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Cockfighting finally bites the dust in New Mexico

Aficionados blame the ban on an influx of outsiders, but the push had homegrown roots.

March 18, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — As the Legislature wrapped up its regular session, debating tax cuts, the minimum wage and clean energy, one issue stood out for the amount of controversy it generated: cockfighting.

This state was one of only two in the nation to allow the sport, albeit only in counties far from the galleries and restaurants of this capital city. Then Gov. Bill Richardson last week signed a bill to outlaw cockfighting, which has become a symbol of New Mexico's growing cultural divide.

"We're country folks out here, mainly; we don't bother anyone," said Ronnie Barron, who heads the state's game fowl breeders' association and lives in the small southeastern town of Artesia. "Then [animal rights people] come in with their big New York ideas -- we don't want to be like New Yorkers."

Richard Lopez, who holds fights on his farm near Socorro, blamed the ban on the influx of coastal refugees who have snapped up real estate over the last decade. "We have outsiders, who would have you believe that they love New Mexico," he wrote in a letter to his local paper, the Chieftain. "They love what New Mexico has to offer, the sunsets, deserts, skies and open ranges -- but, in turn, they dislike the people and their customs and traditions. They want to change everything to their liking."

The push for change, however, was homegrown.

When Mary Jane Garcia, a legislator from the remote southern town of Dona Ana, took office in 1989, a male colleague suggested she try to ban cockfighting. An animal lover, Garcia introduced a bill to outlaw the sport, which involves attaching razors or other blades to the legs of roosters and making them fight to the death.

The bill was easily defeated, and Garcia soon learned that the ban suggestion was a sort of hazing to which veteran legislators subjected young female colleagues. Garcia had never been to a live cockfight. The only one she had seen was in a Mexican movie she watched as child, but, she said, that was enough to scar her. And she bristles at suggestions by cockfighters that the practice is a keystone of the state's Latino heritage.

"How dare they insult me this way, that it is my culture?" Garcia said. "Never, never, never."

Over the years, she repeatedly reintroduced her proposal, arguing that the sport was inhumane and that it facilitated drug use and underage drinking. A few months ago, Garcia began to think her ban might finally pass, having won the support of Richardson, who was preparing for a presidential run, and the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cockfighters protested that Richardson had vowed not to outlaw the sport when he ran for governor in 2002 and that he was shifting because he didn't want to take flak for it in the Democratic presidential race. Richardson denied he had promised to oppose the ban and scoffed at the political overtones. "You think this is a major issue in the presidential race?" he said.

During stormy hearings at the state Capitol, cockfighters argued the ban would eliminate a $70-million industry in the state. Garcia received death threats and got police protection. A lobbyist for the bishops' group called authorities after people drove SUVs by the house of his mother and sisters late one night, honking and flashing their headlights.

The bill passed after lobbying by Richardson, animal rights groups and some of the Hollywood celebrities who have made the capital a second home. Actress Ali MacGraw was beside Richardson as he signed the bill.

Now Louisiana is the only state in the nation to allow cockfighting. Its governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, said last week that she supported a ban, and national animal rights groups are targeting the state.

"New Mexico was really the battle of the Alamo for the cockfighters," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "This is the beginning of the end for the industry in the United States."

Cockfighters plan to sue. They say they can't imagine what life will be like after the ban takes effect June 15.

"It's like if you love football and you've been playing it for 50 years and they tell you one day you can't play football no more," said Jose Andrew Parra, 40, a third-generation cockfighter.

The ban will be an economic hardship as well, cockfighters say. Lopez said cockfighting income put his children through college and helped maintain the family farm. He said he might have to start holding amateur boxing matches instead.

In Artesia, Barron recalled how, after his first wife died in a train wreck in the early 1980s, raising his fighting roosters helped keep him sane. "If it hadn't been for my chickens -- for me to walk outside and go through my chickens and enjoy them -- I probably wouldn't be here," he said.

"I always thought I'd retire and enjoy raising and fighting my roosters," said Barron, 58. "Now that's gone down the drain. I'm not a lawbreaker.

"To be treated this way, like a nobody.... " He paused. "Well," Barron said, "maybe I'm not important."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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