My first night on the Oaxaca coast, the roosters kept me up till dawn. It is an urban myth—literally— of cartoons, cereal box packaging, and Dracula movies, that the male gallus gallus greets the sun with a sudden, singular cry. Truth is, they cry all the time. At midnight in Oaxaca in January, it is a wet 80 degrees. It is never cold here. The state of Oaxaca is where Mexico's belly sticks out into the Pacific, catching the deep, clean flow of open sea. You have never seen so many animals, so many fish. And this being Mexico, the nights are a storm of noise—the Catholic imperfectability of the world meaning no one ever yells to any person or animal to shut up. After midnight on the coast road southeast of Puerto Escondido, you can track the last lone pedestrians by the dogs going off like sensors and the roosters following, their humanlike screams propelled by their own tyrannical sperm count as if avatars through which the hard-ons in the boys' and bachelors' beds of Oaxaca were let sing. That sounds grandiose, but that's what I kept thinking about that winter, how the roosters' animal response vented what humans instead hold close or cook inside our minds into disorders that last long past when the people causing them are dead.
There is an incredible divide between the Seattle vibe and the Mexico vibe that is probably largely accountable to weather. My girlfriend refers to the condition as "Seattle-face," as in "Don't come back from the States with Seattle-face." The weather is the root of the conviviality, the outdoor sociability and play in Mexico, and the opposite of deadening, death-worshipping Seattle. I am of the opinion that anyone with the slightest tendency toward depression or addiction has to leave Seattle, and after I left Seattle for Mexico, I wandered around and wrote for a travel guide, which is how I ended up spending a winter in Puerto Escondido. This whole area is basically just a two-lane road—a narrow thread of concrete—between the westernmost mountains and the sea: walkable towns hold a million, the wilderness on their edge sudden.
The poster for my first-ever pelea de gallos—cockfight—was long and bright and tacked to one of the warning-bedecked walls surrounding the disputed properties on the strand of Zicatela Beach.
After the march of the festival in honor of Nuestra Señora de los Pobres you are invited to the grand annual fair and sensational tournament of gallos: We guarantee fun! 100% Family environment. January 17th and 18th, Col. Lazaro Cardenas
Colonia Lazaro Cardenas is a barrio named after the lefty prewar president who nationalized the oil industry and was maybe the only honest man to have ever led this country—his great task being undone as I write, with corporations more and more shining their friendly logos everywhere in the country as you look. Only a few years ago, it was not like this. The neighborhood lies only a highway crossing from where the international surfer-hippie moneyed network touches down. And it's where, in 1990, a gangster film titled Puerto Escondido brought Italian surfers, before the rest of Europe, Australia, and North America discovered it and the international contests broadcast on satellite, with corporate sponsorship, began.
The pelea was what I had been waiting for without knowing it. Though I'd bought earplugs and moved to a hut farthest from the chicken coops of a dirt-floor cabana hotel run by two glumly silent Yugoslav veterans, I wanted to see some roosters die. For a year when I was 10, we raised chickens in the western San Fernando Valley as it made its last transitions from farm country to suburb. The hatchlings arrived in a dome-shaped steel basket, and something about them reminded me of the people on the streets of great European cities: They were a crowd. A dozen cuddly chicks survived the onslaught of the dogs and multiplied, toughened—taller, reptilian—into a feathered army. On occasion, we discovered a mound of cream-colored eggs under the broken station wagon in the backyard or in the thick ivy spreading over from the farmhouse next door where the neighbor cared for her invalid cop husband (200 chickens roosted in their empty swimming pool and despite their clipped wings would immigrate over the high fence to breed with ours). Every few weeks, a downy gang of new babies was winnowed down by the predators of the neighborhood. I was at the bottom of an Irish abuse chain in a line of older stepsiblings, with no outlet but the family pet, and was an animist child in that decade that gave credence to everything. I apologized for kicking our Doberman-shepherd mix by ritually drinking an entire Big Gulp of water with it, passing it back and forth; I prayed to the souls of the hamsters that died in the heat wave of '77; and, like my whole distended family, I became mysteriously attached to the crow we named Jose Cuervo (ha!) that came right up to my father one afternoon as he cut a door with an electric saw. After the two months in which it would not leave us, that crow was understood to be an emissary from my father's recently deceased father or perhaps my grandfather himself.
The chickens, however, I always considered meat robots.
The palenque turns out to be a ring of tables a dozen feet across over raked dirt. There are bleachers stacked around the tables, like a one-third-scale model of a minor league baseball stadium. It's hidden behind a fence made of corrugated steel and slats of plywood to all but the few tall foreigners who come. Lit bulbs impart a sense of event as the last of the sun goes. Toward the center, the men move with an automated air of ceremony. A spun cage sets the matches at random, ping-pong balls color-corresponding to the green and red plastic water buckets at each station for hand-washing. Printed placards display the teams' hometowns (Puerto Angelito, Salina Cruz), sponsors (Nissan Puerto Escondido, El Pollero de Zicatela), local political parties (Partido Totolapan, Partido Los Naranjos), or communal ejido farms (Juquila, El Molinito). The event itself is heavy in incidental corporate sponsorship as well: Pepsi banners, Corona metal chairs, the cardboard Purina boxes the cocks are brought in.
Behind the wall, handlers and punters tend toward the Spanish end of the mestizo. In the elaborate class/race dynamic of Mexico, power and affluence are almost precisely gradated to how white you are: los mas moreno, lo mas pobre. Here in the rural south, the majority resembles their ancestors, the people who lived here when the conquistadors came. Children peer through rust holes in the fence. Bandamax plays on the large TV, which serves as a sort of dais for the organizers. Banda is the most popular musical genre in Mexico, a boisterous confluence of Texas polka and old romantic Latin song. The videos are of two kinds: crude compilations of stock footage of calf-roping and sunsets, a badly acted story line of two desperate young lovers cut in between the stock, and the big productions made in Mexico City or Monterrey, with big houses, oodles of flowers and embroidered suits, and references to drug trafficking.
Two women ply the crowd with iced buckets of beers and refrescos and sell tacos from folding tables under the low palms at the back of the yard. The ring is lit by a two-bar fluorescent, suggesting a failing office. The serious gamblers sit near the weighing station, older men mostly, the only people smoking, bejeweled, shirts open.
One of the women comes around, pouring shots of tequila into tiny plastic cups. Her name is Lulu. She has run the palenque concessions for about six months, an unusual job for a woman. She lives in the state capital, Oaxaca City, 150 rough miles over the Sierra Madre, and sets up at similar events all over the state. She says it took a while working the peleas to gain the respect of the regular gamblers, who this is really all about. She doesn't take any guff from drunks or let them treat her like a whore. I ask what happens to the winning rooster, does he get to retire in style? Lulu says the cock will go on to Bajos de Chila next month, just a half hour up the coast, the biggest tournament on the southern coast of Mexico, which draws competitors from as far as Tijuana (twice as far as Los Angeles is from Seattle). But birds don't usually survive more than three matches: Last year's winner is stuffed in an office in Santa Maria Colotepec. The man who won the last Bajos de Chila is around, she says, if I want to meet him.
Cockfighting was once legal in the United States (and it still is in Guam and Puerto Rico): Last holdout Louisiana outlawed it in 2008. The federal Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act carries a three-year sentence for moving fighting equipment, though enforcement focuses on the crueler practice—I would argue—of dogfighting. Cockfighting is practiced all over the world, nearly: It came with the chicken from the tip of India, where fights go back 2,000 years. Banned in Britain in 1835, it spread to Europe from Reunion Island, a département of France in the Indian Ocean, and is preserved as a kind of folk art in the gallodromes outside Lille. It's still legal in France when practiced in a "traditional setting." Opponents point out that chickens make 20 distinct calls, are capable of problem solving, can communicate with one another through signs, and recognize facial expressions.
This is a pastime for gentleman farmers. Juan Carlos, the one who won the last Bajos de Chila, is 30, mustachioed, a vain dresser: a recognizable western type, from Argentina to Alberta. He says when caballeros—cowboys—are young, they are given a pet to keep and train. They set their cocks against each other from childhood. His prize at Bajos last year ($3,500 US) was not a big deal: Juan Carlos is clearly the richest man in his town of Nopala, literally "Cactusville." His employees gather shyly around us at a folding table in back, surrounded by gallos crowing at random in two-by-two-foot wire cages draped with cloth. I misunderstand the men's watchfulness and explain I come not to expose or advocate against the sport—the paper I write for is merely interested in this life. But it has never occurred to Juan Carlos or his friends that anyone might take issue with cockfighting, and saying this makes me look a little crazy.
Merriam-Webster says the word cock—what a gallo is called in English, fighting and otherwise—comes from the Middle English cok, from the Old English cocc (12th century), of imitative origin. No one knows when Englishmen started using the same word for our dicks, but linguistically the connection is inseparable. Here the equivalent nomenclature is verga, or "meat." A fucker—good or bad—is a cabron: from cabra, or goat. The rim shot always hovers behind this talk of cocks: I see all this through a lens of metaphor I cannot remove.
Three hundred pesos—$25—is the minimum bet. Flash photography is forbidden once a match is set. The gaff is like a tuning fork with a business end, the tines long, curved razors. They are plugged into a black rubber flange strapped on in place of the dewclaw (surgically removed) and wound tight with catgut or dental floss. Once inserted, the blades, in miniature leather sheaths removed at the last second, are fit into place with a tiny silver T-square made for just this purpose. Each cock gets two gaffs: Nopala's handler, extras behind his ear, walks tensely back and forth, supporters clustered around him. The opponent stands with a spool of safety orange filament uncoiling up from between his feet as his assistant ties the flange. The comb, a red, scrotal flap of skin that hangs over the bird's eyes, is cut off two weeks before a first fight. The referee, old with a judicial bearing, carries rubbing alcohol and a rag to wipe down the blades, sterilizing them to protect the handler.
When the fight starts, both cocks instantly double in size, neck feathers extended like iridescent lamp shades. They feint and fly, feet slash almost too fast to see, a rain of tiny feathers like pillow down fills the air between them. Then before it can even register, Nopala's cock has killed the other. It's hard to distinguish the blood; the feathers look only wet. There is no applause—the sudden end leaves a bad taste. It is nearly a source of embarrassment.
By 10 p.m., there are 300 people here. The young, in different styles: heavy-metal tees, disco wear, surfers' clothes from the shops in Puerto Escondido. The birds again fly at one another a dozen times and stop in a clutch, exhausted. Totolapan's handler is sucking the blood and snot out of his bird's head. Five feet away, at the table representing La Barra de Colotepec, a pregnant woman massages her belly. The third round is nearly instantaneous, the upscale official "eco-resort" of Huatulco versus Puerto Escondido. (Puerto Escondido is what Huatulco was, in so many ways, 20 years ago, they say, and in 20 years, Puerto Escondido will be like Huatulco is now, and Huatulco, Cancun.) Puerto Escondido wins. Lulu says they are "the best." Close to midnight, more disassociate punters, tipsy or curious, enter the back of the stands, a few rising to toss wads of cash down in gutted tennis balls to the bookies. Costa Esmeralda Nissan is up, and on their team is a 12-year-old kid raking the feathers from the previous fight, his friends jostling around, impressed.
Lulu is selling botellitas of mescal—clear and homemade in hand-painted jars—and I drink. She tells me this event is nothing. At Bajos, in February, there are hundreds of teams from as far away as the border towns, even inside the United States. I ask: Do people fight dogs? She says that's a dirty sport, from the cities. Wild dogs here are an obscene joke, shocking with their pink erections, cartoon balls, and swollen labia, rutting in the street abraded with sores. Animal behaviorists believe after tens of thousands of years near humans, canines learned to imitate facial expressions of the human infant. But the beach dogs of Puerto Escondido are as wild and expressionless as sharks. The canniest I saw there was a hideous mix of pit bull and greyhound, with a scabby head and holes for ears. ODB, I called him. The other dogs would wander into the open restaurants and get a kick for their trouble, at best a morsel from a softhearted English speaker. But ODB would make his way to a point at the steps' edge equidistant to the tables and stand transfixed on some invisible point until, after perhaps an hour, someone threw food his way. He responded to no human. He knew the ways of people, but he would not or could not be spoken to, and he never went hungry.
My second night, the team from Salina Cruz, a refinery town down the coast by the Guatemala border, brings the largest and most intricate mother-of-pearl inlaid box I have ever seen. A friend of mine named Eugenio—who has crossed the mountains from the capital to work the fruit stand in the market—comes along because I'm bored at the fights and he's bored in town. I had a strange upbringing and never learned to love sports. We stare into the ring, and I think about the word pastime, that worn-to-meaninglessness phrase for baseball—as if stuck in life, we must spend time in order to fend off what might take its place.
This is as dull as baseball, certainly. Bookies circle, hands out to the crowd. No applause, except in cases of exceptional bravery. The winning bettors are calm. The "taunting cock," brought in to heat the participants' blood, is handed back to its owner, who covers its head and leads it through the crowd under the veil like a muzzled dog or an oracle.
Three weeks after Lazaro Cardenas, Eugenio and I share a cab for the 20-minute, $20 ride to Bajos de Chila. This palenque is bigger, with real bathrooms and a kitchen and a space to park tonight's first-place prize: a new Nissan pickup. Lulu is here, too. She introduces me to Sixto, from Mexicali, 40, stout and graying, who owns a clothing store a stone's throw from the United States and has been fighting cocks since he was a kid. He asks me what place in Mexico I like best, and I tell him I live in Mexico City. He smiles appreciatively: He used to sell cars in the capital.
Sixto turns to greet a friend from Pinotepa Nacional, about 100 miles up the coast, the biggest all-indigenous town I have seen. Sixto has been to uncountable fights in the United States, one in Oklahoma with thousands of people. He says American cockfights are rowdier due to secrecy: meth, heroin sales in the john, guns.
A foot-high, escutcheoned roulette wheel is brought out to pick lotería numbers. I ask Sixto what he is thinking. "We want to win," he says, and everything after that has the vagueness of almost every pregame locker-room interview ever taped. No videos but music itself—Duranguense, the music of the northern desert state of Durango. K-Paz de la Sierra singing narcocorridos, the songs of traficante life whose country rhythm and tough stories resemble the unapologetic murder ballads of Johnny Cash. Almost everyone here wears caballero embroidery: braided needlepoint, shoulder epaulets. Sixto hangs on the edge of this fight, one of the few he is not involved in, merely to admire the cocks, the handlers. "It's the betting, the sense of an event—it's a country thing," he says. A round-faced teenage boy goes by with a limp and a slight beard, looking like Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man. (Chaney was my father's older friend when he was a teenager, and so I think of my father, dead these 25 years, and for a moment I am absent from my surroundings.)
This is a much more elaborate event than the last. At Lazaro Cardenas, bets were taken as fights came up. But here, callers have tags and run the numbers for a whole half of the evening's schedule. Odds are posted, and they change. The grandfatherly MC gets on the mic and says, "Stop the music, stop the music. Don't confuse us." A handler massages his bird's legs with his thumbs. Sixto's cock is finished in less than 30 seconds. Laughing at his luck, he picks it up by a leg and carries it, blood streaming across the dirt. A narcocorrido comes on, and Eugenio tells me the singer was killed at a show in Nuevo León. Then, during another song a few minutes later, "This guy got shot, too." The drawing prize is a huge oak dining table with a carved relief of a fighting cock labeled ARTURO, set up in the dirt and covered with a large sheet of glass.
I decide to stop keeping track and just watch the mad swim. The only way to avoid being bored to tears if you don't have money is to get drunk. Lulu comes round. Mescal is not a drink in the North American liquor-license, beer-and-shots sense of the word, but a drug more like something shot into your veins. You can feel it anesthetize your brain lobes: It strips you out, makes you something like a machine under remote control.
Someone calls "Fifteen!" and I turn to see a ranchero's cock dying cradled in his arms. He won't win the truck. The stereo booms: I was hidden for weeks in the mountains; it looked like they'd called the whole army. In the Moorish tiled john, the men's room in a world of men, the very wall has a trench along it like at old pulquerias in Mexico City. On the way out, I trip on a banner for pet food vendor Purina's Nova Gallos brand. Off to the side, Sombreros Tex-Mex has a little stand with rayon shirts on hangers and in folded piles. Slightly chilly with just a tank top on over my perpetual light sunburn, I select a blue long-sleeved collared Wrangler with red-and-black cocks in fighting stance, pay 150 pesos—the equivalent of $12—and return to the stands. (In Austin, Texas, two months later, I go outdoors and am confronted twice about the shirt in five minutes. College girl: "Is that a cockfight on your shirt?" "Yes." "That's animal cruelty!" "It's complicated; it's a culture of sacrifice." "Oh, so we all should be like the Aztecs?" "The Aztecs sacrificed volunteers..." A minute and a half later, a redneck in a pickup across from the Texas Chili Parlor: "Hey, that's a badass shirt, man.")
Tijuana is out immediately. The bettors flick finger-thumb signs to the bookies. The big family that came to the smaller event in Lazaro Cardenas sits with their ranch team, Rancho San Isidro. The buckets, again, and green El Cafetal (espresso) versus red Salina Cruz: Green gets its neck feathers caught in its own attacking blade, drags Red a few steps, then stops, Red convulses with a crude pumping motion, and after hours here, the circle they describe seems the center of the earth... Tijuana greets the San Isidro family, clearly old friends. I have grown accustomed to this death on repeat after three nights. Is it my ignorance that tends to see the bus conductor in Chihuahua, just across the Texas border coming down, letting the boys shake his hand in lieu of paying the fare and the displaced inhumanity of the cockfight as part of the same thing? Why are most people who love horror films so kind? And is anyone as vicious as the rare person—but you meet them—who believes that all creatures are equal, to whom swatting a bug is like killing a baby?
Moves receive applause after delays that I don't understand, and it seems like the men who stand in this pause while the cocks are only breathing, prone, must be entering the animals empathically, and do they think, You are lucky, not to know, not to slow down, but to feel brave in the full thrust of your instinct? The head of the loser slowly dips to the floor, beak in the dirt on the 10. The winning bettors collect, while the ringmaster calls the winning number of the lottery, 12, and in the fluorescent flicker, that number beats like a heart on white card stock, bright above the heads gathered in a dark mass below.
Lulu's friend Pepe, from just across the fence, sits down with us. Plump, in a tight red polo shirt and mustache, he tells me how he lost his foot sneaking into my country on the railroad. A handler uses a syringe to clean blood from the birds' eyes and nostrils. The next handlers spin their birds centrifugally, feet scrambling over the dust, the cocks golden brown—or white—around the necks, black, layered, or silky and resplendent. Not a one of the birds looks common while it is still alive. Sean, a tall South African, says the Boers would feel right at home and this seems like a gathering of country people like in so many places on the earth. Huatulco wins. From somewhere, a skyrocket screams up and sizzles into darkness, startling the kids texting at the top of the bleachers.
The blades for the next crew are displayed on cards of fake felt like sewing needles, and it may be the effect of the mescal or the late hour, but I feel close to the whole engine of Dionysus and the lost combinations. On the outer edge of the circle, placing bets, is an older American, discernable not just by clothes that everyone wears now—there are Danish surfers here, too—but by the careless freedom of gesture and grand, fading athleticism along his shoulders. Puerto Escondido is matched against Rio Grande. (In a wide and spacious country of big rivers, there are Rio Grandes everywhere. The only river not called Rio Grande is the one gringos call Rio Grande, the one forming half of the United States' southern border—Mexicans still call it Rio Bravo.) Rio Grande's bird goes on its back, is retrieved, and the handler bends to blow life back into it. Second and last chance: the bloodied cock still alive, a rag doll with a beating heart. A fourth round, Puerto Escondido's bird is nibbling the head of the prone opponent; a fifth, pecking its face, but they wait until suddenly the pecking one collapses on the count. A sixth round is called. The other lies bloodied by now, and still. "He's a cadaver," a man says. Huatulco and another Puerto Escondido team set up again, as the ranchero music plays on the cable station, the horns a little silly, formal, an old man singing, and the oom-pah-pah sounds of Czech settlers that have trickled down from Texas: You'll see me at my funeral/You won't have to look for me... Friends, you're all invited...
You may want opinion or advocacy, and because this is The Stranger, you may expect a contrarian huzzah for the cruel old ways. Do these tiny wars somehow feed the wars of men, make them more intractable? I have no idea. I found the peleas, at last, after wondering about them for so long, uninteresting. Mexico's greatest charm is that the Protestant zeal to perfect the world is nowhere in effect here. And there are 24 billion chickens in the world right now, give or take a billion. And a chicken is ridiculous—an instant reminder of our humility, so undignified as to make us feel our distance from God (Poor Mexico, they say here, so far from God and so close to the United States). I am uncharmed by the blank oppositions of sport itself: Why is everyone so interested? I have wondered all my life. The pure nextness of it, I think a fan might say.
Sixto goes up against a young ranchero dude, and the match goes long. I step out and away from the light. I see we are in the deep campo and no one is around. It is 4 a.m. Inside again, it is the fourth round, the fifth round, the same match, a different match—I can't follow anymore. The ranchero is still there. He takes his gallo's head in his mouth and puts it back in the ring. Panting (I have never seen a rooster pant), it comes out victorious. Sixto isn't around anymore, and then half an hour later, here he is again, back from a nap, depressed. He came here, to his second home, to win.
I miss the end, if there is an end. I have to catch a bus up the coast the next day. But as I leave, still before sunrise, the voices show no sign of quieting. There is flute music cycling faster and faster, and old men excited and raising their arms, and young lovers nodding, and a woman seated up front shielding her sleeping son's face from the flying blades and the blood just beyond the edge of the table.
Grant Cogswell is the founder and proprietor of Under the Volcano Books, Mexico City’s only English-language used bookstore. His book The Dream of the Cold War: Poems 1998–2008 was released earlier this year by Publication Studio.