(This is the 5th installment of my childhood memoir, “An Existence that is a Dreamlike Memory”)

The bleats reverberated and slowly faded away as the cabrito’s life force drained into a bucket that was placed beneath its head: Maaa…maa…ma…

At the age of four, I watched as the cabrito’s throat was slit with a knife as it hung on a wooden post by its hind legs. The sounds and images of the killing and skinning of a baby goat for eating purposes at a family gathering instilled emotions and thoughts that linger and are difficult to reconcile.

According to lore, feasting on cabrito is a tradition that was originated by Spanish goat herders. It is the typical festive food in Northeastern Mexico, including Nuevo Leon, the state where my family comes from.

Living in rural Mexico without the convenience of electricity or refrigeration, eating meat was not a custom that many families practiced. My family mostly ate meat on occasions when my father came from the US and we would accompany him to see his mother.Being the oldest male, my father became the patriarch of his immediate family in his early twenties after my grandfather died. Thus, his visits to his childhood home were cause for celebration. On his arrival, my grandmother would declare “maten un cabrito, directing her second husband to select a kid (baby goat) from the trip in the corral and prepare it for cooking.

In Monterrey, although Guajardo’s Carniceria (meat market) was a short walk from where my maternal grandmother resided, it seemed, they also only ate meat when my father visited. He would buy food for the meals that were prepared for about sixteen people. My grandmother’s household totaled seven, including my aunt and two uncles and my three oldest siblings who were left in their care as children. They lived in a two-room space in a working class neighborhood where a toilet and an outhouse were shared by about five families. There was barely enough space for them. When we visited, the small kids, including me, would sleep in the family station wagon parked on the street. From the vehicle’s back seat which folded completely flat for sleeping, I could see the carniceria. It was owned by a professional wrestler named Rene Guajardo. In the ring, Guajardo was a renown rudo (villian) who at the peak of his career defeated Mexico’s wrestling icon El Santo (The Saint). Guajardo’s antiheroic exploits in the ring were legendary. The working-poor residents of the neighborhood took great pride in his celebrity. I was conflicted, wondering about how he defeated his rivals and also butchered cabritos.

To this day, I don’t know whether my mother’s family did not eat meat because they could not afford it or they were codos (frugal). People from Monterrey, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, are famous for being tightfisted with their money. By the time I became conscious of my surroundings, my mother’s family had resided in the industrial city long enough to be considered regiomontanos (locals).

In Texas, my father would go to meat markets in Welcome and Industry, the small towns near the ranch where he worked, to buy beef. Subsequently, when we joined him in the US permanently, he began buying a calf that he would have butchered in Chapel Hill.  I quickly went from living in a household which was almost vegetarian by circumstance to a household that ate meat daily. In time, he purchased a chest freezer at the Western Auto in Brenham to keep the large quantity of the various cuts of meat. It was close to four feet wide, three feet deep and four feet high.

After my father died, the enormous freezer continued to have a prominent place in my mother’s residence. It was mostly empty. Yet, it was difficult to convince her to let it go. I have come to believe that, to my mother, the freezer was more than an inanimate object. The freezer stood as an ode to a man who took great pride in being a provider and as a husband and a father was largely defined by the role. The freezer personified the success my father achieved in meeting the great responsibility of caring for his family en los Estados Unidos de América.

Watching episodes of national geographic on PBS about lions in their natural environment in the Serengeti placed the cycle of life into context, as it relates to the food chain. So, as a human being, I never questioned why meat was the main dish of every meal in our existence in Texas. Nonetheless, thinking about a pride devouring an antelope or water buffalo, I often felt nauseated and viewed being a carnivore as gluttonous. In those instances, when it was time to eat, not understanding how hard my parents worked to place food on the table, I would tell my mother with a naive self-righteous high-mindedness, no tengo hambre (I’m not hungry).

Time has clouded the sounds and images of witnessing the slaughtering of the cabrito. But, the impact of the occurrence remains. I never eat cabrito. Moreover, I have come to realize that the environment in which we are raised and the means available to us dictate our eating habits

Still, guiltily, I frequently think that the only thing the experience taught me is to avoid watching how the food I consume gets to my plate.