The first sabong arena I experienced was in a small village on the island of Bohol, where my dad, Hercules “Lee” Castillo, is from. He is a local sabongero, a person who breeds and raises chickens for the purpose of cockfighting. Every Sunday, and often days in between, entire villages gather to watch these animal athletes compete to the death in arenas of blood and sand.

Walking towards the entrance of an arena, I can already sense the commotion of the cockfight. People have come by foot, car, and motorcycle to watch. Outside the arena are women selling concessions ranging from barbecued meat to hardboiled eggs to iced beer, but the food is not the main attraction this Sunday afternoon.

I find mostly men and roosters inside the sabong stadium. In the walkways, handlers prep their gladiators under chicken-wire domes, allowing the cocks to stretch their legs and peck about in preparation for the match. Spectators sit on the wooden bleachers surrounding a fenced-in ring. Men debate upcoming and past bouts as bookies and gamblers signal to each other in esoteric hand gestures that communicate odds and bets placed. Wadded cash flies through the air. Bookies tally the bets in their heads and organize the pesos on their fingers. Before the fight, the sabong arena is utter chaos.

As soon as the cocks square up inside the ring, however, the crowd goes completely silent. Handlers cradle the roosters by their body and introduce the cocks to each other. The bird that pecks first is more aggressive. The handlers make their way to the starting lines and unsheathe the three-inch razor-sharp blades attached to the left leg of the combatants. They then drop the roosters and back away.

The smarter gamecocks hold position while the less experienced thrust into battle. Nonetheless, it is the more athletic and dexterous rooster that survives the longest. The highest jumpers are the deadliest, as their counterattacks come from indefensible angles. Like at a tennis match, the audience watches intently without a word, save for an occasional ooh and ahh after an exceptional exchange. To the untrained eye, a fight looks like a blur of feathers and ends when one of the cocks can no longer stand, or when its blood and intestines are splattered on the sand. Only then does the audience resume making noise, as the winners cheer and the losers grumble.

The team medic promptly attends to the winning fighter, while the losing handlers are left to make a meal out of the losing chicken. Savvy audience members recount every parry and riposte with other enthusiasts.

Sabongeros can win the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in prize money for a tournament this size. Of course, unsanctioned “hack fights” have no cap on betting, but the biggest derbies, or tournaments, are where a sabongero can make a name for himself. Depending on the rules, each sabongero brings three to six roosters to a derby, and the one with the most alive at the end of the day is champion. Sabongeros can win up to $1,000,000 US at the World Slasher Cup, the largest annual tournament in Manila.

Louisiana was the last state to outlaw cockfighting in the US, which meant cockers (English for sabongeros) were still able to fight their roosters in the Bayou State until August 2008. At that time, many sold their chickens for cheap because what was once a hobby became a felony. Seizing the opportunity, my dad bought up plenty of trios (one cock, two hens) with the intention of sending them to the Philippines for breeding.

thumbnail-4

When cockfighting was legal in the US and the economy was strong, a trio from a prized bloodline cost between $4,000 and $5,000. In a trio of chickens, one rooster could mate with two hens, producing a new and virile generation of fighting cocks and hens for the market in just two years.

However, the problem with sending chickens from Texas to the Pacific Islands in August 2008 was the extreme summer heat. Cargo airplanes often double as flying heatstroke machines, so sending fowl to the Philippines can only be done in more temperate months. This meant that my dad had to house his chickens in the backyard of our home in predominantly White suburban Dallas, Texas, next to neighbors who had never so much as smelled livestock.

Female chickens only make loud noises when they’re under stress, so he kept the hens behind the house in impromptu coops. Contrary to popular belief, roosters don’t only crow when the sun comes up; they crow in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and late at night. Therefore, he had to sequester the cocks to the laundry room and hope that my mom and the neighbors wouldn’t complain too much. The neighbors never said a word and my parents enjoyed fresh eggs from well-bred chickens until the Postal Service again allowed the transportation of live animals.

The hurdles don’t end when the cargo planes leave the United States. Due to the popularity of cockfighting in the Philippines, an unattended chicken is liable to be stolen, especially if a rival sabongero catches wind that a champion bloodline is coming from overseas. From flight, to transport, to life on the farm, a chicken is always under the threat of theft.

Unlike chickens in a poultry factory farm, a gamecock lives a life of luxury up until a fight. The fowl eat top-grade food full of protein and are regularly given vitamins, antibiotics, and baths to stave off disease and infection. After all, only healthy chickens can fight. When a winning cock recovers from a bout, its reward is a conjugal visit from a few select hens—an opportunity to sire progeny.

When a cock is chosen for a bout, the trainer begins a strict regimen three weeks before the fight, much like a boxer prepares for a match. The trainer monitors food intake, exposes the chicken to different environments, and runs it through various exercises. In order to stay alert, it’s important that the gamecocks experience different stimuli before the fight.

These chickens are bred and trained to be killers. Without the sabong games their gladiator bloodlines lose purpose, as their makeup is the product of many generations of fighting cocks.

In this case, as a Filipino-American, how do you justify the customs of your culture? Is it acceptable to espouse the traditions of your parents if the society in which you live condemns them?

People who have grown up in a bi-cultural environment tend to diverge in one of two directions: more towards the dominant culture, or more towards their cultural heritage. As the son of immigrants, I am full of complex feelings. My American side prevents me from considering raising gamecocks as a career, but I refuse to vilify a sport that helps define my culture and my family. And while I am proud of my father for being a well-known and respected sabongero, it is still a brutal sport that American society frowns upon.

My father has always preferred breeding gamecocks to fighting them. When one of his fighters enters the ring, his blood pressure rises as he debates waiting in the hall until the bout is finished. My father does not seek glory in the sabong arena; he prefers raising fighting chickens on the farm, where he can really admire their beauty.