Box Kekén: Yucatan Pig Comes Home
No other animal better represents rural Yucatan and the Maya tradition of food sharing than box kekén, or black pig. In any community there are people who avoid each other because of unresolved conflicts or incompatibilities. But on special occasions in a Maya village, when someone kills a pig, it’s understood that everyone feasts, friend or foe. No invitation necessary. Old wounds are forgotten in conversation and in the enjoyment of cerdo pais cooked in the inimitable underground Maya pib. Throughout the year, other special events usually culminate in feasts and the sharing of pork is reciprocated. The cogs of community life are lubricated and social harmony is promoted.
Over centuries box kekén adapted from Iberian stock introduced by Spaniards, to the distinct climate and vegetation of Yucatan. It was robust enough to forage in field and forest, and with its stable temperament, was easy for women and children to manage in small herds close to home. This hairless dark grey pig earned its place as an icon of Maya subsistence farming. It provided a stable supply of local protein while preserving rural culture and social food-centered traditions.
In the 1970s, with little consideration of the cultural and genetic importance of box kekén, government agencies and commercial vendors began promoting American breeds. ‘Production’ was the buzzword of the day. The newer breeds produced more piglets which grew larger, faster and many thought that these higher outputs would lead to commercialization and revenue for rural landowners. The humble, hairless Yucatan pig diminished to near extinction.
Industrialization of pork production took hold in spite of environmental consequences, and diminishing genetic diversity. To subsistence farmers, the American and cross breeds did not fare well in Yucatan’s heat and humidity. They were higher maintenance, more vulnerable to disease and the elements and did not have the flavor of their box kekén. The exotic breeds did not do well on weeds and secondary growth in the forest. They needed corn! So farmers found themselves working hard to deforest large tracts to plant corn for the new breeds. Any benefits from increased production provided by the exotic breeds was lost to the additional labor required to feed them.
Lately there’s been a revival in interest in naturally adapted and indigenous livestock in Maya communities: wild bees over genetically engineered domestics; criollo corn over hybrids; and indigenous over factory farmed turkey. Box Kekén is spoken of proudly as cerdo pais or country pork, implying a sense of pride of ownership. It is not just a sentimental idea, because for rural indigenous people everywhere, maintaining food security and control means autonomy, even survival.
There’s also hope that niche markets for indigenous foods will expand. Proponents of organic, slow food, cruelty-free meat that is produced in ethical and environmentally sound ways are willing to pay more for quality food, even if it means consuming less of it and enjoying it more.
Perhaps one day the restoration of cultural connections between rural people, plants, trees and animals can help solve many of the issues of systemic poverty, not just in Yucatan, but around the world.