Cockfigthing In Puerto Rico

In 2012 I pitched a story to Vice about cockfighting in Puerto Rico that centered around the upcoming election, Puerto Rican sovereignty and how the US government receives federal tax dollars from legal cock fighting. My editor at Vice was into it and sent me and my friend Brendan Sullivan to Puerto Rico for a few days. Brendan was primarily a travel writer at the time and had a lot of contacts in Puerto Rico and fortunately speaks way better Spanish than I do so he was the perfect partner. We returned to with a ton of great stuff but my editor had mostly transitioned into working for the Vice HBO show and was dealing with some personal stuff in his life and stopped responding to emails. After months had passed I reached out to his boss and they offered to publish the story online at a rate of less than half of what we spent on the trip. I was heartbroken and we turned down the offer thinking we could find somewhere else to publish our story, but it never happened. 

Seven years later my friend, the Skid Row documentarian, Suitcase Joe reached out to me about being in a photography show he was doing. He wanted a bunch of my more edgy photos because the theme was “Outsiders” in photography. I think he wanted a mix of my stuff, but I told him I had all these cockfighitng photos that no one had ever seen and he was really into the idea. So on April 20th, in Los Angeles, I will be showing these cockfighing photos at House of Machines gallery. Suitcase Joe is an amazing photographer and there are a bunch of great artists in the show, so I am glad to be part of it. I am not actually going to be in LA for the show, but I really wish I could make it. 

So today, many, many years after I took these photos I wanted to show you all of these photos. Given that my gallery system is barely functional and there are nearly 500 photos in this edit, I doubt any of you will make a dent in looking at all of these photos, but I just needed to get them up and tell you a little about this amazing trip.

On the first day of our trip we went to Bayamon to a huge legal cockfighting arena called Gallera Las Palmas. We had heard stories of drug dealers shooting people there and some of the locals we met tried to freak us out about the place, but everyone was super nice and willing to talk to us. The actual cockfighting was pretty brutal and the smell of blood and chickenshit is something I will never forget. At one point we saw a guy who lost take his chicken and spin it around, breaking its neck and tossed it in a trashcan. 

From there we went into the center of the island to Coliseo Gallistico Don Alonso in Utuado. This was also a legal cockfighing arena, but very rural and a very different vibe than in the city. Once again everyone was super willing to talk to us and show off their prize birds. Because we came early in the season, the fights at Don Alonso weren’t to the death. The cocks were young and still training and wore little boxing gloves on their spurs called “botas”. The cocks can still peck at each other, but they don’t really hurt themselves and scoring is determined by how many hits the birds get, very much like boxing. No one gambles on these fights and the only money that exchanges hands are to the arena to enter the cocks in these training matches. 

At this point I should probably give you a little more info about cockfighting in general, I mean I probably should have done that two paragraphs ago, but here we are. Cockfighting is called “the gentleman’s game” because all bets are made during the matches from person to person. The arena just accepts entry fees and sells tickets and concessions, all the betting is person to person. The other thing we should talk about is the spurs. I think the standard thinking about cockfighting is that the tiny knives they strap to the legs of the birds are to make the fights more lethal, but that’s not the case. Spurs grow naturally on fighting cocks and they are used to kill any other cock that tries to go near their hens. These birds love to fight and they love to kill. It’s not like dog fighting where you have to train the dogs to attack. These birds are born for it. The attached spurs are actually just to make the fight fair. They don’t want people sharpening or adding poison to the spurs so if everyone files the spurs down and agrees to use the same plastic spurs the fights are more about the bird’s athleticism than their tiny daggers.

After watching a series of fights at Don Alonso we traveled deeper into the island to find an illegal or “clandestino” match. It was pouring rain and we were driving up these crazy winding roads in the mountains and there would just be wild animals around every turn. We ended up El Barrio la Pica, Jayuya, a town where most of the residents are either incarcerated in, or work at the prison there. While the fight was technically illegal, the mayor of the town actually let the organizers use a local basketball court for the fight as long as all the entry fees went to a charity. It was a pretty amazing scene with kids and dogs running around while the adults surrounded this tiny ring cheering on the young bota wearing cocks.

On our final day on the Island we went to a farm where they breed fighting cocks. The owner of the farm put a baby chick in Brendan’s hands and told us that he was “born to kill”. Given their nature is to fight, most of the training involves high perches where the cocks have to jump up to reach. Training them to jump is the biggest part of the training because they need to be able to out jump the other bird and land spurs first on their opponent. They also keep older cocks and there are two reasons for this, the first is that it keeps the birds agitated knowing that there is a threat around, but they also make for good sparring partners. They will but botas on the birds and tape their beaks shut and let them battle so that the young birds learn to fight against a much tougher opponent without getting hurt.

Cockfighing is honeslty a beautiful sport. The birds look so incredible while fighting and the sportsmanship around the betting is admirable. That being said, the death of the cocks seem completely needless. Male chicks are inedible killed anyway, but I am not sure our continental sensibility would allow cockfighing to thrive here, if it was somehow made illegal again. But I could see a lot more people coming around to it if they always fought with botas. But the brutality of a cockfight to the death is something I have no interest in seeing ever again. Even the guides we hired as translators/ security were revolted by the fights. They hated the sport and thought that even though it was a part of their culture they had no interest in having anything to do with it. 

Anyway, I hope you guys take a look at this gallery even though it’s over 450 images. I am really proud of this stuff and I hope someone actually looks at it. Plus if you make it to the end there are a bunch of adorable chicks. And if you are in LA, please check out the show on Saturday! There are some 35mm images from the trip that are in this show that aren’t in the gallery. 

Any money I make selling this work will be donated to Habitat for Humanity in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico isn’t close to rebuilt after Hurricane Maria and needs more help. Jayuya was badly damaged and in great need because of the same small roads we drove up making it much harder to get them the help they needed. You can donate to Habitat for Humanity PR here. 

Lastly, as you might expect there are some dead and bloody birds in this gallery, so if you are sensitive to any of that you probably don’t want to go through the photos, but then again if that’s the case you probably haven’t even read this far down so I guess we probably don’t need the warning.

Now click here to see the photos from our trip to Puerto Rico to document cockfighitng way back in 2012.

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico 

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

Cockfighting In Puerto Rico

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