Wednesday, October 06, 2004

blog cockfights

Been reading Jean's class blogs. They're discussing cockfights, since they're reading Bulosan's "America is in the Heart." I've always found cockfighting to be a complicated issue. First off, how did it come about to being so popular with Filipinos? The animal rights/cruelty aspects of it and the deeply personal connection that Filipino men have to it. In the 70s, the SFPD busted a Filipino festival for trying to stage a sabong, calling it a cultural event. SFPD called it illegal. Regardless, numerous farm towns and even the urban east Oakland neighborhoods have backyard sabongs today.

I had always wanted to see a cockfight or sabong live. Driving through the Philippines you can see yards full of triangular shelters for each of the roosters. Even in Manila, the entire day is filled with the sounds of roosters crowing.

When my family and I went back in 2000, my uncle bought a fighting rooster from his cousin and planned to fight it at the sabong at the end of the week. Just about every community has a sabong pit, except for maybe Camiguin, with sabongs held every Saturday and the local restaurants serving the losers on Sunday, the special sabong dish.

While the men hung around and discussed the upcoming sabong, the women stood by looking with disdain. Sabong is almost exclusively a man's realm. Women tend to despise the birds because the men take care of the birds way better than their own children. These birds are pampered from the get go: the finest shelters, the best cornmeal. They are cradled in men's arms and stroked affectionately. All for a 30 second match. Considering the poverty level, hard to understand how they could care more for the animals than for their own people and spend money that no one has for one thing.

We asked our dad and then our uncle if they would take us there. The women were a bit shocked. Women don't go to sabongs. Fortunately, we passed off our Fil-Am cultural values to make an exception because Fil-Ams are known to want to do odd things like this.

Sabongs are readily identified by their very boxy shape and structure. There are women at sabongs, but they mostly run the small food and snack stands outside the building. They too gave us a strange look when we paid the entrance fee. We pretended not to notice and walked in. There are birds everywhere in boxes, on small leashes. Somewhere in the internal instinct of the bird is the need to gash the eyes out of the other bird. This is not trained, this is cultivated testosterone and territory. They do this naturally. They are skittish and defensive and territorial.

There is a small square dirt arena with clear plastic sides for viewing and rows of seats up to the ceiling. There is a lot of waiting in sabongs. Small children bring boxes of cigarettes and snacks up and down the rows. Another child, blind, gave head and neck massages. The two birds are announced over the loudspeaker. At that moment a dozen men around the arena start shouting to the stands and taking bets. There are hand signals as they negotiate odds. It's like watching the stock broker's exchange before they went high tech. I think, if these guys weren't here, they would be on wall street. I'm not sure how they memorize who bet what when, but they do.

All the while, the trainers are preparing their birds, blowing smoke into their faces to get them annoyed. They tie a long slender blade to one of its talons, then wipe it with a poison. They bring the birds close and let them peck at each other, showing them the rival. As the betting dies down the fight begins. There is a flutter of feathers as the birds puff up, spread their wings and send their feet in first. At times, one bird is able to get a swift killing blow. More often one bird suffers an injuring swipe and struggles to defend itself. If a bird decides not to fight, the bird is brought back into the fight 3 times. If the bird refuses to fight three times, the other bird is declared the winner.

Roosters naturally fight each other. What is unnatural is the fight to the death. Their own talons do not kill on contact. Once the birds realize that one is definitively stronger, the other will bow out. The blades it seems are there to make the fight go faster, to create more decisive victors.

At the end of the fight the "stock brokers" pass thousands of pesos around filling out the bets they had taken. The losing trainer sadly picks up his dead or injured bird, the hopes of a champion dashed, while the winning own collects his betting fee giving his bird hugs and loving strokes of the feathers. All in all, the fight itself was a minute, the waiting around 20 minutes, the betting 10 minutes.

The men will stay there much of the day, sitting through fight after fight til the sun sets. The birds that go home, return to their pens and meals for a king. The injured ones may recuperate. The dead ones are eaten the next day. We ended up leaving after about 4 matches, having seen what we wanted to see. Maybe it's the gambling or maybe it's the excitement of battling to the death. To cheer on a champion or to go home disappointed. Whatever it is, sabong is passion, as weekly of a ritual as mass on Sundays.

No comments: