My two grandfathers could not have been more unlike each other. Most people paid my Grandfather Smith, at the very least, a grudging respect, as power and wealth are universally respected; a few people feared him, since work of any kind was hard to come by and he had the power to hire and to fire; and more than a few hated him for the way he sometimes exercised that power, with a brutality that was almost sadistic. Certainly no one outside of his immediate family loved him.
My Grandfather Silva, on the other hand, was almost universally loved, by virtually everyone in town (with the notable exception of my Grandfather Smith). One of the sources of his popularity was that he never recognized anything that could be called social distinctions. He spoke to the lowliest farmhand as he would speak to a bank manager or a doctor, with neither condescension nor arrogance. When his drayage business flourished, he spent the money – on fine cars, large parties, and jewels for my grandmother – and he expected everyone else to share in his happiness. Which they usually did, so ingenuous was his joy in his good fortune. Then when his business failed, as it did after the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1934, he sacrificed his own well-being to keep his drivers on the payroll as long as he could. The extent of the affection he had earned, even by the men he had eventually to let go, was best demonstrated by the size of his funeral two years after the strike that broke him, when he died from a ruptured appendix at the age of 56. It was the largest funeral the town had ever seen. Every seat of St John the Baptist was filled and both outside aisles were lined with standing men in their Sunday-best black suits, holding crushed hats in their calloused hands, their Old-World faces as grim and careworn as their suits.
That the Mouras raised pigs was inescapably obvious to us whenever the wind blew from the east, as it often did in the autumn, but until my grandfather had me accompany him at a time when he was looking for every and any diversion life offered him, I had never been inside their yard. They were a large family who lived behind a long driveway off Ashland Avenue. There was a daughter younger than I was and one that was already married. Just how many others there were in between I was never sure of, though there were at least two sons, one, Melvin, close to my age, whom I occasionally met at Saturday catechism class. But until my grandfather took me, I would never have presumed to enter their yard.
Nor did we take the usual route to their place. Since the back of the Moura property joined the back of my grandfather’s land, we simply walked through the fields and entered the Moura farm through the backdoor, as it were, where the sty was kept. It seemed that half the Portuguese community of St. John’s parish was already there, women as well as men, so that the afternoon had the air of a fiesta about it. Around the sty itself, there were only men, three of whom, younger and stronger than most of the others, were wrestling with the largest hog I’d ever seen, easily three or four times my weight. The animal protested vociferously with a mix of squeals and grunts as he struggled valiantly against the odds. Despite the overwhelming stench, you could not have dragged me away from the spectacle as the hog’s back feet were tied and the animal eventually hoisted with pulley and tackle out of the sty and onto a large tripod and left to hang there, head down.
Before the slaughter began, the hog had first to be hosed off and scrubbed with a rough long-handled brush, for the animal in its terror had fouled itself. Once it was clean and its skin shone pink, disconcertingly like human skin, a large galvanized pan two-feet in diameter, was put under its head and Mr. Moura himself, acting every bit like a high priest at some sacrificial offering, slit its throat. There was one horrendous cry, a shriek rather than a grunt, a sound that might have come from almost any large animal, including a man, in similar circumstances. But its agony was brief, fortunately, for the blood gushed from the slit throat, rapidly at first, then slowing, finally, to a mere dribble. Every last drop was caught and saved, to be made into morcela, a blood sausage, what the English call black pudding, a dish my father relished, but I, convinced that eating blood was fit only for cannibals and other such wild creatures, could never be tempted to taste.
The butchering began with a disembowelment and the women for the first time became involved, picking and choosing with their bare hands from the massive gooey mess all the bits worth saving, particularly long sections of intestines to be cleaned and used to make their sausages. What fascinated me most that afternoon was to watch the women making linguiça, a sausage I did love, stuffing the cleaned intestines with bits of meat and chopped fat and spices. It was a jolly communal effort (the hog‘s final shriek long since forgotten), with the women chattering away, mostly in Portuguese, about everyone and everything. And though I could not follow their conversation, I was sure from the their salacious voices and their often bawdy laughs that not a single peccadillo, committed by the least of the town’s citizens escaped a thorough analysis and their judgments were passed without mercy. They accepted (maybe “tolerated” would be a more precise word) my presence as the grandson of my paternal grandfather, and graciously, for the afternoon, at least, overlooked my Smith blood. Even Mary Freitas was for once sociable, explaining each of the ingredients being stuffed into the foot-long length of sausage as if she herself had invented the ancient recipe they were following.
Nothing was wasted. The hams and slabs of bacon were hung in the smokehouse; the feet and knuckles were saved for pickling. And since there were no freezers at the time, most of those involved being dependent upon ice boxes, rather than refrigerators, which were pretty much still reserved for the rich, what could not be smoked or pickled had to be eaten soon, so that fair amounts of the meat were divided among those participating in the ritual, and sure to be returned when the time came for their pigs to be slaughtered.
Of all my childhood experiences it is the one that most made me feel as though I too belonged to an Old World Portuguese community, stretching back to a time long before the dreary Depression of the thirties had settled over San Lorenzo and the entire country like a dark cloud; that I was here taking part in joyful, sunny rituals that had the sanction of centuries; and without that shared past I would have been a far lesser person.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio Universiy Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6, University of Colorado. In 2007, Distant Music Two novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by Portuguese in the Americas Series, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series).