SOSUA, Dominican Republic- A golden necked Shanghai strutted about inside of wide open grass lot in Sosua. He pecked at the ground and chased a couple hens as I watched. I have been walking around this city looking for such a sight.
A large, dark skinned Dominican man was the overseer of this lot, and I would notice him taking care of it from time to time. I would watch as he fed the animals, and once I saw him barbecuing a large quantity of food for an unapparent purpose. By large, I mean that this man probably stood around 6 foot 5, and weighted close to 300 pounds. I would sometimes see him out in front of this lot sitting in a chair, chatting mildly with the people who would walk by in the street. This man also had a voice that matched his stature: when he spoke, he boomed.
I had the suspicion that this man was raising roosters for the ring, I had a feeling that he was a cockfighter.
For the first two weeks of my stay in Sosua I would wave and say hello to him whenever I would pass by the lot and find him working. He would always smile really big and boom a large “Hola Amigo!” back to me. Behind the edifice of his body he had friendly eyes, and a kind smile. I waited for the opportunity to talk with him a little more in depth and at a closer range for around two weeks, until one day I found him sitting outside of his lot alone.
I had a hunch that this man would be willing show me a few things about cockfighting in the Dominican Republic.
It is said that cockfighting is the Dominican Republic’s second national sport — the first being baseball. Every town has a gallera — a cock fighting ring — which usually hosts weekly events. The Dominican Republic is unarguably the cockfighting capital of the world.
I have been to cockfights before in other countries, and viewing one is a direct look into the extreme male ego of a culture. In communities who practice the sport, the cockfighting ring is where boys, simply put, learns what it means to be a man. To watch a cockfight is to watch what almost seems like a parody of machismo, due to the extremes that the men permit their aggression and excitement to rise to.
But it is no parody, it is real.
Men scream, roosters squeal — the raw, unchecked, animal frenzy of a nearly all male crowd watching two birds tear each other to pieces provides the onlooker with a view into the primal pscye of uncovered masculinity.
The real show is not in the ring, but in the stands. It is the show of men transforming themselves into beast which is what draws me to a cockfight. I couldn’t care less about the roosters in the ring, mincing each other up for the soup they will soon inhabit.
“For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”
-Clifford Geertz, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
“There is something hidden deep down in the collective psychology that surrounds the cockfight which strikes at the very core of the men who participate in them. It is something primal, raw, and instinctual; it is something that strips the cultural over-pinning off of civilized men, and turns them back into animals.”
I wrote the above passage in an article entitled, Cockfighting in Honduras, and as I stand here in the Dominican Republic I am still interested in the metamorphosis that takes place around the cockfighting rings of the world. I have been walking the streets of this country on the look out for a person who could show me the in, open the door perhaps, and allow me to view the cockfight from the inside. In Honduras, I was a spectator, here in the Dominican Republic, I wanted a closer look at the men who live for the death of roosters.
The sun was shining and the ground was dry when I rounded a corner and saw the large dark figure of the big man who tended the field of chickens. He was sitting at the front gate of the lot, watching the day pass without a companion or, seemingly, any semblance of care or worry. This was my chance. To my favor, my wife and baby were with me, and as I halted my progress as I neared the big man. I offered a friendly greeting.
He looked right at me and returned my greeting — a giant bellow followed by what seemed to be an echo — and he then did the same to Chaya and Petra. I introduced myself and asked the big man his name, he told me it was Gritino, and I introduced my family. He smiled as he turned his massive head towards my little baby. Petra smiled back.
“Do you like cockfighting?” I asked in Spanish bluntly.
The big man’s cheeks spread across his face and he answered with a very surprised “Siiiiii!” which seemed to reverberate down the street.
“Where could I go to watch a cockfight?” I continued, and Gritino told me that I could go to pretty much any nearby town on the weekend, and then mentioned that he goes to one in Sabaneta on Sundays. I asked him if he fought roosters, and he said that he had two that were ready to go.
“Me gusta la pelea de los gallos mucho,” I spoke, hoping that it would go somewhere.
It did. The big man invited me to join him to the cockfight that weekend.
My prior experiences of cockfighting have always been from the vantage point of an visitor, a voyeurer, an inconsequential outsider. This time I wanted to observe what goes on inside of the ring — I wanted to learn the betting structure, where the roosters came from, and how they were raised.
I needed a friend, someone willing to field my questions. Luckily for my objective, this was not very difficult to do in the Dominican Republic.
Sunday came and I was waiting for the big man in front of my hotel. My wife, who speaks Spanish with near fluency — though is shy about doing so — mentioned to me that I may have misunderstood the big man’s missive: she thought he said that I should meet him at his home, whereas I understood that our meet up point would be in front of my hotel.
I did not know where the cockfighter lived.
Fifteen minutes after our appointed meet up time I began to suspect that my wife may have been correct. Though I figured that I would spare him the necessary manana buffer that needs to be added onto the end of any appointment in Latin America. I would wait for an hour.
But an hour did not pass. In a burst of speed the big man appeared above me in front of my hotel. He bellowed out a big “Amigo!” I asked him if his roosters were prepared. He just smiled — he knew they were.
From the big man’s appearance I could immediately tell that this cockfight was an all out event. He had shed his working clothes for a clean set of fresh apparel. A white polo shirt with blue horizontal pinstripes rounded his bulk, fresh tan khakis stretched all the way down to the ground, and he was topped off with a crisp white baseball cap. My friend Gritino would not have looked out of place on a golf course, though it would be the cockfighting ring that would be our destination.
“We will first go to Sosua on a moto and then to the roosters,” Gritino spoke in booming Spanish.
I could detect at once that his demeanor was much different on this occasion than on the previous days when I would greet him as I passed by his lot. He seemed outgoing, proud, very much in charge: it was a cockfighting day, and I could tell at once that this was the shining pinnacle of his week. There was almost something dictatorial in Gritino’s countenance.
I watched him curiously as he stomped through the streets of Sosua. Where just a couple of days before he seemed a modest part of the background he now metamorphosed into something much larger than he already was, and the seas seemed to part for us as we searched for a pair of motorcycle taxis.
“Are you going to bet?” the big man asked while rubbing his fingers together to ensure that I understood that he was talking about money.
“I am not sure, I don’t have much money,” I answered to the disappointment of my friend.
I had intentionally brought only a small amount of money with me, as I could guess that I would be pressured into throwing it into the ring. This is just what you do at a cockfight, this is how you play.
I would be OK with betting away a few bucks for fun, but a few dollars is fool’s money in this game. I knew from previous experience that the bets that circulate around the cockfighting ring are serious endeavors, which, seemingly, have little to do with fun. As the big man’s fingers rubbed together the foreshadowing of this event was thus revealed: I would either be taken into the fraternity of men by showing my money, or I would skirt the periphery as a voyerer. There is no space in between.
We found two motorcycle taxis quickly. We hopped on and rode off to a location that the big man specified.
The motorcycles pulled over after a 10 minute ride. The cost was 30 pesos each — less than one dollar — Gritino paid his share but I could only produce a 100 peso bill, a relatively small amount. Neither mototaxi driver could produce change. They never can. This is a prop to make more money, the hope is that you will just let them keep the change to save yourself the effort of finding small money.
Where I would normally make the driver find change or accept a smaller amount that I could pay in coin, Gritino stepped in and produced a fifty peso bill and a ten peso coin, ordering one of the drivers to split it with the other. The drivers offered no protest, nobody argues with Gritino. He is too big for that, and he knows it.
The big man and I then stood on the side of a local road off of the highway in Sosua Abajo. We were waiting for something. I looked farther up the road we were standing on and it lead into rural nowhere. I did not think a bus or a collectivo would run up this way, but Gritino and I waited for some form of transport anyway.
We made small talk.
He felt out my net worth. I told him what I honestly made per day. He admitted that it was not much money. I topped it off by sharing the monthly rate for my room, and then put a little icing on top that explained that I live off of eggs, rice, and beans, rather than eating in restaurants in Sosua, which are too expensive.
It was important for it to be on the table that I was not a rich man. Cockfighting is about little if not money: the men too, live or die in the ring. Only the death they are dealt is financial, but the blow seems to hit hard all the same. I had to show my cards before the bets were cast.
A nice, shiny red Ford extended cab pickup truck then stopped in front of us. Gritino pointed for me to jump into the back. There was a little boy in the back seat, a cleanly dressed man driving, and Gritino in the passenger seat.
We then rode off into the countryside.
We kept riding off into the countryside. I had no real idea where we were anymore. The road winded up through vegetated hillsides and eventually turned to a dirt track. A few women with baskets on top of their heads would cast me an askance glance as I looked out from the back of the pickup.
Where was I going? I did not really know. At that time I was under the impression that we were going to a cockfight in a town called Sabaneta. It was not in this direction.
Nothing, apparently, was in the direction we were going. Except for trees, palms, agriculture fields that rose up hillsides, a barefoot woman or two, a dirt road, a red pickup truck, me.
Cockfighting is legal in the Dominican Republic, it is an event that is very much in the public light — why was I being taken out into the middle of nowhere for a cockfight? How well did I know these people who were carting me off into the countryside anyway?
I had a moment of doubt in my decision, but I quickly eased it over. A traveler must fully trust their intuition, thinking too much can usurp the capacity to see circumstances for what they are and often leads to poor decisions anyway. It is easy to project a barrage of danger upon your situation, it is easy to find fear in many circumstances that you are not fully familiar with, but giving reign to this round of thinking is often to pull a sack over your own head.
Fear only breeds more fear.
I trust my myself fully, I trust my intuition all the way through. After a moment’s hesitation, I soon eased my mind over my circumstances. In travel, you either go all the way in one direction or all the way in the other: teetering indecisively in the middle is the real danger.
I looked out from the back of the pickup truck over a shallow valley whose lush green canopy reverberated with the radiance of a tropical sun. I soon heard the crowing of roosters and the barking of dogs. We pulled off onto a long driveway. We had arrived — somewhere.
Read part 2 at: Cockfight Training Camp
Read the entire series at: Cockfighting in the Domincan Republic