Code Switch

In Puerto Rico, The Days Of Legal Cockfighting Are Numbered


From left, José Yadiel Torres, 10, Lizmary Rivera, 29, José Torres, 38, and twins Janniela and Jamiléth Torres, 9, pose for a family portrait in their house in Utuado. The rooster, the family's most prized bird, is named Matatoro.
Erika P. Rodrí­guez for NPR

From left, José Yadiel Torres, 10, Lizmary Rivera, 29, José Torres, 38, and twins Janniela and Jamiléth Torres, 9, pose for a family portrait in their house in Utuado. The rooster, the family's most prized bird, is named Matatoro.

Nobody knows exactly how many fighting roosters there are in Puerto Rico. The breeders who raise them for cockfights say at least half a million. Two hundred and fifty of those live in neatly lined cages in José Torres' backyard in the mountain town of Utuado, and should the police show up to take them when cockfighting is banned at the end of this year, he has no plans to give them up.

"I already told my wife and I told my mother," Torres said, "that anyone who comes and tries to take one of my roosters will have to kill me first. And I'm not the only one. There are thousands of us."

In the rural mountains of central Puerto Rico, cockfighting is culture. It took root during Spanish colonial times. It survived a three-decade prohibition imposed by the United States in the early 20th century. And though the recession that has hollowed out the island's rural towns for the last decade has also taken its toll on cockfighting, the practice has persisted in dozens of family-run arenas across the island, a pastime and livelihood for thousands of families.

But now legal cockfighting on the island is in its death throes. After years of lobbying, animal rights advocates in the U.S. last December convinced Congress to ban the blood sport in U.S. territories, the last places under federal jurisdiction where it is still allowed.

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People like José Torres, who raises and trains other people's roosters for fights, will see their livelihoods vanish.

"I'm a sixth-generation cockfighter," Torres said. "This is how I support my family. But I also inherited this. I was going to pass this onto my children."

The ban takes effect Dec. 20, and in recession-weary Puerto Rico, few people doubt that the end of regulated cockfighting will drive more families into poverty. Many cockfighters expect to leave the island altogether, joining the hundreds of thousands who in recent years have fled Puerto Rico's economic turmoil and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

"Cockfighting is a multi-million-dollar industry," said Gerardo Mora, the Puerto Rican government official who regulates the island's 64 licensed cockfighting arenas. "Breeders, trainers, veterinarians, grain distributors, medication, spurs, cages. So it's lamentable that people who don't understand Puerto Rico's idiosyncrasies would, in the name of benevolence, make unjust decisions to eliminate our national sport."

The federal effort to eradicate cockfighting on the island will be a tall order. Many Puerto Ricans, including some elected officials, have vowed to defy the ban, calling it an attack on Puerto Rican culture. Across the island, cockfighters are preparing to take the sport underground. And like José Torres, many say they're prepared to defend their roosters with their lives, raising the specter of violent standoffs.

Considering cockfighting's cultural and economic importance, Mora said it's no surprise – in fact, it's fitting — that cockfighters would be willing to defend their roosters with their blood.

"Without a doubt, there will be conflict," he said. "Such is the pride of Puerto Rico's cockfighters."

'Cruelty is not culture'

While the island's flashiest cockfighting arenas are in big cities like San Juan, more typical are the ones like the Gallera Borinquén in the municipality of Arecibo, said to be among Puerto Rico's oldest. It's a squat rectangular building tucked off a road that winds through Puerto Rico's inland mountains. By 2 p.m. on a Saturday, the grassy lot is filled with cars, and the cacophony of crowing roosters fills the air.

Inside, fighters line up to register and weigh their birds, and then roam the room in search of a willing opponent. They use hot glue to affix their roosters' feet with plastic spurs for piercing their rivals' flesh. A judge administers a quick test for illegal substances.

The spectators – mostly men – settle into the seats encircling the ring. Some shout across the room to place bets with others in the audience. The sound of a buzzer announces the first match, and the two birds are released into the pit.

The first fight lasts only a few seconds. In the initial thrashing of beaks and feet, the plastic spike on one of the birds' legs impales its opponent's brain, killing it quickly. But on this Saturday, the ringside judge ends most of the matches when one of the roosters, punctured and bloody and bruised, simply can't muster the energy to keep fighting.

José Torres is here, and he's brought his 10-year-old son, José Yadiel, who spends his time asking the owners of vanquished birds whether, rather than put them down, he can take them home.

"If they can be healed, we should try to heal them," Torres said. "You can't lose your affection for a rooster just because he lost a fight."

He said such respect for the animal and for your opponents, regardless of a fight's outcome, is why many cockfighters refer to their pastime as the "gentleman's sport."

But Kitty Block, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, the group that lobbied Congress to extend the cockfighting ban to Puerto Rico, said tossing animals into a ring to tear each other apart is anything but gentlemanly.

"Cruelty is not culture. And it's important to look at what it is, and what it's doing to the animals," Block said. "These are birds that are armed with weapons, and they slash eyes out, and it's just a brutal blood sport that should've gone a long time ago."

The ban, inserted into last year's federal farm bill, has been a long-sought goal of the Humane Society's — the culmination of broader efforts to bring an end to all spectator sports that pit animals against each other.

Block said the fact that many Puerto Ricans make a living off cockfighting did not justify its practice.

At the Gallera Borinquén, most cockfighters shake their heads in frustration over such concerns.

"These roosters are born to fight, they're bred for this, it's in their genes," said Luis Ángel del Valle. "What's cruel is what these people are doing to us."

Like many here, del Valle sees the ban through the lens of the U.S. government's long history of cultural imposition on Puerto Rico, beginning with the first time it banned cockfighting on the island in 1899, a year after invading it during the Spanish-American War. That ban lasted 34 years. When del Valle heard that this latest ban had passed last December, he thought of his grandfather, who used to ride his mule across the island attending cockfights.

"He used to tell me about these senators who would come from the United States and visit the poor areas of Puerto Rico and thought they had all the answers," del Valle said. "They were sharp. They knew how to get what they wanted. Now they're here again, trying to take cockfighting away from us, and we aren't going to let them. Like our roosters, we're going to fight to the end."

'People have mixed feelings'

After Governor Robert Gore, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, signed a bill allowing regulated cockfighting to resume in 1933, the sport flourished for most of the twentieth century. But for the better part of this century, it's been in decline.

In 1985, a million and a half people attended cockfights at 132 licensed arenas, according to island government figures. For the next 20 years annual attendance hovered at around a million. The dip began in 2005, just as Puerto Rico's economy began to crash and hundreds of thousands of people — mostly from the island's rural, mountainous interior, where cockfighting is most popular – began leaving for the United States. By 2016, annual attendance had fallen to just 330,000 at the 83 licensed arenas that remained. And that was before Hurricane Maria, which destroyed another 20.

Despite this, the island's cockfighters remain a politically potent force. Not a single local politician openly opposes cockfighting, nor are there local citizen movements against it.

Juan Llanes Santos, a historian who's tried to get some of the island's cockfighting arenas listed as historic places, said the reason there isn't more organized opposition to cockfighting is partly rooted in Puerto Rico's political situation.

As a U.S. territory, it has no voting representation in Congress, nor can its residents vote for president. As a result, many people call it the world's oldest colony.

"So people have mixed feelings," Llanes said, "they may not like the sport, but on the other hand they object to outsiders dictating what cultural practices we can engage in. It's about being able to define Puerto Rican identity for ourselves."

'They'll have to do it alone!'

In late January, six weeks after the congressional ban was approved, close to 2,000 cockfighters descended on the capital, San Juan. As they marched to the capitol building, many hoisted roosters into the air.

What, they demanded to know, were the island's legislators going to do to save cockfighting?

Few of the local politicians who took turns climbing into the bed of the pickup truck leading the protesters through the streets could offer much more than vociferous solidarity. But when San Juan's mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, took her turn, she made the crowd roar.

"Here in San Juan," the mayor bellowed, "no city police officer, no city employee will intervene to stop a cockfight. If federal agents want to, they'll have to do it alone!"

She said San Juan's city council had already adopted a policy to that effect, and that mayors from across the island were calling her requesting the language so they could draft similar ordinances.

"This is not about politics!" Yulín cried. "This is about defending our culture, and our sport!"

In the months that followed, some politicians, including, most recently, Governor Wanda Vázquez, signed onto a lawsuit that leaders of the cockfighting industry filed challenging the ban in federal court.

In an effort to prevent more of Puerto Rico's cockfighting arenas from falling victim to abandonment and disrepair, over the summer the island's lawmakers passed a bill giving the buildings' owners the option to convert them into gambling halls.

In June, the president of Puerto Rico's Senate spent $36,000 to have a bronze sculpture of a crowing rooster installed on the lawn of the capitol building.

And for months, Gerardo Mora, the island's cockfighting regulator, has been attending cockfights to urge people who make a living off the sport to begin making other plans.

"Federal law supersedes local law," he tells them, "and as much as I'd like to override that, I can't."

'It's the pride'

Ban or no ban, Johnny Ríos has no intention of ever quitting.

Such is his passion for cockfighting that his left arm sports a tattoo of a gamecock encircled by the words "tradition" and "culture." Such is his passion that on his wedding day, he left his bride at the reception and went to the fights. Such is his passion that during the 40 years he lived in New York, he said, he kept roosters in the closet of his Brooklyn apartment. He was arrested for illegal cockfighting dozens of times, but that never stopped him.

"You think that if I did it in New York, that now that I'm in my home country, and this is a big part of our culture, that I'm going to stop?" he asked. "Because whitey over there put in this law? It's not going to happen. All they see is two birds fighting. But it's not just two birds fighting. It's the economy. It's the pride. It's our culture."

While it's still unclear how quickly authorities will begin enforcing the prohibition, or which agencies will take charge doing so, in the weeks leading up to December's ban some bird owners on the island have started putting their birds in to fight at a more urgent pace. Or they're shipping them to the Dominican Republic, where cockfighting is legal.

But not Ríos. Rather than liquidate, he's holding steady, and continuing to breed roosters.

Ríos says he plans to go underground.

"Most of the cockfighters are going to continue fighting," he said. "They're just going to do it illegally."

In his estimation there are already more illegal cockfighting venues in Puerto Rico than licensed ones. The federal ban will only create more, he said. In fact, he's already found sites for two of his own.

One is a house that lost its roof to Hurricane Maria, deep in the mountains not far from his own house. A gate protects the entrance to the long narrow road that leads up to it.

The owner, a friend, agreed to rent him the damaged house for the fights.

"We're going to have somebody at the gate with a walkie-talkie to let us know if the cops come," Ríos said, standing outside the gate. "But nobody should bother us up here."

Abandoning a way of life

While the thought of abandoning the vocation that has sustained his family for six generations is painful, José Torres said he has no choice.

"I don't endorse clandestine fights," he said. "I can't get arrested. I have three children to support."

Torres hopes the federal lawsuit challenging the cockfighting ban will buy Puerto Rico's cockfighters a little more time. But in case it doesn't, he's making plans to leave Puerto Rico, to find work in the United States and send the money back to his wife and children.

"There's nothing else for me here," he said, "with the way Puerto Rico's economy is."

He said he still doesn't know where he'll go. Maybe Florida. In the weeks ahead, he's going to fight as many of his roosters as he can. And to figure out what to do with the rest. Anything but turn them over to authorities.

"We'll have to eat them. Or give them away," he said. "We can't set them free. They'll kill each other."

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