The roosters barrel across the dirt. They take flight, collide in midair, tangle, fall, break free, charge again. It is often difficult for the untrained eye to perceive an advantage, even to spot the flashes of steel. Wings and legs and beaks blur together, like chickens in a blender, spinning, flapping, thrashing, spitting out specks of feather and blood.
Miguel crouches, studious, a gold virgin dangling from his neck. Pepe kicks and hollers.
"I took the whole thing like, 'What the hell,' you know, basically meaningless," Tony would say later. "But Pepe, that little punk--he was taking it like a $1,000 fight."
During one dizzying swirl, the knives get stuck. The roosters flop to the ground, joined and helpless. Pepe and Miguel pull the animals apart, gingerly extracting the blades from their flesh, before setting them back down to finish each other off.
Cockfighting became a crime here in 1905, when lawmakers for California's newly entrenched Anglo population decided the Mexican pastimes of the day, including bullfighting and bearbaiting, could no longer be tolerated. Mexican cockfighters have been getting rousted ever since: in the L.A. river bed in the '20s, in an Eastside colonia in the '40s, in a Torrance tomato field in the '50s. Armed with a tip that a mammoth derby was underway, sheriff's deputies stormed the American Legion stadium in Montebello on July 4, 1938; instead, they found an indignant crowd of 4,000 Latinos celebrating Independence Day with fandangos and mariachis.
This dance--cop and cockfighter, crime and culture--may have reached its apex a few years ago in Compton, not far from Tony's old feed store. Although the city is renowned as a seat of African American political clout and a beacon of gangsta rap, its population has swung from predominantly black to majority Latino over the last decade. In the process, it became the front lines of L.A.'s rooster wars.
Among the earliest Compton galleros, if not the first, was Emilio Becerra, a 69-year-old butcher from Jalisco whose left middle finger is paralyzed, pierced by one of his own birds. In 1985, he stumbled upon Richland Farms, a 10-square-block remnant of Compton's rural past, where horses still roam the sidewalk-less streets. Encouraged by a zoning code that placed no restrictions on poultry, he invested in an elaborate corral: 60 individual wooden huts, painted red and white, in a courtyard landscaped with roses and bougainvillea. "If I was told I couldn't fight roosters anymore, I'd die the next day," says Becerra, who spends one month at his Lennox meat market, then the next on Mexico's palenque circuit, a life that Miguel can only dream of.
Not long after arriving in Richland Farms, Becerra shared his discovery with yet another Jalisco-born butcher, Francisco Ruiz, who owns carnicerias across L.A. Ruiz bought a house on the next street over, constructing an even more impressive corral--with a walled perimeter, which he proceeded to paint with portraits of roosters. "It was like a mark, a symbol of the Mexican invasion in Compton," says Abreu, the game fowl lobbyist, whose organization would later help defend the two men.
Because of them, the Compton City Council changed its municipal code, restricting the number of roosters in Richland Farms to six per resident. The cops then raided Becerra, as well as his neighboring gamecock owners, almost all of Mexican descent. But they seemed to reserve a special animosity for Ruiz. Four times between 1991 and 1993, Compton police and L.A. County animal control officers descended on his place. They threw him in a squad car. They condemned his corral and cited him for intent, a tricky allegation to prove without a fight in progress. Each time, the charges were dropped.
Animal-rights activists would like to see cockfighting upgraded to a felony in California, as it is in 19 other states, making enforcement a higher priority. But the last time the Legislature tried that, in 1990, Abreu successfully fought the bill, arguing that such a crackdown would be "more about suppressing a culture than protecting an animal."
During one of the four raids on Ruiz's corral, Compton officers carted off his roosters. A Municipal Court judge gave them back. A year later, the officers seized his roosters again. The judge once more ordered them returned. This time it was too late. The animals, 80 of them, already had been euthanized.
"Can you imagine? They killed my gallos!" says Ruiz, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Compton in 1994. He contended that officers singled him out because he was Mexican. The city denied the claim but paid him an undisclosed sum.
For another minute, maybe two, the fight continues. The roosters lunge, slice, spin, tumble, condemned by their own tenacity. Each is bloody, faltering. But Pepe's bird, even with its chipped beak, has given out better than it has taken. It drives one last peck into the head of the half-blind giro, slumped on the ground.