The fluttering of adversarial wings drowns the bettors’ cries; blood drops that fill the cockpit trace evidence of a fight, and draw a map of a violent articulation which remains as testament to a confrontation. For those not accustomed, a feeling of despair grows from the gut and settles in the mouth; it is the sudden certainty of the outcome: a good fighting rooster, a purebred fights till death, does not flee, rather confronts, endures the attack, the pecks, the spur beating that digs into the soft flesh. Feathers stand on end, and with fast moves that slip by the camera’s scrutiny, eyes are gouged out and with a bit of luck (for whom?) these land on neck arteries bleeding the defeated dry
The flutter begins to subdue; the attacks from both sides become less frequent. The gallero’s murmuring comes into focus, as he attempts to enliven his rooster, his partner, the gamecock, who for months he’s fed, trained, loved and from whom he now attempts to pull one last breath. The gallero-gamecock affair is an ambivalent and contradictory one. Their relationship comes from a cultural heritage that defies the animal advocate’s moralistic dialectic and the gambler’s simple notion of betting for purely monetary reasons. Thegallero identifies himself with his fighting rooster– a symbol of masculinity. Here, he places and extols cultural values such as virility, courage, fearlessness in the face of death and like all good warriors, the commitment to fight until the very end. Of course, it is the gallero’s understanding, that there’s also a partnership between friends.
The cockfight is an aesthetic experience; a ritual in which these masculine values are displayed, staged, and where the fighting rooster becomes an extension of its owner. It is no wonder the female presence has been smaller, and not until today, do we see women starting to bet and breed gamecock in countries with a long tradition, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Culturally, we are talking about a long-term practice that includes Ancient Egypt and reaches traditions from distant places, like Cuba or Bali-This sport of ‘beak and spur’ [del pico y la espuela] has been the keeper and source of manhood: in Gabriel García Márquez’s famous work, No One Writes to the Colonel, the fighting rooster, upon whom the Colonel bestows all his hope of fulfilling his family role becomes a metaphor for lost manhood.
Finally the victor pecks the vanquished, that folds and protects itself with its wings
only to face death. Dizzy and drunk, the two blood stained animals are removed from the pit while hands begin exchanging wads of cash. As famous 20th century ethnographer, Clifford Geertz once stated, cockfight betting goes beyond a simple exchange of money. Betting is a matter of honor, a show of knowledge but, most importantly, an opportunity to demonstrate the honorable composure that is expected from the fighting rooster: resoluteness, confidence, courage and honor as it confronts loss; and poise when taking the winnings.
Cockfighting bets takes place on two levels, amongst the owners themselves and with the rest of the attending public. The former determines the quality of the fight, and the bet amount is a sign of the owners’ confidence in their rooster and a pledged collateral to the rest of the bettors. On both levels, the bets are made verbally, not involving receipts nor warranty papers. Since the bettor’s given word is what determines its validity; no document is necessary to attest the bet. For this reason cockfighting is considered a gentleman’s sport.
In recent decades, the tradition of the cockfighting “sport” has gained visibility thanks to the growing discourse on animal cruelty. Supporters and opponents defend their respective trenches using always clashing arguments: on the one hand, tradition and cultural heritage, on the other, abuse, and the defense of life, staging a theatre production in which violence is glorified and a dominant view of the world is heightened. When questioning the types of legal practices a “civilized” society should have, Puerto Rico has challenged the existence of cockfights. This year, Colombia, where a strong movement in defense and promotion of animal rights has emerged, has also proposed a law to consider cockfighting as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage.
Beyond taking a stand, it is interesting to see the way cockfighting has become not only the means, but rather some form of possibility for cultural content. As a result, it remains a point of contention, where identity is formulated and reformulated: its relationship with (the rest of) the animals, with the rational animal “self” able to signify itself from multiple perspectives, in respect to life and death, that takes shape based on the idealization of certain traits, how one should live, how one must die. We can not forget the materiality of the matter; cockfighting is a lucrative business that handles the flow of significant amounts of money in organized systems involving small and fleeting local economic networks, which at times hide, yet
also are part of a globalized world.
The fighting rooster is this and much more: a medium, a symbol, a tool, a canvas on which man’s intricate and complex relationship to himself, with his peers, with the world, is made visible. The arguments brought about by this practice only emphasize the importance of such practices within specific cultural contexts. But beyond this, or perhaps due to this, we have at the center of the ring a fighting rooster and man, spilt blood, a sharp flutter, spurs dwelling on the other’s skin, and a gallero giving a farewell kiss to a dying animal.
By Nicolas Espinel
Translated by: Angeles Romero