I found my way, not by accident, to some underground cock fights in East Havana, Cuba. Rum and pesos are just starting to flow around a ring held together by branches and tarp. 

A man claiming he organized the event takes notice of my camera, and becomes visibly anxious. He explains that if I take photos here, the government could identify and imprison the men in these photos. 

He may not be lying. Throughout my time in Cuba, several men have told me of their multi-year prison sentences, simply for being unemployed. 

Cock fighting is legal in Cuba, but this one is unsanctioned and deliberately located in a small forest clearing off a backroad, accessible only by footpath. 

With government officials and neighborhood watch committees far away, spectators take the opportunity to gamble. Several men glorify past victories to inform bets, while card game tables are set up by the ring.

Despite pointing my camera low and even averting eye contact, I am being watched. Ultimately I can’t hide myself. I count only three other women at the event, and with a Chinese face and an American passport, I’m probably the only non-Cuban.

All around are men cradling meticulously groomed birds. Several of them approach me with roosters held proudly at their chests and ask for a photo, clearly unafraid of imprisonment.  

Another man pulls back his shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo – Abajo Fidel (Down with Fidel) – in reference to Fidel Castro, the communist revolutionary who ruled over Cuba from 1959 to 2008. He too asks to have his photo taken, and I ask if he’s sure that his face and tattoo should appear in one frame. He is sure. 

Afterward, he sits down to prepare his rooster’s spurs for battle. I raise my camera for another photo, but this time he denies me. Superstición, he warns with a wagging finger and smile, presumably not wanting to jinx the fight.

Preparation is somehow more gruesome than the fight itself.

Many birds are plucked nearly bare, resembling what you might find at a grocery store, to maximize evidence of injury. Their spurs–the long, protruding bone on the inside of their legs–are cut, cauterized, and filed. Then a sharper, prosthetic spur made of tortoiseshell is attached through melted wax, tape, and tightly wrapped string.

After several hours I weave through the accumulation of half dead roosters on the ground, shaking and discarded. 

As a spectator of the suffering and excitement of roosters and men, I implicate myself with the rest.

Copyright Laura Ming Wong © 2024