Last night I went to a cock fight. And no, I am not referring to attending another Poetry Slam, although there are some odd similiarities.
The rooster fight was a 20 minute drive from Leon, Nicaragua. I went as part of a tour that is run by NiciAsi Tours. I really like them. They run events a few times a week that gets tourists intereacting with the locals. We met at Via Via, the best hostel in Leon in my opinion, and piled ourselves in a van. There was about a dozen of us who went out to the match.
I am lucky in that I knew what to expect as I had seen a documentary on the sport a few months ago. But many of the other travellers were shocked at what we saw. At first glance, the sport is brutal and sad, as two roosters fight each other with razor sharp hooks attached to their feet until one of them drops to the ground unable to move. This is difficult to watch.
But there is something more going on here, that was worth the queeziness that was experienced in my gut and made me nausaus at one point, and that is witnessing a community event.
It is not a magical, Mayan ritual, nor is it of any spiritual significance, but the event is still very much a community orientated and bonding experience. And it is macho as hell.
The event was held in a rural area, in the back of some guy´s house. They had constructed an arena out of wood and rusting chain link fence. Benches were built around the arena out of logs and nails. There were about 300 people there, pacing, cheering and betting.
The event begins with the roosters being weighed in groups of 4. They do this to evently match the fights. The roosters that are of similar weights fight each other. Once the roosters are selected the owners or trainers of the roosters will select a referee. There is much discussion about this, as it is important that the referee does not favour one owner over another. Than the weirdness starts. The owners tie on a hook onto the roosters back legs. It has a sharp hook that is similar to that of a fish hook. This takes a while. While this is occuring a large crowd gathers around the rooster and owner shouting praise and support.
The two owners of the chickens discuss the bet. This is the cool part. If one guys wants to bet 20 bucks, and the other wants to bet 50 bucks, then the difference is made up by the audience who wants to support. Usually about a dozen or so people will also want to bet on a rooster, and bets start at 2 bucks and cap at 5 dollars. Our guide said that if we tried to bet more than this he would kick us out, because this is no longer within the means of the local people. I bet 2 bucks.
After the match, the bets are settled first between the two owners, and then with the others who helped to support the rooster and owner. In this way, the match is less about betting and more about helping to support the owner who does not have the same means to wager a bet against the other owner who had more money.
The matches are 15 minutes long, divided into three rounds. The round ends when the beak of a rooster hits the ground. There is a break, and then the roosters fight again. The match is won if the beak hits the ground at the begininng of a match or if the rooster´s beak hits the gound at the end of the match more than once.
The owners are very proud of their roosters. They train them for at least a month for an hour each day. Training involves walking them on a leash to build muscle mass, massaging the muscles and placing the tiniest boxing gloves you have ever seen on the feet of the roosters. Roosters naturally fight each other, so when the gloves are on them, they fight each other without hurting them.
If you live in Leon, you know the trainers and the roosters, and therefore know who to bet on. Us tourists had nothing to go on other than gut feel and the look in the eye of the trainer. I chose the trainer who was the oldest and calmest looking. He had a fierce look about him, whereas his oppontent looked cocky and inexperienced. Betting was a bit weird, as we weren´t really sure when that was supposed to happen. I am not sure why this happened, but when I tried to bet I was told no at first. I am not sure why this happened, but it might have something to do with the money not being needed at this point. But then some guy who spoke better Spanish than I, helped me place my bet.
This was a bit surreal for me, and I was the ONLY woman in a crowd of men trying to bet on this rooster. I liked that my gender was practically ignored in this situation. This happens to rarely in Central America. A few minutes after my money was taken the rooster was placed in the center of the ring to fight.
My match was the longest one of the night. In the first round the roosters went at each other, pecking and flying into the other. My rooster lost the first round, but won the second round. The third round was brutal. At a certain point it became evident that the roosters could no longer see each other. They both had went blind. Both roosters just kind of wandered around the arena, with the owners making chirping noised behind them to fire them up to fight. Neither wanted to fight. They both sat down. Each time that the rooster would wander away or sit down, the owner would pick them up and place them in front of another again, hoping that their fighting instincts would kick in again. They didn´t. This went out about 6 times before finally my rooster that I bet on gave one final peck to the other, resulting in a beak drop.
I wasn´t sure if I was proud of my rooster or just sad, for both roosters were now officially blind. After the match all of us who bet on the winning rooster gathered around him and his owner. The owner looked very proud of his fighter. We all shock hands. I collected my winnings and had a beer.
Later that night, on the way back home in the van, I didn´t really say anything. What was there to say really. But what I did think about is how this sport is very important to the men who live here. It is brutal and sad, but so is life. Cock fighting is about more than two roosters pecking out his others eyes. It is about a community coming together to support each other financially and to cheer on each other. Chickens are valued here more than cats or dogs. They are family but they are also food and substance. When the rooster dies in the fight he will become soup for the family the next day. This might sound horrible to many of us Westerners, but this is part of the cycle of lie.
Nicaragua is the 2nd poorest country in Central American, 2nd only to Haita. The people who live here have endured slaughter at the hands of their government, and then again at the hands of their people and by Americans. Despite the poverty and the relentless heat and constant threat of all of the coffee and corn crops being extinguished by volcano ash, this is a country packed with men and women who are unbelievably hospitable, friendly and full of of positive energy. After the fight one of the trainers bought me a drink, despite the large disparity of our incomes and we chatted about the match and his pride in his roosters.
The other thing this event made me think about is how sport and contest will always be a part of communities. In Leon, poetry is honoured and given a museum, a park and two poets are honoured in the largest Church in Central America for their role that they placed in changing modern poetry but also in the role tha the poets played in the revolution. This is wonderful and beautiful to me, and helps me put the cock fighting into perspective, because in many ways the sport of Poetry Slam, which is what I have been involved with for many years does something similar. It pits two things against one another, often in a way that gathers a communities attention, support and loud applause and cheering. I am sure that in a country that honours their poets with shrines, they would be disgusting at the spectacle that is the poetry slam. Just in the same way that many foreigners are disgusted with the arena that houses cock fights.
But dont all communities have similar goals, to build a community and to support each other, and to fight for our values. In this way, I am glad I got to witness the cock fight, and I hope that in years to come this tradition remains. Many people here are trying to get rid of the sport, but I hope that the tradition continues.