slept. There was a bicycle in the corner, some blankets on the floor, a big glass jug of mezcal. This room was a moment of brief, dark repose between the frying room and the large interior courtyard.
We made our way back into the killing room, scrunching against the walls and the corners for relief from the sun, people crowding onto the tops of the walls now; young village boys, climbing the stones, reminding me of pictures I’d seen from an exhibition on migrants climbing border fences. Most of these boys would wind up in the United States, on roads, in restaurants, tending the carefully irrigated lawns of Southern California.
“Guera,” a man outside the hacienda had not so much asked or blurted out of curiosity like most, but stated.
“De donde eres.” He already knew, he was just the only one drunk and bold enough to call it out.
“The U.S.,” I answered in Spanish, uncomfortable for the first time in a long time in Mexico.
“Where,” he persisted. Not curious. Looking for something.
“The center,” I said.
“I know it, I’ve been there,” he said, “tell me exactly where.”
People’s eyes were on me. Women, the ones left behind, looked curious. Men looked uncomfortable, waited to see how it would play out.
“Ohio,” I said. The man nodded, satisfied.
“I was in Oregon and California,” he said. “So why are you here.”
I explained that my husband was from Oaxaca. This always released the tension, created a bridge. “So you’re from here,” he said.
“Mitad y mitad,” I consented, and I wondered why immediately after I said it. Two years ago I would’ve pounced on his affirmation, eaten it up, relished it.
“I’m from here,” I would’ve rushed in a breath to agree. “I’m not from there anymore.” But something had changed in those past two years, all the time living abroad had made me less from here, less from there, more half and half. The man went on,
Chamacos is a Mexican slang term for kids. I shook my head: no, not yet. The man – with an audience now – gasped in mock outrage.
“We love kids here, guera,” he said. “It’s time for you to have kids.”
I laughed, the audience laughed, the man’s intensity and my discomfort less vivid now, and he told me to have four, five, seven kids, and I said I’d think about it, in a few years.
That was outside. I didn’t know where that man was now, strewn across a mat somewhere, maybe, sharpening his knife. I wonder how la Mixteca compared with Oregon and California, and was pretty sure he preferred this mat and this life.
Inside, another man had also not so much asked as stated, “where you from,” in English, and nodded when I confirmed what he already knew.
“What’s the plan,” he said, looking me in the eye, and I had to ask what that meant. I immediately thought plans, life plans, ten-year plans, career plans, before he clarified,
“Here, being here, what’s the plan?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I wanted to see this. My husband,” I gestured at Jorge taking photos across the room, “told me about it and I wanted to come.”
He accepted that, nodded, and went back to joking with his friends. He had a big brown belly, a bandana, and strong-looking leather huaraches stained mahogany with blood.
In the killing room I watched the slaughter men gesticulate, thinking about this older form of machismo. They wore cowboy boots and belts, not like the kind the narcos wore in the city, but the worn kind, the ones that are less flashy accessory and more unified body part. The machismo of these men didn’t have the frightening hollowness behind it, the contrived push to cover something up: changing roles, changing society, emasculated masculinity.Theirs was a machismo that grew organically out of this Earth and this way of living, out of a certainty of who they were in their world. And while it surely shared many ills with the machismo of the cities, it at least felt more a part of a functioning, rooted cultural system, and less part of a power push in a society in tumultuous transition.
In and out people meandered, goats un-herded and unsure of where to go, stepping cautiously on the flat mats the bloody kids rolled on, bumping into other giddy, edgy tourists, squinting into the sun and shade.
Then it was happening all of a sudden, like an earthquake. The men who had been sitting backs to the wall with their heads upturned, waiting, were up and rushing for the door and everyone who’d been straying around crammed in behind them, creating a bottleneck to get to the goats. As we squeezed into the killing room the kids perched on the walls’ edges leaned forward, the slaughter men inside grew terse and alert, and then they and the men coming from the courtyard were threading through the goats like watercolors weaving across a page, and before I knew what was happening and before I could think this is it or think of where to look, I was looking at a goat, a man holding it fiercely by the horns, and before I blinked or thought or felt, there was another man sticking the knife below the goat’s throat, and a cry, the goat’s white tongue stuck out and then bright radiant blood gushing from the wound, a man sticking a bucket under it, the goat collapsing, sustained now by the man with the grip on its horns, the goat’s legs buckling, the blood slowing from river to tributary, the bucket full, and then, maybe two or three seconds after it had all started, the man let go of the horns and the goat dropped with glazed eyes staring up at the blue Mixteca sky.
The men were shouting and slipping and lunging here and there, grabbing goats, the quick thrust of the knife, the clean gash in goat fur, the blood, the bucket filling, the thud of the goat’s body falling, and then they were going for wheelbarrows, and as I jumped out of the way to make room for the wheelbarrows’ shaky zigzags I noticed that nearly all of the witnesses were gone. Me and one small, round man in a neat suit shirt and jeans, watching the massacre, agape.
“Está fuerte,” he told me in a low voice.
The men were filling the wheelbarrows with goat bodies, thunk, thunk, the goats toppled in, heads limping to the side, legs intertwined, and when there were two or three bodies in the wheelbarrows the men pushed and grunted shouting “Puerta, puerta!” and weaving towards the door. It seemed impossible, looking at the deadness of the goat eyes, the white-yellow teeth and the soft lips, that these animals had ever been alive. Men and boys picked goats up and hoisted them over their shoulders; the goats, their arms, legs, and heads gently flopping, hunched in an embrace over the men’s backs. The goats weighed the men down and their bodies keeled under the warm goat bodies as they struggled to maneuver as quickly as possible through the blood and out the door to shrug off their cargo atop rising piles of dead goats.
Meanwhile more were being killed in this same frenzy; men rushing and panting and shouting and lunging to kill all the goats before too many realized what was happening and panicked, throwing the swift maneuverability of the situation into chaos. Goats bleeding here and there, sometimes bubbles of blood swelling up from the wounds, sometimes a cry, but mostly a dull lunge forward and then collapse, dead in five seconds. I saw Jorge urgently photographing a scene on the other side of the room and realized they were cutting open a goat’s stomach to save a baby.
How would it feel to be born in a slaughter, I thought of the white baby goat being lifted out of the carnage; it was like a novel, except it is real and practical and just life that will grow and be fattened on pastures and slaughtered this time next year, and they’ll take it out of the killing room and fan it with a straw fan until it breathes. A woman held the flaccid baby out from her body, went running with it to the other room, and the round stomach where it had been nestled until that point was another body hustled up around someone’s shoulders and hurried out of the room.
It was over in minutes. Then the men were panting, their shoes and legs sticky with blood, the boys swiftly sweeping the blood into the shallow vein running straight down the center of the room, the blood heavy and so bright it equaled the intensity of the sun, slouching in lumps down the vein into the room below, and when it seemed I might breathe and think again more goats were coming in, Jorge was jumping back with his camera, the man beside me was bracing himself, gathering a breath of strength he didn’t notice he took, and then it was happening again, the cry of a goat here and there, the tongue sticking out through strong teeth, the slow tumbling, the firm grasp and release of the horns, the surge of blood, the thump of bodies, sometimes a slight whacking sound as skull hit cement, the wheelbarrows holding heavy goat bodies stumbling through the scene, the men cradling dead dripping goats dashing in a quick scuffle from the room, returning, grabbing another pair of horns, another bucket, another surge of blood – and then it was over. The room was quiet; white clouds were floating across the blue sky. The sun was pounding down, the blood was turning a faint purple, the boys were brushing it in waves into the cement vein where it dribbled downwards, the men were wild-eyed and covered in beads of sweat, foreheads taut with tension. Everything was still for a moment. The small man in the suit shirt did not say anything to me. Jorge came carefully across the room, tiptoeing over the blood as if not to harm it. He did not say anything to me either.
Later, a few minutes later it must have been – although time after it was over in that room was sticky and slow – we went back into the courtyard where work was being methodically and rapidly done in an electric surge of adrenaline. There was activity in every inch and corner of the room, people taking apart goats, mostly skinning but some starting in on the dismantling of intestines and the chopping off of hooves and ears. Small piles of furry black, brown, white, and speckled hooves and ears accumulated. There were goats everywhere, a maze of goat bodies through which men, women, and children deftly wove, knives in hands or mouths, feet bloody.
Young boys came around with plastic cups and two-liters of Pepsi, serving the men and women who were doing the skinning. I fixated on one man in particular. His eyes, bulging and round as marbles, were opened as wide as could be. He had a taut, swollen belly, brown and smeared with blood, and he was barefoot, with blood between the toes. He walked with a confident limp, a tilting rhythm in which he swooped down and back, down and back, and he skinned the goats by sticking his foot under the skin and using it as leverage to pull the skin back. His foot slipped and slid around the goat’s globular belly while the skin peeled off without a sound. When the goat was half skinned he tossed it aside and started on another, stopping at times for a sip of Pepsi, his eyes occasionally catching mine but not registering me. I stood and watched. The goat bellies looked like peeled grapes, with thin red and blue veins running under a translucent film.
I realized at some point that a CD was playing in an old CD player, the kind I got for Christmas in the early 1990s, and the sound was tinny and small like a soft rain. The man was singing, “Y todos compartimos la gloria que es…tener mujer…” The men worked swiftly and busily, tossing a goat aside once its belly was revealed, looking up only occasionally from their work but not seeming to see anything. They sweated, dripping sweat all over the goats and creating clear sweat streams through the blood on their arms and legs and bellies. I must have stood there for a long time, watching, listening to the tinny music from the CD player, as the men worked rhythmically, pushing their bare feet into the goat bodies and slipping around and pulling up the skin and pushing away the goat with the revealed belly and pulling up another one and starting again.
A man, frazzled, gray, thin as a matchstick, came up to me grinning like a lunatic.
“Ever seen anything like this?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Surreal Mexico!” he shouted, tilting his head back towards the sky. “Somos primitivos! Somos Apaches!”
I laughed uncomfortably, my throat scratchy.
“It’s surreal, for sure,” I replied.
“So does this confirm Mexico’s surrealism for you?” he asked, as if this were a dialogue we’d been having for years now, and finally it could come to a close.
“Yes, confirmed,” I said, still not too set in this sardonic tone. He shook his head, whistled a bit through his teeth, his eyes smiling behind his glasses. He looked part biology professor, part seasoned journalist, part madman.
“Bet you’ve never seen anything like this – where are you from?” he asked as an afterthought, nodding before I’d gotten the whole answer out.
“Something else, isn’t it.” Then he grew more serious. “But it’s a lot healthier than the way you do it there.”
Grateful for the switch to a graver tone, I agreed.
“You know, it may seem shocking and primal and awful, but the truth is it’s good to be here – it’s good to see it – it’s a part of something else, something we’ve forgotten there, something we’ve lost – there it’s sick and awful and really we’ve lost this, this connection that we can see here, you know…”
I was rambling. Words were irrelevant and useless as cast off gum wrappers. I found that – the irrelevance of words – almost as stimulating as the blood and adrenaline and the skinning and goat bodies and people working the goat flesh.
“Too many images,” the man laughed. “I don’t even know where to look, what to do.” He shook his head, adjusted his glasses, laughed again, less manic and more bemused this time. We stood there together for a bit, and then he moved around, took pictures of the man with his foot deep in the goat under the skin, and then inched his way around to another corner of the patio.
I tried to turn around and look at something else, there was so much going on, but I didn’t want to move. I was fully immersed, in a daze, and everything going on around me seemed to matter exactly the same amount, seemed equally interesting, relevant, integrated into this moment. I was not feeling repulsion, happiness, sadness, any everyday posture toward the everyday world. Just presence, a lightness, all of this – the sun and goat bodies and families and faint music and photographers – running through me, absorbing me.
Only later, with a beer in the shade on the cool white steps at the hacienda’s entrance, did I start feeling. It was sadness I felt then, not for the dead goats as I’d anticipated, but for the society I came from that had lost this: lost an essential connection to these rituals of killing. In the society I came from the logic of mass and more had snuffed out the meaning of killing and buried the evocative sense of presence, of humility, before these rites of life and death. Just as the machismo of the teenagers in Huajuapan had been divorced from the traditional structure of a culture and a society, the rituals of sacrifice and Earth and blood had been divorced from meaning in a society in which efficiency made killing easy to put into words, numbers, boxes.
I did not want to become a vegetarian. I was not disgusted, or converted, or righteous, but humbled and struck. When we returned to Oaxaca, we did not go out to eat the molé de caderas. I watched the owner of the hacienda, a middle-aged but well-preserved Mexican of Spanish descent, commanding the peasant workers in the post-slaughter bustle. He was chiseled and lithe, with a golden face. His shirt was a button-down in ranchero style but of obvious quality, the fabric strong and crisp. His jeans were sharp, new, his boots elegant polished leather. Women, presumably his wife and various aunts or sisters, prepared a molé de caderas in a stone kitchen for a group of hacienda elites: exclusively white, sitting on benches on the kitchen’s porch, they seemed directly transplanted from the 1500s.
In any country, there are moments in which history is raw and palpable, and the various layers of modernization flake away to reveal an essential dynamic. In this case they revealed the hierarchies that have always shaped and continue to shape Mexico. The Spaniard marched between the slaughter rooms and the relief of air and dust and hills outside; he joked with relatives and friends, who mingled neither with us – the struck-dumb visitors and the bustling journalists – nor with the workers who were stringing goat flesh against the singing blue of the sky. He and his family would extract the best from the slaughter, sell it to the light-skinned Mexicans in the city who ran its best restaurants, and profit. But as I observed all this I felt far removed from it; the heart of this ritual and this place was in those slaughter rooms with the men who’d been to the other side and come back, with the women and children skinning and carrying and fanning goats, setting aside blood and organs for their own molés in the days to come. In them the energy, the myth, and the mystery of the killing moved.
Having been fully present, briefly, in the thrust of the knife and the draining of blood and sunlit stripping of skulls, I realized that the world I’d come from had lost it a long time ago. Then, later, on the white hacienda steps and coming back home, I felt sad.
But not while I was watching the baby goats struggle to breathe and stand, and not while the goat carcasses piled up and the skin was stretched and hung to dry.
I moved away from the man skinning with his foot to another section of courtyard where kids were fanning baby goats, whispering to them, staring at them intently. The lunatic journalist approached again, smiled this time since we’d shared contact, were sharing this, and had some sort of an unspoken connection from that alone. He asked me what newspaper I was reporting for, and I shook my head and said I was here on my own, as a writer, but without a particular institution to report to. He said that was good, that he was here on his own, on behalf of his own interest. I asked him if he worked in Oaxaca and he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I work for the bullfighters. Bullfighting photographer.” He gave a sloppy grin.“Pays well. I’m in Chilangolandia.” Mexico City. I asked him what that was like, taking pictures of bullfighters.
“It’s fun,” he said; “it’s alright.”
“Do you see people get hurt?” I asked.
“Of course!” he laughed. “All the time! But you have to wonder why they do it, you know.”
“There are a couple of women who do it,” he added after a moment, “and they’re badass. They’re really good. Of course, the men don’t want anything to do with them. You know how men are. We’re stubborn and dense and we’re set in our ways, you know.”
“Oh yes, I know,” I said. “You Mexican men. It’s the responsibility of us women to make you into human beings, isn’t it.”
“Exactly!” he laughed. “Precisely. You know, it’s bad luck to have a woman sitting in the press area, around the ring, during a fight. And it’s true, eh, they’ll mess up if there’s a woman there. Pinches machos, verdad?”
“Mujeres siempre chingando!” I replied. “You give us so much shit and so much power, too. Pathetic.”
“Hey, you want to know something?” he said. “You’ll like this. The number one bullfighter? He’s a puta. As gay as they come! And he’s got more balls than all the rest of them.”
“Of course,” I said. “Machos don’t have balls. That’s why they’re machos.”
He laughed. “Exactly,” he said, “Precisely.” Then, “you tell me when you want to come to Mexico City. You can come watch a fight. You just can’t sit near the ring.”
“Great,” I said. “I’d love to write about the puta bullfighter. It’d be a great story.”
“Just let me know,” he said.
And we went back to watching the baby goats fight to breathe.