By Carole Reedy
Twenty years ago, on the first morning in my new home in classy San Miguel de Allende, I awoke (at 4 am) to what sounded like a barnyard quarrel in my courtyard. The racket actually was coming from the neighboring patio where, besides raising chickens, the owners trained several fierce roosters for cockfighting. It’s important to note that I lived in the heart of the city centro, not on the outskirts.
As time went on and I lived in different states in the república, I experienced the same morning wakeup calls, just another change one accepts when choosing to live in a new culture.
Years before, I’d experienced my first cockfight in Cave Creek, Arizona, where they were legal at the time. As we drove through beautiful desert landscape I wondered aloud why there were no advertisements for the event, which took place at a faraway ranch. My husband replied that those who want to attend knew where to go.
Even 20 years ago, there were protests from animal rights activists. For me the experience was much more than two roosters fighting to the death. I spent most of my time observing the crowd making bets between fights as well as perusing the action away from the ring. Behind the scenes, there are owners sewing up injured birds, caressing them, talking to them in a special kind of bird language, and discussing business.
That was the beginning. And while I don’t seek out cockfights, when there’s an occasion that presents itself, I can’t resist the lure of the atmosphere: the tension, excitement, and characters that make up an event ensconced in history and culture.
Cockfights in Mexico
Cockfights are usually found as part of the grand ferias (fairs) that take place every year on the same dates in every state in Mexico. Some ferias, such as the one in Aguascalientes, are huge affairs that last a few weeks and feature corridas de toros (bullfights), top entertainers, games and rides for children, ranching animals on display, and, as always in Mexico, a vast choice of the spicy culinary specialties of the region.
In the evenings (at the larger fairs), there’s an event called Palenque. It usually begins at 9 pm, when the most revered Mexican singers and musicians perform to a sold-out crowd of admirers. Then, at 11 pm or midnight, the cockfights begin.
The event takes place in a ring, the first row of observers filled with owners of cocks and their associates, as well as big gamblers. Dressed to the nines in elegant leather boots and hats, the diamonds on their fingers flash in the lights. An array of $100 bills repose in a gold money clip, their gambling money at the ready (a variation on the paper sacks or cups of coins the ladies in Las Vegas once used, in the good old days, for slot machines).
Waiters deliver expensive brandy in cut-glass crystal bottles and in the few minutes before each fight a tuxedoed gentleman in the ring collects the big bets. In the crowd above, the regular folk are making bets amongst themselves. (My own wagers have traditionally been kept to small 20-peso bets with the kids.)
After all this preparation, the fights themselves seem anti-climactic. Two cocks fight to the death of one, or in some cases to the point where a winner is declared, though I have seen some of the losers brought back to life outside the ring at the hands of their adept owners. The set-up is similar to boxing, with a judge in the ring with the cocks.
A bit of history
The sport is thought to have its origins in southeast Asia more than 3000 years ago, spreading to India, Iran, and through the Middle East to Europe.
Cockfighting in Europe goes back before the time of Christ when the fighting cock, associated with the gods, was part of religious worship. Over the years, cockfighting took place all over Russia, Africa, Australia, and Europe, from Rome to England, where it often took place in churches.
It was most popular in Spain, and, of course it’s speculated that Cortez brought cocks to New Spain during the colonization of Mexico. Since then it has been popular not only in Mexico, but in Central America, Puerto Rico, South America, and especially in Cuba.
In recent years, cockfighting has been declared illegal in many countries in the wake of animal cruelty accusations or because of opposition to gambling. In many countries it is legal in some areas but not in others, as in Spain where it’s legal in the Canary Islands and Andalusia (where it is considered traditional). In France cockfighting is legal in Calais and small towns around Lille. Recently, all states in the US have banned cockfighting, as did Queen Victoria in England more than 100 years ago. Nonetheless, banned clandestine cockfighting takes place. As with bullfighting, in many countries there is controversy over gambling and animal rights versus long-lived tradition, with concern among traditionalists that the game and breeds be preserved. Much more lies beneath the surface of the sport of cockfighting and the art of the corrida de toros, traditionally and economically.
I ran across an interesting quote in my research, attributed only to “a wise Missouri jurist.” “Tradition depends not at all upon thinking, nor is it disturbed by thinking. Of all the influences which affect the conduct and affections of men, none is so powerful as tradition. Resting upon use and custom, it is independent of the caprice of man and exercises over him an uncontrollable dominion. The value of tradition lies in its unreasonableness. It contains experience rather than thinking.”
In our modern world, things seem to change so fast, but there are some constants, and in that category lies the traditions of cockfighting and the corrida de toros. See you there for a bit of history and culture!