Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

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Overview

Like two roosters in a fighting arena, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are encircled by barriers of geography and poverty. They co-inhabit the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but their histories are as deeply divided as their cultures: one French-speaking and black, one Spanish-speaking and mulatto. Yet, despite their antagonism, the two countries share a national symbol in the rooster—and a fundamental activity and favorite sport in the cockfight. In this book, Michele Wucker asks: "If the symbols that dominate a culture accurately express a nation's character, what kind of a country draws so heavily on images of cockfighting and roosters, birds bred to be aggressive? What does it mean when not one but two countries that are neighbors choose these symbols? Why do the cocks fight, and why do humans watch and glorify them?"

Wucker studies the cockfight ritual in considerable detail, focusing as much on the customs and histories of these two nations as on their contemporary lifestyles and politics. Her well-cited and comprehensive volume also explores the relations of each nation toward the United States, which twice invaded both Haiti (in 1915 and 1994) and the Dominican Republic (in 1916 and 1965) during the twentieth century. Just as the owners of gamecocks contrive battles between their birds as a way of playing out human conflicts, Wucker argues, Haitian and Dominican leaders often stir up nationalist disputes and exaggerate their cultural and racial differences as a way of deflecting other kinds of turmoil. Thus Why the Cocks Fight highlights the factors in Caribbean history that still affect Hispaniola today, including the often contradictory policies of the U.S.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A complex exploration of the cultural divide between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Wucker . . . weaves together five centuries of tragic conflict with a subtle picture of the island today."—Patrick Markee, The New York Times Book Review

"A richly textured social history of Hispaniola . . . . A powerful cultural analysis."—Kirkus Reviews

"Impeccably researched history made current and more meaningful by first rate reporting."—Barbara Fischkin, author of Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America

"A delightful yet disturbingly relevant book . . . The economic, political and geographical struggles vividly occurring on Hispaniola are a microcosm of what happens all over the world."—Michael Hopkins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Wucker peels away layers of history and culture, revealing aspects of Dominican and Haitian culture few have described so clearly. Well crafted, lucidly told, and full of insight.."—Rob Ruck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A rich cultural history."—Ken Moore, Naples Daily News

Booknews
Explores the reasons for the perpetual conflict between the two nations--one black and French-speaking, the other mulatto and Spanish-speaking--that share the Caribbean island. Portrays leaders of both nations stirring up hostilities for their own ends, economic exploitation, massacres, and other events and conditions. Also looks at how the conflict continues among the communities in the US and at regional forces that influence the situation. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Patrick Markee
...[A] complex exploration of the cultural divide between Haiti and the Dominical Republic....[W]eaves together five centuries of tragic conflict with a subtle picture of the island [of Hispaniola] today....The book's closing scene is...a glimpse of the future...when...Hispaniola's history unfolds in a more hopeful way.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Wucker's first book is a richly textured social history of Hispaniola. Wucker, a freelance writer specializing in Caribbean affairs, unveils the seemingly chaotic yet ritualistic world of the Dominicans and Haitians. Her approach is historical but not chronological, moving back and forth from the time of Columbus to the 20th century and through the intervening years to emphasize recurring themes rather than a linear story. In the process, we move from one strongman and atrocity to another, e.g., conquering Spaniards complain about the noisiness of natives when they are punished by being roasted alive; Trujillo massacres at least 15,000 Haitians residing within the Dominican Republic in 1937; and the Duvaliers arrogantly loot their own country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Prejudices between Dominicans and Haitians, extreme differences in wealth, and a history of heavy-handed foreign intervention make Hispaniola a powder keg, yet the definitive explosion never occurs. For Wucker the explanation lies more in space than time; two nations share one island in a perpetual turf war paralleling the popular pastime of its residents, the cockfight. She argues that the cockfight is a symbol "of both division and community," a combat which occurs within strict rules accepted by all as social norms. We are simultaneously horrified and fascinated because it presents an ugliness within ourselves, the natural aggression that emerges when one's territory is threatened. For humans the contested space is more complex than the closed ring of the cocks-"it can be physical, economic, emotional, or cultural"-and the island's geographic limits intensify the struggle. While the metaphor is suggestive,however, the cockfight is designed to pit equal combatants against each other, and among humans equality is in short supply on Hispaniola. Perhaps this explains why the victorious cock brings glory to his owner, yet the victors in the human competition have hardly been inspiring. A powerful cultural analysis.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809097135
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/3/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 324
  • Sales rank: 420,006
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 8.89 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Michele Wucker, born in 1969, is a freelance writer who reports regularly on Caribbean affairs for both Dominican and North American papers. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Author's Note
Map of Hispaniola
1 Roosters 3
2 The Massacre River 27
3 The Land Columbus Loved Best 60
4 Life on the Batey 93
5 Bitter Sugar 115
6 The Cockfight 141
7 The Old Man 170
8 Across the Water 199
9 The Other Side 230
Glossary 253
Bibliography 261
Index 275
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First Chapter

Chapter One


Roosters


What the cockfight says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment--the
thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. Yet what it
says is not merely that risk is exciting, loss depressing, or triumph
gratifying, but that it is of these emotions, thus exampled, that society
is built and individuals put together.


--Clifford Geertz
"Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight"


    Dangling his dead rooster by its feet, a grizzled cockfighter shuffles out the gate of the Manoguayabo cockfighting club through the parking lot, past a row of obsolete but still working hulks of cars, decrepit versions of old Russian models and American gas-guzzlers. He will have a rich stew tonight, the kind of meal to be eaten with savor and sadness at once. A gallero never wants to have to make dinner from one of his own roosters, but when he does, the meat is the best to be had. After all, a fighting cock has been pampered all its life, fed the best food and exercised daily. Veteran cockers say the adrenaline the fight releases into the bird's blood and muscles gives the meat a deep, strong taste.

    It is early in the evening to have to go home so sad, so early that the old crones who lurk around the gallera in hopes of buying the tasty carcass of a fighting rooster have not yet clustered. The rest of the crowd is only just beginning to filter through the gate, where a sign is posted in misspelled letters, PROHIBIDO ENTRAR CON BEVIDAS, warning patrons not to bring in their own drinks. Inside, the cockfighting fans navigate past an army of small motorcycles, pasolas, on the way to the arena. Smoke from a diesel electric generator hangs heavy over the yard. Today, Santo Domingo has suffered a particularly bad bout of blackouts. There has been no electricity from the bankrupt, broken-down government electricity company since before six this morning. It is after five in the afternoon, just past the normal time when the first fights begin.

    Toward the entrance to the ring itself, a dirty cafeteria on the left sells fried plantains and hot dogs. Past the cafeteria, the roosters that have been readied to fight peck impatiently at Plexiglas windows clouded by age and grime. On the near side of the cafeteria, handlers finish preparing birds for the next fight. Seated on rickety, wooden three-legged stools, the men pare the roosters' spurs and tape on artificial ones made of plastic or tortoiseshell. Some use natural spur that has been cut from the legs of special roosters--called quiquí--bred not to fight but to produce these weapons for other birds. The whole process ensures that all birds go into the fight with weapons of the same length. Combat between cocks is set up to be fair and equal, even if real life is not so.

    The slums of Santo Domingo encroach on the countryside in Manoguayabo, this rough barrio on the northwestern edge of the city, and spread past the industrial district of Herrera, all the way to the surrounding sugarcane fields. This is the home of the newest immigrants to the teeming urban capital, coming from rural farms. They wake even before the roosters to catch buses for the long ride to whatever jobs they've managed to swing in town.

    Dominicans call the Manoguayabo cockfighting arena the bajo mundo, the underworld. The term does not mean "clandestine," since fights are legal here. It means "lower-class." Money, politics, and power are reserved for the sparkling Alberto Bonetti Burgos Cockfighting Coliseum, closer to town, where the elite go to watch fights among prize cocks meticulously bred for generations and brought to the Dominican Republic from as far away as Spain or even the Philippines. The legendary San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal fights his roosters at the coliseum.

    The netherworld is the cockfighting milieu of people only recently risen up from the countryside, who bring with them gritty determination and their fighting cocks. The fans here are men who haven't yet made it to the United States. Over three decades a million other Dominicans have left their farms and family to go north "to find a better life," their stock phrase. Among the younger generation, which is heavily exposed to American culture, baseball and basketball are taking over from cockfights. In the countryside it is enough for a man that his rooster wins battles for him. But now, so many Dominicans are major-league-baseball stars: Jorge Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays; Juan Marichal, Ozzie Virgil, and the Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty, and Jesús) of the San Francisco Giants; Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. Young Dominicans dream of becoming baseball stars themselves. Even in the countryside, the poorest Dominican boys practice with bats made of tree branches and balls improvised from the pale-blue plastic caps of giant water bottles.

    In the United States, cockfighting is still seen as a backward sport. Nobody remembers that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fought roosters. The sport is illegal in all states but Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Missouri. In Miami and New York City, cockfights are held quietly, in basements and on hidden farms. They are part of a clandestine world, broken up by police from time to time, certainly not a sport where you can dream of fame and millions in earnings.

    The entrance fee to the Manoguayabo arena is one hundred Dominican pesos, more than a day's pay at minimum wage. Lucas, a wiry cocker who today has left his birds at home and is here just to watch a couple of matches and chat with friends, stops at the door. He removes the ammunition cartridge from his gun and leaves the firearm in a yellow wooden bin that is quickly filling up. Lucas is a retired policeman (he owns a colmado, a convenience store that in Dominican life is also a place where locals hang out, play dominoes, exchange stories), so he could carry the weapon if he wanted to.

    "What do people need to bring guns in here for?" he scoffs. "The roosters are the ones fighting. Carrying arms in here isn't necessary and doesn't make anyone more of a man. If you want to fight, let your rooster win for you." Lucas is one of the few cockers who straddles the bajo mundo and the world of the coliseum, where his skill in training and raising roosters has won him respect.

    His roosters are good enough that he has to worry about their being stolen. Just a few months ago, he lost some of his best birds to a gang of robbers who had been stealing the very best cocks in the Dominican Republic. Before they were caught, the thieves had been smuggling the birds across the border to Haiti. Over there, passions for cockfighting are just as high but the birds, everyone here says with conviction, aren't nearly as good as the Dominican ones. The insult is typical of Dominican sentiment toward Haiti.

    At Manoguayabo, the doormen hurry the newcomers in toward their seats to clear an opening for the men who will set up the next fight. Two burly men stride into the green-carpeted arena, which has a diameter the length of three short men lying head to toe and is ringed by a low concrete wall. Each handler carries a canvas sack extended high in front of him to keep a safe distance from the struggling birds inside. The doorway is just wide enough for one at a time, so the spectators must be rushed out of the way. In the three tiers rising above the arena, there is barely enough space to pass through the aisles on the way to plastic seats not really wide enough even for a man as slim as Lucas. Just as the last of the newly arrived fans settle in, the fight begins.

    Lucas waves to one owner, who is wearing a pink shirt and sitting ringside a few rows ahead and below along the clean yellow wall keeping the birds in. With a confident smile, the man nods back. "I gave him the father of the white rooster," Lucas says. The combatants here are identified in the fight not by their actual color but by the color of the white or blue tape holding their spurs on their legs. The white rooster, in this case actually speckled brown, is old but good. He's lived four years to the blue rooster's two. In the coliseum, where the best birds fight, it is rare to see a fight between cocks of such different ages; in principle, everything at a fight is equal--weight, age, length of feathers, size of spurs. Weighing the experience and bloodlines of the older bird against the stamina of the younger, Lucas is not willing to wager on either one. The odds are too tight.

    The other players think that the white is old and tired and so they bet accordingly, arms and hands flying as they seek partners. Men jump up and wave their arms, holding up fingers to show the odds. "I pay one hundred to twenty" means the gambler gets a hundred pesos if his bird wins but only has to pay twenty if his bird loses. The betting is cacophony, but the players are eloquent in this language. They zero in on a likely partner, make eye contact, flash the bet through shouts and gestures. At the end of the game, they pay promptly. As the match progresses, the odds keep dropping, from seventy to fifty, against the white. But it keeps fighting, on and on, the clock ticking five, ten, fifteen minutes. The young blue can't overcome its older opponent, even after the white bird is blinded and staggers around, lunging by instinct alone.

    All of a sudden there is no light. The fluorescent lights over the ring go dead. Santo Domingo's power has come back on and signaled the generator to stop. Natural light has fallen with the dusk and heavy storm clouds hovering over the club. When the lights return and the ceiling fans jerk back into action, the birds are still pecking and lunging, exhausted but persistent. The fight drags on and on, until the twenty-minute bell rings and the judge calls a draw, called a tabla or empate. The owners take their birds and caress them. The crowd, frustrated, shifts and grumbles. They want a kill, not a slow draw.

    Some of the men (for they are, as usual, mostly men here) pour onto the green floor of the ring and out the entrance while the rest wait and debate in their seats. Like politics on Hispaniola, the cockfight is a male ritual. To be sure, the most enduring Dominican legends of strength and redemption are female: the Mirabal sisters, martyred by the thugs of the dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960 as they returned from visiting their dissident husbands in prison; and the Virgin Mary, who saved the Spanish conquerors from defeat by the Arawak Indians in 1502. In myth as in politics, women are thought of as standing by and supporting, not going into battle.

    At Manoguayabo, only two women sit in the stands, no doubt patient girlfriends. They look bored despite their best efforts. Waitresses circulate around the edge of the arena, where they sell drinks out of aqua plastic trays and collect money in Styrofoam cups. Men blow kisses at one waitress, tall, dressed in a tight black dress with silver hearts spattered across the vest. Her hair is slicked back severely into a ponytail of curls. The gallera is choked with an onslaught of smells: body odor, cheap cologne, rum hot on the breath of the sweaty men crammed together and dangling their arms into the ring.

    After the drinks are served, the handlers reappear, carrying two large blue canvas bags holding the next pair of cocks. They weigh the birds, then shoo the crowd out of the center and begin to taunt the birds, one at a time, with a mona, a third bird used exclusively to agitate the combatants. One handler holds the mona and thrusts it, beak first, into the face of each rooster about to fight. The birds hop into the air and lunge at the mona. The betting begins, a stirring among the spectators around the ring. Men stand up, wave their arms, flash fingers up and down to signal the odds, and shout: "Blanco! Doy! ... Azul! Ochenta a cien!" I'm going for the White! The Blue! Eighty gets a hundred! When the handlers release the cocks, the ruckus dies down and the crowd settles in to watch the fight. This particular combat is uneventful, but only until after it ends.

    As the owners take their birds out of the ring, an uproar ensues. The crowd presses toward the entrance, shouting and shoving. A fight. Policemen appear, stern faced, and drag one man out. Half the crowd gathered at the door rushes out after them. A tall man in white pants extracts himself and paces about the ring, gesticulating wildly. Apparently, he was the other party in the fight. His white pants are smeared with blood, though it's not clear whether it is from the passing rooster or from his own fight. A burly man seated at ring's edge points out the smear, and the tall man curses. His pants are ruined. He stalks out.

    Word of what happened quickly makes its way around the ring. A man refused to make good on a bet, at odds of a thousand pesos to five hundred, which he had lost to the tall man with white pants. The offender has been thrown out, but the winner never got his money. Small consolation that the entire crowd in the club believes the man in the white pants was in the right. The man who failed to keep his word won't be allowed to show his face here again.

    The cockfighter's word of honor, palabra de gallero, guaranteeing players' bets, is not to be breached under any circumstances. Palabra de gallero means you can make a verbal wager with a person across the ring whom you have never met, establish odds, and trust his word. In the cockfighting arena, any breach of the code of honor is serious enough to ban the violator from the arena forever. In this close-knit circle of men, everyone will remember the one who broke his word and violated the brotherhood of the gallera.

    It takes a long time for the next fight to begin but far less for it to end. Before even four minutes pass, the fierce-faced victor, a bald cocolo, drives his spurs through his opponent's eye and into its brain, killing it immediately. The crowd finally has what it wants and breaks into cheers. The cocolo's owner, ecstatic, retrieves his bird, lifts it, and sucks the blood smeared on the crimson head of the cock.


    "In the cockfight, man and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence, and death," the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written of the cockfights he observed in Bali. As an art form, the cockfight focuses on an aspect of life, aggression, and projects it into a theater where it can be more clearly expressed and understood. Instead of resorting primarily to violence among themselves as a way of answering a base human impulse, the participants translate their urges into a drama of appearances, where they cannot harm the observers or participants in reality.

    The cockfight serves the same function in the bajo mundo as it does in the coliseum: it allows men to play out aggression through the struggles of their birds. Emotions are displayed in a cathartic microcosm of human interaction, violence released through the flailing spurs, beaks, and feathers in the ring. The cockfight is a "safe" arena for the cockers. A man may lose a few bucks or suffer a blow to his pride for a few days or weeks, but the roosters fight sometimes to the death.

    Across the island, on the western, Haitian end of Hispaniola, roosters are all over the walls of the labyrinth of alleys that make up Bel Air, a dust-, smoke-, and exhaust-clogged slum that perches on a hill in downtown Port-au-Prince. It is February 1995, five months after a flock of American helicopters and planes escorted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide back from three years of exile in the United States, the nation he once disparagingly called "that big northern country that casts so many long, dark shadows in our hemisphere."

    The residents of Bel Air, in tribute to their returned President, have adorned the walls with paintings of Aristide and his political symbol, the kòk kalite, the champion fighting rooster. The variety of renditions seems endless: stenciled red roosters, alone and within circles, paired next to stenciled black-and-tan depictions of the bespectacled President Aristide; speckled blue-and-red roosters painted in the naive Haitian style; generously plumed roosters bursting with color; crossed American and Haitian flags painted behind a giant, fierce red-and-brown cock. Two brown roosters painted on white cinder block stare each other down across a wall peppered with red-paint splotches that look as if they are meant to depict spatters of blood or bullet holes. A painted Haitian flag, blue on top, red on the bottom, sports a pink-and-blue rooster in the white center instead of the palm tree, cannons, drums, and swords that are on the actual flag. The hand-lettered message below reads, Vox Aristide, Vox Populi, above the name "Bob Marley."

(Continues...)

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