We pick our way through the pick-up trucks crammed into a dusty side street and hand thirty pesos (AUD$2.50) to the girl at the gate. Her eyes are bright as she welcomes us in and we step into a walled-off lot of scrappy grass, a third of which is taken up by a building that was either abandoned or never finished. This afternoon it is acting as a urinal. A woman sells beer from an esky and men cluster around a ring of weatherboards about as high as your hip. Feathers gather at the edges. Around the walls of the lot, men in leather boots, big hats and jeans ornamented with massive belt buckles stand about smallish metal cages chatting and sipping cans of Corona while their kids scamper and munch on snacks. Above all the chat, laughter and calls of bets being made, there is the incessant crow from the 40 or 50 roosters scattered about, some in the hands of their owners while others hide behind a jumper thrown over the cage to provide shade. It’s Sunday afternoon in Chupaderos, Durango and the cockfights are on.
Riding into Chupaderos, the backdrop for many American and Mexican western movies.
Two men enter the ring cradling their roosters, who have a single hooked blade attached to a leg. It doesn’t appear to matter whether the blade is on the right or left. The men place their champions on the ground and hold their tail feathers, forcing them to run on the spot. A third rooster is brought out and both champions are invited to have a few pecks at it to finish the warm-up. As the owners ready their fighters, wagers are shouted across the ring.
The roosters are placed facing one another in the centre and when the word is given and the owners let go, they charge one another and meld into a single flurry of feathers and talons, bouncing around the ring up to a metre from the ground in the frantic initial burst. There is only the sound of furiously flapping wings and murmured comments from the crowd.
A white-crested rooster looks dominant at first, and before long the other has collapsed, panting. A word from the referee sends the owners in to grab their animals. Blood runs down the talons of both roosters, though the flow is much heavier from brown-crest, who appears to be losing. His owner sucks blood from a wound in his back, spitting it into the ring. Both owners place the entire head of their champions into their mouths to suck them clean of blood, and spit mouthfuls of water or beer in their faces to revive them once more. Another word is given and away they go, slowly now, circling one another, conserving energy and watching for a moment of weakness or an opening invisible to the untrained eye.
Brown-crest pants and bleeds heavier than his opponent, and several times he finds himself on his back, feet in the air, chest heaving as he watches white-crest and waits for the final blow. White-crest prefers to hang back and strut, letting the owners approach to clean them off once more. Brown-crest scurries under a fresh attack, but the crowd rallies behind him when he retaliates and goes after white-crest, slashing frantically. He seems to know the end is close.
White-crest tries to finish it
Brown-crest turns the tables
This goes on for some time, until brown-crest can barely hold his feet and even white-crest is breathing hard. Brown-crest finds himself on his back once more, but white-crest can’t summon the energy to finish him so the two are placed facing one another one last time. The crowd rumbles. As brown-crest’s owner takes his hand from beneath his champion’s throat, the rooster’s heaving sides go still and his head slowly topples forward, beak-first into the dust. There’s a few more jeers and money starts changing hands while the owners carry their champions from the ring, one dripping blood from the head and swinging from a hand, the other cradled in his owner’s arms. This is how every cockfight ends. “Hasta la muerte” – “until death” – is a phrase I hear all afternoon, from drunks sipping plastic bottles and proud cowboys in high-heeled boots.
Towards the back of the lot I meet Ramiro, a serious-looking man in a big black hat. His boots and belt buckle aren’t as flashy or gaudy as those of his companions, and he exudes a quiet confidence. He stands surrounded by his wife, young son and a few friends, all sporting the vests and jeans not too dissimilar from the no-nonsense dress sense of rural Australia. Ramiro doesn’t speak often and when he does it’s in a half-mumble, but those around him are unfailingly attentive.
“At the moment we’ve got ten roosters, but only two fight today. One already played,” he says.
How’d it go? I ask.
“Ya ganó,” – “It won” – he replies dryly. His face and tone are unreadable. “Now we’re looking for another rooster that weighs 2.5 kilograms, the same as this one here, so they can fight.”
Ramiro has been entering his roosters into the fights for ten years, but in a small town like Chupaderos there isn’t too much money to be made. He earns a living selling cattle off his ranch, named “La Morena,” and judging by the quality of the clothes his family wears, he’s pretty good at it.
“I feel confident with this one,” he says, gesturing to the white-feathered bird strutting and crowing arrogantly in it’s cage. “It’s already won six times here.”
A boy arrives to inform Ramiro that a second rooster has been found weighing two-and-a-half kilograms, and the rancher gives a word of approval. When the boy disappears he explains that he trains the roosters only by holding the tail and having them run on the spot, so as to build leg muscles.
“That’s all you have to do. It’s natural that they fight one another, you just have to put them in the ring and they go for it.”
He prepares his roosters with meals full of vitamins in the days before a fight, and makes sure they arrive well-rested. Afterwards, a victorious rooster has his wounds stitched and within two weeks he is ready to fight once more.
Just two weeks? I repeat and he nods.
“They’re strong animals and it doesn’t take them long to heal.”
Ramiro is well known in Chupaderos, and he spends the next half-hour peering over the crowds to watch the fights, talking to friends and, finally, attaching a blade to his white-feathered champion’s left ankle.
You can tell this is a premium fight when he and his rooster finally step into the ring. Both Ramiro and the other owner have their own birds with which to warm up the fighters, rather than some random other’s. They wait a lot longer for the bets and wagers to die down, letting the stakes rise and rise until both are satisfied.
Letting the bets roll in.
At first, Ramiro’s champion looks far stronger, and draws a lot of blood from his opponent in the opening bout. However, it’s only about two minutes before the weaker bird gets in a lucky strike at white-feather’s face and with just a few more hits from the beak and blade, Ramiro’s champion lies lifeless in the dust. When he picks it up by the feet and shakes hands with the winner, a stream of blood pours from white-feather’s beak and eyes like a tap that’s been left on.
The first time I see Ramiro smile is when I approach one last time to offer my commiserations for his loss. He and his family wave, say goodbye and wish me a good afternoon. Behind them, white-feather’s legs are stuck into the air as he lies lifeless in the dust.