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Cockfighting in Trinidad, Cuba

Gallo de pelea!” my bicitaxi driver Eday exclaims, pointing to a preening cock on the pavement.  “Gallo de pelea” – a fighting cock. “What?  Is cockfighting still allowed in Cuba?” “Not really, but there are underground fighting rings operated by a cockfighting mafia of sorts.” “When do cockfights take place?” “Here in Trinidad?  On weekends, in season.  It is Saturday and I could look for today’s cockfighting venue if you wanted to see one.” “Find it for me please”, I say.

So Eday pedals through the seedier areas of Trinidad to the outskirts of town, stopping to ask around six or seven men where the pelea was that day.  We are progressively beckoned along until we come to a banana plantation.  We park our tricycle in an animated clearing and enter the buzzing plantation.  There are vendors selling food and drink.  People mill around preparing for the fights.  Fighting cocks are scattered across the banana plantation tied by their feet to hooks in the ground.  We wend our way to the fighting arena which is surrounded by barbed wire.  The actual fighting ground is crudely fenced by low palm wood, surrounding which there are two rings of seats, or rather thicker palm planks heaved from tree trunks.  I give money to Eday for seats and two beers and take my place next to a burly local called Roberto.  We strike up a conversation and I discover that he had once been a cock-trainer and was a cockfighting expert of sorts.  This gives me an inside track.  I give the arena a visual sweep and confirm that I’m probably the only foreigner there.

Roberto - cockfighting Connoisseur
Roberto – cockfighting Connoisseur

The ring gradually fills with an animated crowd, gesticulating and shouting in twos.  “They’re betting”, says Roberto.  “It’s word against word, man to man, there’s no going back on your word.  There are no bookmakers, no spreads, complex odds, all’s clean and fair here”, says Roberto. The two trainers enter the ring to great fanfare, parading their cocks for all to see.  I notice that the feathers had been plucked from parts of their skins.  “Yes, to minimize their weight”, says Roberto. “Cocks fight in weight categories, just like boxers.  Judges control the fights.  Look, there’s the referee.  We know the record of each cock, just like horse racing punters.  Outstanding cocks can outlast a season and even survive a second season before being put out to stud.  The training stable is vital in this regard – many punters go with a recognized trainer instead of the cock.”

Amidst the fanfare in the ring, the two trainers and their cocks are called to the centre by some official.  The cocks are inspected and made to drink water.  “To swallow their own poison if there’s been any tampering. You won’t believe what underhand tricks are involved in this sport” says Roberto.  The cocks also have their feet washed and a spray is squirted into their faces to refresh them a little.  Tortoiseshell spurs are then attached to each of the cocks’ feet.  “Wire spurs aren’t allowed” says Roberto.  What about dog fighting, I ask.  “No, that’s not popular in Cuba”, he says.

Galleros facing off

A bell sounds.  People scurry out of the ring. The two trainers hold up their beasts, facing them up to each other.  This fires up the cocks. The trainers separate to opposite sides of the ring, set their cocks free on the ground and hop out.  The action is underway; the cocks fly into each other, pecking and kicking as if possessed.  All is instinctual and erratic; there is no apparent intelligence behind the moves, no guiding strategy of the pugilist, no feinting, no ducking, no tactic.  The action is persistent and rapid – at times all one sees is a blurred tangle of feathers. There is little apparent premeditation – the moves are uncoordinated and wild.  Basically they have two weapons, the kick and the peck, and kick and peck they do!  This elicits passions from the public, they egg on their cock in ragged crescendos, shouts cascade around the ring, frenzy rises.  The cocks flare and furl.  There’s blood.

Roosters fighting

Roosters fighting

“Roberto, don’t the cops bust these operations from time to time?” “Yes they do, but they only pitch up after the fighting is over, never during the fight. People tend to scurry when the cops arrive and hurt themselves on the barbed wire and in the plantation.  So they’re very conscientious are the cops, they arrive after the fights when the people have left.  The police are good in Cuba, no?”  Yes Roberto, they are indeed.

Blood, Pecks and Kicks

Blood, Pecks and Kicks

Deadly kicks

Deadly kicks

The shouting intensifies, with “gallo! gallo!” chanted when a cock lands a telling blow.  The ruddy roosters keep at it, enraged.  That’s what they were reared to do, that’s what their training has wrought, to unleash fury for these few minutes.  At a stage one of the cocks sinks a spur into the other’s breast, who stumbles and shakes under the blow.  Delirium breaks out.

Gallo gallo!

Gallo gallo!

The following day I spot a carving of a fighting cock in an art gallery.  The owner is a very well spoken man, an ex-mathematics teacher. His eyes light up when I ask him about cockfighting.  He’s a cockfighting aficionado.  He tells me that cockfighting is an ancient tradition among the peasantry of Cuba.  He tells me about the galleros, the professionals who run gallerias, cock stables.  The cocks, more accurately gamecocks, are assessed from a young age and are trained with sponges instead of spurs.  Syndicates put up the capital to train the cocks and the galleros are paid for the upkeep of the cocks.  It is the gallero who assesses, grades and trains a cock for battle, and he only earns his keep if his cock wins.  A string of losses and the galleria closes down.  The syndicate in turn bets on their cocks.  That’s how cockfighting is sustained in Cuba, in an unsteady symbiosis among the interested.  Of course there are official cockfights run by the state, he says, but these are for official occasions.  The real aficiόn lies in the country.

Fighting cock sculpture

Fighting cock sculpture

The battered cock groggily recovers from the stumble.  Despite being the fancied cock trained by the more famed gallero, he is losing ground.  He repairs to peck out feebly at his adversary, who has his tail in the air. But the attacks become increasingly one-sided and asynchronous.  The losing cock can’t come back, his fury is gone, he’s been grievously harmed, his spirit is conquered.  The other cock senses a kill and redoubles his attack.  The fancied cock retreats, trips, lists and careens.  Things get quite loud now.  A third stumble and that’s it.  The losing gallero steps into the ring and picks up his cock before it’s finished off.  It’s the boxing equivalent of throwing in the towel. The winning punters storm into the ring, claiming their gains.  Bets are settled there and then.  Ecstasy for some, crestfallen losses for others.  Proceedings bustle then gradually settle over ten minutes or so when the next pair of galleros step into the ring with their birds.  I step into the ring myself and notice that one of the cocks is trembling in the hands of the gallero.  “What’s the matter with your cock?  Shock?” I ask.  “No”, he says, “they are like this”.

Cock gets upper hand

Cock gets upper hand

Soon, the next fight is underway.  These are bigger birds, definitely in another weight category.  One of them has lost a fight before but had been revived to fight again today; the other has won five bouts.  As before, the birds are squared off by their trainers and are released on the ground.  As before, they fly into each other in an erratic flurry.  Frenzy, agitation; raw, uncoordinated intent.  The crowd can’t get enough.  More shouting and screaming.  The fight goes to and fro without any direction until one of the cocks – the one who had lost a bout before – lashes out with a kick.  The spur must have penetrated some vital inner part of his adversary, for it beats its feathers and collapses on the spot.  That’s it.  The defeated trainer jumps into the ring and picks up his bird.  Roberto nudges me and makes a cutting gesture across his throat. “Muerto”, he informs me for what it’s worth.  The winning bettors throw up their hands in triumph, invade the ring and claim their money.  Onlookers light up cheap cigars and mutter till the next fight.

Yeah my cock won!

Yeah my cock won!

Throwing in the towel

The afternoon’s cockfighting still has long to run but I have seen enough.  Besides, there’s much else to explore in Trinidad.  “Let’s go”, I say to Eday, and we leave.

Settling you bets

Settling you bets

End of the Rooster

 

Later that evening, in a bar, a stranger at the counter greets me with a pat on the shoulder and the broadest of smiles.  “Hello! How are you!  Saw you at the cockfighting!  Ha!  Great afternoon or what!?”

One should remember that one leaves traces wherever one goes. Just when I wanted to remain quiet, discreet, incognito, papering over my foray into the illicit, keeping up appearances, not breathing a word about anything:  Here it was, my trespassing exposed.

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