This article is part 4 in a series. To start from the beginning, go to Cockfighting in the Dominican Republic.
SABANETA, Dominican Republic- “Los gallos me dan dinero, mujeres me lo quitan.”
The roosters give me money, women take it away from me.
This was written on the back of a cockfighter’s t-shirt, and as the crowd of men erupted in primal screams that bordered on verbal violence as two roosters in the center of a ring dealt each other blows of physical violence, I knew that half of this statement could have been the truth:
These men had a lot of money riding on the two roosters hacking each other apart on the stage of death and unrequited victory. As spurs are repeatedly stuck into rooster breasts, as they peck each others eyeballs out, and shed their feathers all over the ring, men would flail their arms viciously in the direction of other men from across the ring. Sometimes they would hold up two fingers, sometimes they would just point. They were betting as the match rolled on.
There are no official bookies in Dominican Republic cockfighting. You make bets with any person who will take it. Sometimes this happens in advance of a fight, most often it seems to happen on the fly. I have not yet been able to determine how each better remembers who he owes money to at the end of a fight, nor how they know who owes them. Even more of a mystery to me is how they know how much money they owe each other. The only evidence I see of betting is the flailing of arms, pointing of fingers, and the screaming of mouths.
Though at the end of each match, thousands of pesos are passed from man to man around the ring. This is called playing. This is the aspect of the cockfight that draws men to the ring.
Sometimes this money is handed away civilly, sometimes it is passed through the crowd, and, sometimes, it is balled up and thrown with a big pout. But the losers pay out, and the collectors collect. A man with a winning rooster stands to make hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars in a single bought. If successful more often than not, these men could easily make a living off of their earnings. “Los gallos me dan dinero . . .”
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that men, not roosters, are the actual combatants at cockfights. I must second his observation. The roosters in the ring are simply acting on animal instinct, the men in the stands are the actual wild beasts — chomping their jowls, screaming, and fighting.
It is perhaps a frightening scene to observe this angry passion rolling forth unchecked. Few societies have such spaces for men to engage each other with such aggression — for the bloodletting of such tension.
The cockfight is a fraternal release of energy, an expulsion of emotion, the cathartic outpouring of what was previously buried deep, repressed, settled in the spectators.
The build up of potential energy in a cockfight is enormous, and when this energy finally shifts towards the kinetic, the blow is massive. These men prepare their roosters for years, scout out the competitors for hour at the beginning of a match, argue about what roosters are matched together, make bets, and then, when the match begins, scream wild until one rooster flops over dead: then all emotion breaks loose — some men wail in victory, others wail in despair.
In presentation, it is often difficult to tell these two emotional extremes apart.
I soon became very pleased that each man had to check their pistols and weapons into a sack as they entered the cockfighting arena. Two police officers tended to the event. One stood at the doorway and searched for and collect weapons, and the other served as the bouncer — clearing the ring of angry men full of rage and tears who just lost all of their money.
“Are you going to play,” a lean cockfighter with scars all over his shaved head asked me in Spanish as his rooster was getting his spurs attached before the fight.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, and then added with simple honesty, “because I don’t know how to play.”
“It is very simple,” the fighter explained, “I bet you 1,500 pesos, you bet me 1,500 pesos, and the person who wins takes the money.”
It seemed simple.
“Do you want to play?” he asked again.
It was this man’s rooster that was going up against the one that I observed a young boy petting so tenderly a few minutes earlier. I had previously befriended this boy and his father and asked them a few questions about how they raised their rooster for the ring. They smiled kindly towards me, passively perhaps, and fielded my requests for information with soft voices.
The young boy was saying goodbye to his rooster, which would soon be obliterated to shreds: whether it wins or looses. I hoped they would win. As I entered the arena to watch the first fight, it became apparent that these two rooster were going to open the show.
The man with the scars on his head was down in the front, standing up with the man who affixed the spurs. From their excitement, it was obvious that their rooster was in the ring. The demure man with his son were in the stands a few people down from where I was. I had a good view of both cockfighting contingents.
The handlers released the fowl, this was the start of the Sunday cockfight. The roosters tore at each other. They came together in the middle of the ring and rolled together in a tumbleweed of beaks, feathers, claw, wings, and spurs.
The men screamed and bet, the shear human energy in the stands was almost unbearable. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t: the lure of the cockfight had taken me in as well. Though I bet no money, the passion of the scene before me was too much to not want to observe in in full.
Soon enough, a deep blow was struck. One rooster fell over limp. One rooster stood erect. The man with the scar on his head beat his fists into the air, the man who affixed the spurs threw off his hat and tumbled into the ring screaming, the once demure and quiet cockfighter who was accompanied by his son let out a battle cry that was so loud and vile that it stabbed the enter arena right in the heart.
I had no idea who won.
I looked over at the wailing man and son. He stopped wailing when he saw me looking at him, and, as he ran passed to go down to the ring and claim his prize clarified for me what had happened:
“Mi gallo ganooooooo!”
He was victorious.
Watch a video of this cockfight
There was one woman spectator at the cockfight. She followed me up into the stands and stood next to me. She seemed so out of place in the all male arena that I initially thought that she planned to pickpocket me or offer me another kind of proposition. It was not until halfway through the first fight that it became apparent that she just really loved cockfighting and bet with the rest of the men.
We shoulder fought with each other as we vied for a better view of the action in the ring from the crowded stands.
On the other side of me I was fighting for space with another man who wanted to stand where I was standing. The cockfight was in full swing, and the stands were crowded with spectators.
The man trying to push me out was tall, dark black, and had an uncharacteristically large mustache. I am a medium sized white guy. We pushed back and forth on each other as we watched the fights, neither wanting to give any ground to the other.
Apparently, my foe in the stands must have figured that he was not going to move me out by force, so he tried a little guile. He tried to tell me that I was not suppose to be standing where I was, and that I actually bought a ticket to sit in the back of the arena. I tried to indicate that I was with Gritino and was not going to move. I pointed to my big friend, who was sitting ring side in the section for serious betters, for effect.
He did not seem to understand, and carried on unfazed:
“What rooster are you betting on?” he asked.
“Then you have to move.”
Eventually, Gritino looked back at me from his place in the big betters section on the floor. We spoke a few words.
The man who was once trying to clear me out of the stands made himself scarce, and, all of a sudden, gave me more space than I needed.
My friend Gritino was obviously big in the cockfighting circuit.
When looking for an informant to discover something about a culture, there are usually two classes of people willing to help: those at the top of their particular community and those at the bottom.
Beyond the raw attributes of kindness, curiosity, helpfulness, and intrigue, many people at the bottom of the community will often want to show you off — perhaps in an attempt to raise their status — while those at the top seem to like being seen with foreigners to solidify their status:
“What’ss so important about this person that he has a foreigner following him around?”
When looking for a social in, someone from one of these two social realms will often show you the way, though I tend to go with the biggest dog I can find. The road gets cleared for you better that way, and you find yourself with a little more elbow room.
Gritino’s rooster was next to fight. From the previous article in this series, it was evident that there was something controversial about how this fight was set up. Now that the battle was about to begin, the men were in an absolute uproar. A police officer had to forcefully clear men from the ring, just to turn around and have to do it again.
The emotional heights rose to a level that teetered on an all out eruption — and the roosters were not even set down in the ring yet. The men fought and yelled, the little man whose rooster was paired with Gritino’s kept trying to sneak back into the ring to yell at him. Gritino just stared down at the little man with poise and dominance, like a mountain before a lemming.
But Gritino, too, was up and out of his seat. This match was the main event.
Watch the main cockfight
The ring was again cleared, and the roosters went at each other. Back and forth then tumbled. The men jumped up out of their seats, sat back down, and jumped up again. I don’t think a single person in the arena was not screaming something.
A few minutes into the fight, one rooster seemed to have the upper hand — its foe was laying on its back on the floor of the ring. A victor was about to be crowned.
But the fallen cock apparently had one last streak of life left in him. He rose up from the floor and with one swift motion drove his spur into his enemy’s heart.
He crumbled instantly into a heap.
The arena erupted. Again, there was no telling if the shouts I was witnessing were of joy or despair. One rooster laid dead, another stood with an ounce of life pumping through his veins. The money shifted between hands, men yelled their final words, one rooster was punted across the ring, and then Gritino turned to me:
“Did you see my rooster win?” he asked with a large smile.
Read the entire series at: Cockfighting in the Domincan Republic