By ROB PINKERTON
Our friend David has a place in the tiny hill town of El Divisidero, on the west coast of Mexico. After dinner one night, the long haired one and I were washing up when a truck pulled into the yard. Out of the dark emerged Iraklio, quite drunk and very pumped. He had been to the cock-fights in nearby La Lima and both of his birds had won. We were made to inspect the bloodied, exhausted roosters and their wounds. We thumped him on the back and poured him a shot of tequila. This was a very macho victory in a very macho society and he had to tell someone.
Another day we were sitting around Dave’s table with Saul from El Divisidero. There was a nine day festival going on in nearby Las Varas and I knew there would be tourneo de gallos or palenques…. I had been wanting to see the fights for years. I raised the subject. Saul (pronounced Sa-ool) gave his signature shrug and said “si”.
Cock-fights are legal in all states of Mexico but one. This blood sport takes place on every continent and yes, illegally in Canada. These gamecocks are more related to wild birds from the jungles of Central and Southeast Asia than domestic chicken stock. The birds are handled, exercised and groomed as they grow so as to be accustomed to humans. Long feathers are trimmed to prevent the bird tripping during a fight. As a palenque nears the birds are fed a high energy diet and must be in top physical and mental condition.
On fight night we parked close to the square in LasVaras and walked to a brick building with no signs or markings. Inside, the first thing I noticed was a pile of dead cocks. There were about two hundred people, mostly men and some beautifully dressed women, families with children and grandmas.
We were the only gringos there but received little attention. A 30 foot ring held men and women selling red or green betting tickets, peanuts, beer, Coke. Handlers carried the birds into the ring after having them weighed and inspected by a judge. They stroked them and crooned to them. The fighters are put face to face and allowed to peck at each other, then put on the ground and run at each other. This enrages the birds. Other handlers enter the ring with elegant wood boxes that open to reveal the razor sharp blades. One is selected for each bird which the judge measures. Each cock has one blade lashed to his fighting spur, a bony claw above the foot and a red or green tape put on his leg. The betting is furious now, as we had observed the preliminary scuffle and rated the birds. The ticket sellers shout at people in the crowd and red or green tickets are passed back to the bettor with the size of the bet scrawled on it, 100 peso minimum. Then only the two handlers and the judge remain in the ring.
It was quiet as the cocks were held face to face for a few seconds and then released. They run at each other with neck feathers flared and rise in the air with legs slashing and beaks tearing. Now everyone is shouting and straining to see through the crowd. A roar erupts as one cock falls with the victor on top who gives his enemy a few more pecks and then, sensing victory, sits still. His opponents throat had been cut. The judge ruled that the wound was mortal and the handlers pick up their cocks, one bleeding out and unstrap the knives. The ring again filled with the betting men who collected or paid out. I won my first 100 peso bet and got 90 pesos back…10 for the house. A man raked dirt over the blood pool and cleaned up the litter of feathers.
The next fight preliminaries were under way and Saul said “Bet with the crowd.” My neighbour scowled at me and we agreed on a bet. The birds are loosed and they tore at each other, leaping two feet in the air, feathers flying. One seemed to have the advantage and pinned his opponent. The judge called a break. The handlers picked up their birds, stroked them and blew sprays of water or Coke from their mouths into the birds faces and rear ends to cool and perk them up. This time when the break is called one of the birds looked limp. His handler stroked him and placed the top of the bird’s bloody head in his mouth and seemed to be breathing for him. He spits blood and sand, took a mouthful of water and sprayed his fighter.
Again they fought but they were both tiring and again the handlers breathed life back into them until finally they were too exhausted to go on and just laid looking at each other. A draw was called and all bets were transferred to the next duel which is long as well but there was a winner and I handed my 100 peso to the scowler.
All this was going on for hours before we arrived and would continue late into the night. We saw about ten contests and decided that was enough of this Mexican cultural experience. We snaked our way through the crowd, passed the growing pile of dead roosters, nodded to the gun toting military dudes at the door and left. It was as I had imagined it would be and now that I have been, I don’t know whether I will ever go again.