The rooster is resentful, said the old man as we sat on a dusty street on the outer edge of Naucalpan, among the hills and gullies on the foothills of the Sierra Alto. He looked out over the dirt and gravel in front of him as if transmitting the essence of a lifetime’s experience in these few words. The cock does not forgive.
The whole walk around the edge of the city was sprinkled by references to cockfighting. Sometimes I would see the covered cages in fields where fighting cocks were kept and bred, cages covered by galvanized steel to keep the roosters in the shade. Usually these would be in out of the way parts of the edge, somewhat hidden. Within the barrios, sometimes among the second-hand tools and cell-phone adaptors lying for sale on a blanket next to the road there would also be a tall, mesh cage with a thin, tough-looking fighting cock in it.
The man sitting next to me on the dusty sidewalk was a rooster breeder. His roosters were not visible behind the house and he did not wish me to see him. But we did talk about the world of cockfighting. He told me that the very best fighting cock’s came from the farm of the widow Wilson in California. He told me that sometimes millions of pesos were bet on cockfights and that the best fighting cocks could cost hundreds of thousands of pesos.
He told me that the selection process of the hatchlings was ruthless. A chicken could after lay many eggs and out of each one would come a chick. The least apt chicks were destroyed, thousands of them, and only the fittest allowed to mature into fighting cocks. The different kinds of roosters had strange names such as Kelso, Roundhead and Johnny Jumper. The cocks themselves remained nameless; what was the point of giving a name to animal bred to die?
He told me that the stakes during the fights were enormous. Sometimes trainers would be bribed to hobble their cocks and throw the fight. One technique was to hang the cock upside down the night before a fight with a dripping faucet next to it. It would not sleep that night, enter the fight weak and die. But the rooster is unforgiving. If a trainer did that once his cocks would stop fighting for him. He would be jinxed and his roosters would lose. As if there were some great rooster somewhere, a god of fighting cocks, who avenged his own when he could. And like all small people of spirit, who must accept their lot and their suffering without complaint or redress, the god of roosters is unforgiving.
A few weeks earlier I had seen my first cockfight. One imagines a clandestine cockfight, the betting, the men with sombreros, the roosters with their cruel metal knives tied to their spurs as something nocturnal, fueled by tequila and gambling. However the one I saw seemed more a neighborhood event. I was walking into the hills by Los Reyes with my wife who had joined me for this one day. It was late Sunday morning.
First I saw a young man with long hair and a fierce dark face crossing the Texcoco highway. He disappeared in the paths below me. As we went up to the mouth of the gully, I saw a teenager whistling high-up in a big tree. I was surprised by this curious image and approached the tree to take a picture. Since he was in a tree there was not much he could do about it. Only later when I came to the site of the cockfight did I realize that the teenager in the tree had been a look-out.
The site of the cockfight was a dirt path in the ravine aptly the Barranca del Muerto. Informal self-built houses were built up the slopes. There was a group of about twenty people, some women, some young children, a cooler with beer and soft-drinks and the general atmosphere of a Sunday picnic. I asked whether I could stay and take pictures. No problem at all.
The fierce-looking man I had seen earlier arrived with a rooster in a cage and a small box. Another man also was carrying a cage. The box was opened and the men fussed over its contents. I understood that the box contained the knives which would be bound to the roosters feet. Then the men stood apart with their roosters. They blew into the rooster’s beaks. Then they let the cocks go in a flurry of feathers. After about two minutes of rushing at each other with flapping wings, one of the cocks fell over dead.
The fierce looking man with the long hair swooped up the victorious bird in his arms. Money passed hands. The dead bird lay in the dust. With brisk procedure the contest was adjourned and the social event continued. We thanked our hosts and went on our way up the ravine towards el Cerro del Pino in Iztapaluca.
Later I asked the man in Naucalpan if the roosters ever didn’t fight. He said that never happened. Fighting cocks know what they are for and never back down. Every animal no matter how small seems to feel its destiny.