February 9, 2007

I Am My Rooster

By David Cruz

Editor’s Note: When a young Chicano filmmaker documented cock fighting in his East Palo Alto neighborhood, he learned that critics had more of a problem with the scenes showing the sport than they had with the conditions that lead young men to fight roosters for money and respect.

EAST PALO ALTO, CA — Recently, I made a short film called “The Death of a Rooster Fighter,” exposing the Bay Area rooster fighting scene. As a youngster growing up in East Palo Alto, I would see my uncles and neighbors training their roosters and involved in an underground economy that initially attracted me to this subject.

So little is known about rooster fighting, and even less about the lives of the people who live to raise roosters. The video we made followed the story of a 19-year-old young man in East Palo Alto named Marco who continues the sport as it was passed down to each generation of his ancestry.

From behind the camera, I was able to show a young Chicano rooster fighter speak about his love of God, this sport and his animals. At one point, when asked to respond to critics who say rooster fighting is cruelty to animals, Marco said that he cared deeply for his rooster. He went on to say, “I am my rooster.”

There was also a unity that was fostered between Marco and his dad as a result of their passionate participation in caring for the roosters, something empowering for our community where fathers are often missing.

Beyond the story of Marco the film tried to speak to the concept of freedom of culture, and the reasons why the activities people of color involve themselves in are criminalized such as sideshows or graffiti.

As I sat editing this film, I connected the life of a fighting rooster to the life of many young Chicanos growing up in the Bay Area. Our people are in ghettos or cages and treated in ways that only foster anger and despair, leaving us with nothing more than respect to defend or kill for. As the director, just the framing of the film became an issue.

Audiences bring so much to the table when the words “rooster fighting” are uttered, that just figuring out how to present the film was important to me. My main concern was the representation of the sport in a holistic way and how it affected our main character, Marco.

I wanted to stay clear of reproducing stereotypes such as “Machismo” (or male sexism) or violence in the Chicano community. The problem that faced me as a filmmaker was not making a gangster film. Our film followed our young character Marco loading his gun, gambling, drinking beer and of course training and actually fighting one of his roosters. But when I started showing the film, my critics blasted the rooster fighting scene and the very concept of a rooster fighting and dying, regardless of the much deeper story we were telling about the life of a rooster fighter.

The film screened at the 29th Annual Ethnic Studies Film Festival at UC Berkeley, along with a question and answer session with me and the crew. Hands shot up, from an audience mainly attacking the fact that a rooster was killed in the film, highlighting the animal brutality that they felt was unnecessary. I stood there wondering what questions I would have received if the rooster fight was not included, maybe audiences would have seen Marco for who he is and not what he kills.

The real questions that should have been raised however are: Why aren’t there films that deal with different elements of our culture? What would push generations of young men in the Bay Area to involve themselves in an activity such as rooster fighting that could take their lives?

I recognize the negative images already set out there about Mexican-Americans, and my intentions were not to reinforce those, however it was to put the spotlight on an alienated part of our culture that regardless of its violence or illegal activity must be given a time to speak. As a film-maker, I could finally present East Palo Alto to the world, and the conditions my people face. Who else could tell a story about rooster fighting, other than Marco himself?

If nothing else, I believe any story told by a member of my community, holds a great value and the more violent it is, the more we should look to America and the rooster fight it puts us in.

David Cruz is a filmmaker and writer with Silicon Valley Debug. To view the video, plug this online address into your web browser: http://www.siliconvalleydebug.com/story/010307/story/rooster.html

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