Letting the Derby de Gallos Wash Over You
Then it was time for the first real
match. The trainers proudly carried their colorful,
elegantly coiffed roosters to Luis' table, where our
host and a referee performed a careful weighing (wouldn't
they all be in the bantamweight division?) and inspection,
the point of which was impossible to ascertain. Checking
for illegal steroids? Pine tar?
Once the birds were certified as
suitable for combat, the trainers returned to their
corners and began the elaborate process of outfitting
the cock with a spur. Each had an ornate, locked box
with dozens of razor-sharp blades. After choosing
a blade, the trainer casually tucked it behind his
ear before tying it to the bird's foot with several
yards of twine.
The roosters were then bought into
the ring and introduced to a third bird, a non-combatant
whose main job seemed to be inspiring the other to
a fine edge of fighting pique.
By this time, the crowd had grown
in size and volume. About 200 hundred spectators--mostly
men decked out in cowboy hats and freshly laundered
jeans, plus a few women outfitted in Sunday finery--cheering
more noisily with each new can of beer and wager of
pesos transferred to Luis’ locked box.
After another close inspection by
the referee, who seemed to take his job very seriously--wouldn't
want to sully the sterling reputation of cockfighting--the
birds were introduced to each other in a manner not
designed to encourage collegial behavior.
The birds were then thrown to the
dirt, and the fight was on. Painstakingly trained
and pumped up with avian anger, the birds took a few
energetic flying leaps at each other, aiming the knife-like
spurs at the throat and eyes. It only took a few charges
before both were wounded and bleeding, and the attacks
became less pointed, with the roosters often leaning
on each other between jabs, like punch-drunk boxers
trying to make it through the round.
The crowd was on its feet with the
first charge, loudly arguing and cheering, responding
to critical changes in the balance of poultry power
that we were unable to perceive. From our vantage
point, neither rooster seemed destined for prosperity.
After a few minutes, however, it
was clear that one bird was dishing out more damage
than he was taking. Before long, we could tell that
one of the birds was doomed, barely able to stay on
its spindly legs.
The other bird was too tired and
damaged to make more than an occasional jab, with
the referee occasionally interrupting to give the
avian version of a standing ten count or to yell "Tiempo!,"
signaling a time-out in which the trainers tended
to their winged gladiators.
It was then that the owners engaged
in a peculiarly striking ritual, lowering their mouths
to the birds and gently kissing and licking the wounded
head and neck. The idea may have been to clean off
dried blood or some form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,
but whatever they did, it worked, reviving the birds
enough to fight for a few more seconds. The process
looked at once tender and cruelly calculated, an intimate
act intended purely to keep the bird fighting.
Before long, the more mangled of
the two roosters was barely able to move, and the
referee declared the contest over. The loser was carried
off in a bloody heap, its owner warily trying to explain
the outcome to supporters and bettors. We had little
doubt he was destined for the cooking pot before nightfall.
The "winner," who looked
to be in only slightly better shape, was held aloft
by its owner and briefly paraded around the ring before
it was carried away to a fate we could only guess.
Noble retirement was unlikely to be an option, however.
By that time, we had already been
at the mini-stadium for several hours. The serious
competition was just getting started, and while it
was hard to imagine the fighting getting any uglier,
the audience seemed likely to as beer ingestion and
And we had seen enough. I can't
say we were morally offended by the contest, but it
certainly wasn't our idea of entertainment, any more
than visiting a slaughterhouse would qualify as a
fun vacation detour. Or watching a boxing match, for
We tried not to begrudge a cultural
institution entrenched with such needless cruelty--a
person's relationship with animals is no doubt different
when one lives so much closer to the food supply and
sees the real process involving in ensuring the availability
of leather shoes, chicken mole and chicarrones.
But our safe, urban perspective wasn't going to change,
and there was a lovely sunset to savor from our hotel
But first, we were hungry,
despite lingering queasiness after a day of sun and
chicken blood. We rode our bikes to a nearby restaurant
with a breezy patio, charcoal grill and friendly dogs.
We both had fish.
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