by Richard Ian M. Resurreccion
SA 21 Section J
Never in my life have I ever felt like a fish out of water. Even if it has become part of Filipino culture and has been going on for years, the environment was as if it was on another planet. Cockfighting or sabong has become a sport since its first sighting in 1519 located at Butuan before the Spanish Colonization by Antonio Pigafetta. Since then, it would seem that these players of today would consider sabong as daily routine but from an outsider like me, it felt so foreign. As I made my way inside the cockfighting arena, I could hear the voices of a thousand men. It was in that moment when I heard those voices that I felt a thousand pairs of eyes looking at me. For a moment, the spotlight was directed at me and not the next roosters about to fight. As the signal for starting the fight is heard, these men turned into boys being scolded by their mothers. The cockfighting starts. But as I sat there and watched the two roosters battle it out, I couldn’t help but wonder— did sabong become a nationwide cultural phenomenon because it mirrors the Filipino way of life?
A common saying in the Philippines is “isang kahig, sang tuka” (one scratch, one peck). This idiom embodies how the most of the members of marginalized in the country would live; they exhaust whatever cash on hand one family has on food. In a similar way how sabong embodies the Filipino people that these players will shell out whatever they have and bet on it to the best of their luck. It was the perfect idiom in relation to sabong since both were related to chickens. Honestly, it wasn’t all too difficult to gather that insight from the event. I have realized how one can turn to love a hobby is if it was something closer to you personally. I was nervous once I got done preparing to leave the house. I was hoping my key informant, who is my grandfather, would opt to reschedule our trip because of the weather. All along, my idea of a cockpit was an open arena in the middle of a province. But we were going to one in San Juan. Since it was a closed, fully air-conditioned arena, we pushed through with the trip. It was a mixture of excitement and fear that everyone in the arena would consider me different. But as I make my way inside the San Juan Cockpit Arena, there were already a few people who were looking at me. My grandfather started to tell the ticket seller how I was in the arena for a school project so they let me in without having to pay the 150 peso entrance fee. For my grandfather, when he was already a regular participant in the arena, he could already get in for free. The cold arena made my goosebumps raise even higher as I hear the men’s inaudible screams. I knew they were starting to bet, although I still did not know what the mechanics of the betting process were. Aside from the voices of the men, there were other voices that overpowered it: the crowing of the roosters. These creatures seemed to be the heroes of the day with a thousand men cheering for them. It certainly looked as if I were taken back to the days of the Olympics in Ancient Greek or like a Pacquiao boxing event on a Sunday. There was a distinct smell that encapsulated the arena but I couldn’t pin-point what smell that was. When I asked my grandfather, my guess was right that the smell was coming off from the chickens. However, that smell would often be temporarily exchanged by another smell— the food. Just like any sporting event, there were ladies (the only ladies in the arena) selling knick-knacks. I was a bit surprised when I saw what they were selling, it was a bit too fancy for the people in the arena. There were home-cooked meals such as the old-fashioned filipino-stye spaghetti, bibingka, and pastries from Goldilocks. I say that it was too fancy for the people in the arena because as I look around, these are men who didn’t dress too fancy. No bling, no branded clothes. It was common among them to wear basketball jersey tank tops or T-shirts with cargo shorts. However, my understanding of how much money these people could afford to have was about to change.
It took me one round of a match in order to make my initial observations which prepared me to observe deeper in the event which is how one round of a match would go. After each round, the cockpit, which is not the one you see in an airplane but the platform where the chickens would fight in, is cleaned. The feathers that fell from the chickens because of the match are swiped clean by a walis. Then the cockpit is sprinkled with water and the stage is then set for another bloodbath.
“Sa wala! Sa meron!”— the Tinder Round, as I’d like to term it. In Tinder, you get to swipe right if you like him/her and left if you don’t. In sabong, you need to find your match. You ask other participants if they are willing to bet with you. If Tinder has the Swipe Right/Swipe Left, sabong has Sa Wala/Sa Meron. These are the chickens’ corner. It is similar to the Red & Blue corners of boxing. The cocks are already assigned their own corner, Meron— the favored one, which means you get more money while Wala— the one is the smaller-pot money bet. This is the first step, choosing which side you are willing to bet on.
The two chickens are brought to the cockpit and the men’s voices in the arena are raised a bit as they discuss amongst themselves which they would put their bet on. The chickens put on a little show before the actual one as the owners show off the moves of their cocks. They practice first with another chicken (different from their real opponent) but the gaffs are still covered so they wouldn’t slash the other chicken. The men in the arena then get to witness which chicken they think is the weaker one. Little by little the volume of these voices start to get louder and louder once the casador, who are basically the referees or the facilitator shouts, “larga na!”. Then the kristos or the bet takers raise their hands like Jesus Christ, hence the term for them, with their hand gestures motioning the betting odds.
The arena is filled with the voices of these men, trying to find their matches. Their hands, way up in the air in order to make the hand gesture towards men who are far away from them, to motion of the amount of money they are willing to bet. If they want, they can use one of the kristos to find a betting partner but if you win, 10% of your win should be given to these bet-takers. The start of the fight is announced and the arena is at a standstill as the two chickens battle it out. It will go on for 10 minutes until a winner is declared (either the chicken in Wala or in Meron) or if it is a draw. As the fight goes on, the men are seriously focused on their bets. Some, are already stomping their feet, motioning their irritation because their bets are looking like it’s gonna lose. In the end, this round goes to Meron.
I was interested in seeing how each round would go but by the third round that I was observing it was already boring for me. So, I decided it was the perfect time to participate. I wasn’t well-versed with the hand gestures during the Tinder Round so I asked my grandfather to help me. I first find someone opposite I’m betting for. I bet on Wala. Of course, depending on the odds, only when you will know if you’re money will win more or less. The betting odds are as follows:
(1) SAMPU/SIYAM- 10 percent
(2) DYES- 20 percent
(3) WALO/ANIM- 30 percent
(4) TRES- 50 percent
(5) DOBLADO- 100 percent
Up until this point, I was still doing things right. For the hand gestures, I needed the help of my grandfather. If your hands are pointed upwards, each finger amounts to 10,000 pesos. If it is downwards, each finger is assigned to a thousand pesos. While the sideward gesture is equivalent to hundreds. Since I knew that I would only do this once in my lifetime, I bet my 1,000 pesos to Tres. Once me and my grandfather found my betting partner then all I need is to wait. I sat down with the rest of the people in the arena, and watched the match go on. I was on the edge of my seat and excited to know if I was going to win or lose. Lo and behold, I won. I received 50% of my betting money with a smile on my face.
It was interesting how these people moved in the arena. Not only that it embodies the “isang kahig, sang tuka” culture but it also embodies how patriarchal our society is. It was humorous to me how these men show off their cocks (literally and figuratively) and see which one would win. Sabong is a phallic symbolism of the pride of men. These participants are so focused into this activity that they didn’t notice how I was a new kid in the arena. They treated me as if I was one of them. This was because all they care about is the pride of winning thus, they just bet until their money is gone. None of these men want to lose. If it weren’t for my grandfather, those men in the arena would have continued to stare at me until the end of my participant observation process. Luckily, I was incognito not because I acted well-versed but because these men were focused not on me but on the game. Thus, my presence did not really influence the scene except for that moment that people were looking at me because I was a bit over-dressed despite wearing just a shirt and jeans.
Sabong is also a waste of money for me. The amount of wealth that is wasted on pride is something that is not part of my psyche. Money is shelled out and thrown in the arena literally. Some of your betting partners would be far from where you are standing so naturally, you would just need to throw the piece of money towards him. And this amazes me because those pieces of money always fall on the right hands. However the culture of pride and wasting money maybe true, there is a silver-lining in all of this. At least, there is a culture of honesty. You can count that these men would not cheat on you and give you money that you won.
However, it still baffles me how sabong has evolved into a legal sport with the animal cruelty involved in it. In one of the documentaries of Vice, it has termed this sport as a “national obsession”. It is not just a sport but it is a multi-million industry. It has become a business. This is true because of the countless advertisements on rooster feeds and supplements are aired during a Sunday boxing fight on television. One of the interviewees was a Sabong World Champion, Biboy Enriquez. He now runs a farm that trains fighting cocks. It is because of this thinking, that these chickens are trained to fight, that it is not being cruel to the animals. According to this documentary, it has been a sport for 6,000 years. How can people not do it? If it has been going on this long, then it is almost inevitable for people not to participate in it. There are 2,500 stadiums in the country where 30 million roosters are killed each year. While I have mentioned that the sport values honesty, the documentary agrees with me and adds how the people who participate in this activity are all kinds of people. This sport also values equality. Men from all walks of life participate and no one would care if you are part of the high-class or middle-class. What counts is that you don’t cheat and you have enough money to bet.
It has become a national obsession because it is close to our culture and society. When one enters the arena, you already know how these people you will be betting against will not be cheating on you. There is the value of equality. We have valued equality ever since the time of the Datus. However, as time evolved, our economy has relapsed and we have gotten used to just spending all the money we have earned on that day itself. In sabong, the enormous amount of money that is wasted is not just when you think about the other less fortunate people in the society. It may be a sport that fosters honesty and integrity or how much money it provides the workers of the business but that does not justify the cruelty against the animals involved or how it feeds the pride of the people participating in it.
- What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
I noticed how observing made me feel more of a foreign subject in the field than in participating. When I was just observing, I was noticing the details, even the masahistas near the top bleachers. I was noticing how people moved and gathering analysis from that observation. While when I participated, I was in the zone. I didn’t notice anything, I was focused if I was going to win or lose.
- What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
I feel that especially in this kind of activity, it is extremely vital for one to have a key informant. This is because, there is a lot to take in in terms of the mechanics of the sport. Even now, I am still not well-versed with the arithmetic and the hand gestures. It takes some getting used to. So, having a key informant is an advantage so you’re not completely out of the loop when doing the activity. Especially that my grandfather has been a participant of sabong for years, I was lucky that my key informant was someone I was close to.
- What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Definitely, the details. You can ask the mechanics from a key informant and you can have a had knowledge of it but the details that one can acquire from the participant observation is a much better way of understanding this activity that a questionnaire could not provide. I have proven this because before-hand I already had a sit-down conversation with my grandfather but when I was already participating, the understanding of the hand gestures, a specific detail of the event, was missed in the interview with the key informant.
- For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
In this event, I believe that you have to see it in order to fully understand it. Sabong requires getting used to and more than that, it requires instinct. You need to know how does a winning cock look like or how does it move so that you have a winning streak. But even in that moment, you would still sometimes lose. Thus, a questionnaire is very limiting when it comes to sabong. You would have to participate in it to fully grasp it.
- Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
In our cafeteria observation in the Gonzaga Cafeteria, we acquired how people like to get together with friends or barkada, often because Filipinos are raised to be familial in that sense. We love sharing stories with one another, we can’t stand being alone in the dining table. We are raised to eat together as one family. Our style of eating is developed because it is close to our home. In a similar way that in sabong, our society has grown to love or be obsessed with it because it embodies values close to ourselves or to our homes. As stated above, the “isang kahig, isang tuka” mentality or the patriarchal society we have come to grow into or even the culture of honesty that we have been exercising way before the Spaniards colonized us. Bottomline is, our culture is developed first in our homes that springs out to people who are close to us outside our homes such as friends which becomes a whole culture.
Davis, Janet M. “Cockfight Nationalism: Blood Sport and the Moral Politics of American Empire and Nation Building.” American Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2013), 549-574. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0035.
“‘Sabong’ Is the Philippines’s Billion Dollar Cockfighting Industry.” Vice. n.d. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/cockfighting-in-the-philippines.