Living on Guam for almost 15 years, I have finally fulfilled my long desire to visit the cockpit in Dededo, compelled to understand cockfighting for our December cover story. Surrounded by Filipino sabungeros (gamecock owners and bettors) and kristos (bet takers), I felt at home. Itfelt nostalgic.
My recent visit to Dededo Game Club summoned up childhood memories. It brought back to my mind the image of my late grandfather, holding his favorite gamecock on his lap, gently stroking its bright-colored feathers – black, red and orange-brown. He called it Hari ng Sabungan (King of the Cockpit), which suited its well-defined crown and majestic posture. I remember him throwing a fit when a neighbor said in jest, “It looks delicious with ginger and papaya.” Everyone knew not to ever crack that joke on a cockfighter. “Go to hell, you *#%$^%$#@!,” my grandfather told the wisecracker.
Growing up in the Philippines, I watched cockfights. I remember the fluttering and flapping of the wings, the fury of mutual assaults and boisterous cheering of the men. I understood little of the sport — the defeated one would wind up in the pot. Tinola or arroz caldo. “Your lolo’s rooster lost, we win,” my grandmother would say while seasoning the fallen king. I didn’t care for rooster meat though. It’s tough — difficult to masticate — in contrast to the tenderness of the female chicken.
In the old days, cockfighting was a guiltless sport. The sabungero would mourn the fatal defeat of his bird but the world then didn’t have moral crisis or make legal impositions on this centuries-old tradition involving the contest of might between feathered gladiators. We live in a different world now, where self-appointed guardians of the human conduct continue to expand the list of things people ought not to say or do, such as pitting animals against one another.
Cockfighting is illegal in 50 states. Last month, Republican Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress, proposing a ban on cockfighting in American territories. Behind the bill is The Humane Society of the United States. “Dogfighting and cockfighting are barbaric practices, more widely criminalized than any other form of animal cruelty in the world, and the prohibitions should apply to every part of the country. The United States shouldn’t have one set of rules against animal cruelty for all 50 states and a different set of rules for U.S. territories,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society.
In previous statements, the Humane Society claimed cockfighting was associated with “gambling, drug dealing, illegal gun sales and murder.” Zealots sound insane when they overstretch their arguments. Focusing on the “cruelty to animals” aspect of the discussion can be easier to tackle, yet easy to dismiss for its inherent hypocrisy.
“Kalokohan yan (That’s a lot of nonsense),” a bet caller said of the proposed cockfighting ban. “People are generally cruel to animals; we eat them. We are on top of the food chain; that’s just the nature of things.”
But that’s beside the point. Cockfighting is a revered tradition in this part of the world. It comes with tales, legends and family histories. “Cockfighting has important cultural significance and a long history for the people of Guam,” Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo said. “I believe regulations on this issue should be enacted at the local level and share concerns that this bill would infringe on local laws and policies.”
CNMI Delegate Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan agrees. “Federal law already bars the interstate shipment of fighting cocks, which is a legitimate exercise of federal authority. But cockfighting that is strictly confined to the Marianas, [that] stays within our borders and involves no federal interests, should remain a matter for local decision makers.”
Outlawing it would not make it go away; it would only be driven underground.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” the bet caller said.
Mar-Vic Cagurangan is the publisher of Pacific Island Times