The Monday morning after Thanksgiving, Rogelio Sierra, whose name is Roy, sat at a wooden desk at the front of his pig slaughterhouse, La Casa Sierra, answering dozens of calls from customers ordering whole pigs for Christmas Eve.
‘Tell me, Dad. Four of them?” Mr. Sierra, 91, said into a loudspeaker. He spoke to one of his regulars in Spanish as workers pushed a rack of whole pigs waiting to be weighed and trucked to Miami.
The customer laughed and replied: “The Turkish season is over.”
When Thanksgiving is over, Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, takes center stage for many Latinos, a time when extended families gather for dinner and sometimes attend midnight mass. Throughout Latin America, dishes and customs can vary. In Mexico, tamales are the specialty on the table. For many Caribbean Latinos and Filipinos, roast pork or ham is a staple during the holiday season, but that’s especially true for Noche Buena, which translates to “goodnight.”
And the pork often comes from a slaughterhouse, like this one in Wimauma, Florida, about 30 miles from Tampa.
In Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, pork is marinated in mojo—the marinade of lemon juice with garlic and oregano that makes the dish so succulent—then slow-cooked for hours in an oven, over a fire, or in a Caja China casserole. box. The presence of wild boars in the Latin Caribbean goes back centuries – Christopher Columbus brought pigs to Cuba in 1493.
These pigs became feral and contributed to famine because they ate root crops such as ñame and taro that many people lived on. It wasn’t until people escaping slavery in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico began to hunt them in the late 1800s and early 1900s that they became an important source of food—and a source of income for these hunters. (Around that time, they were even wanted to help provide food for troops fighting in the Cuban War of Independence.)
For that reason, pork is seen as a symbol of freedom, says Lauren Robin Derby, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The tradition of eating pork on Christmas Eve dates back to the 19th century. In Wimauma, an unincorporated area of Hillsborough County (which includes Tampa), Mr. Sierra over 500 pigs a week from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve.
Every day, Mr. Sierra sits at a wooden desk at the front of the slaughterhouse, directing a crew of 14 against a backdrop of photos of his younger self and his family. (He’s been married five times and has said all his wives have been wonderful. He endearingly calls his current wife, Lynh Huhn, “La China.”) He’s a down-to-earth businessman, adamant that the slaughter, processing, and delivery be done as he wants.
Raising cattle and slaughtering pork is all Mr. Sierra has ever known. Growing up in Granma, in a rural area of eastern Cuba, where his father was a farmer and butcher, he remembers his father butchering and butchering 600-pound pigs as a child.
In 1956, Mr. Sierra, then 24, moved to Miami from Cuba. There he worked in butcher shops, kept pigs and owned several slaughterhouses. He’s been in the business for 47 years, but has been running this La Casa Sierra location for 11 years, with a one-week retirement in 2010 that didn’t stick. “It’s a hobby,” he said of his work. “Instead of playing golf, I keep playing here with my clients.”
He only stopped processing the pigs himself a few years ago when the USDA inspector overseeing the facility told him it was getting dangerous at his age.
Mr. Sierra does not raise his pigs in his facility. Instead, he buys them from Neely Livestock, a pig broker he’s worked with for decades, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who ships hundreds of pigs each week. They roam the pasture next to Mr. Sierra’s farm before being selected for slaughter.
He closes his deals with a handshake. And he never makes promises he cannot keep, such as a guarantee for a number of pigs or that a pig will have a certain weight.
When he explained the holiday question to a customer who ordered 15 pigs, he made that clear.
“I can’t promise anymore,” he said.