- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas

The entertainment industry for which he works is illegal under Texas law, but who is going to worry about cockfights when a drug war is raging on the other side of the river, people are snatched off the streets for ransom and illegal aliens trudge through the chaparral in droves?

Pamela Anderson, the TV star and celebrity activist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is not expected to grace this rough-and-tumble corner of the world with her presence any time soon, so Mauro Morales has carved up a little market niche on the margins of the law and is determined to keep it.

He is in the business of raising gamecocks and sees nothing wrong with it.

“Well, it’s not really me. My son is in charge of that,” he explains with a coy smile. “But everybody does it here — the lawyers, the police. I think even the judge is in on this, too, but I’m not quite sure.”

He proudly struts toward his unsightly back yard, and here they are: feathered gladiators in mesh-wire cages awaiting their hour of glory.

One cage is round and can rotate like a treadmill so that its occupant can build muscle mass and stamina by running in circles.

“Too bad you are here during the week,” said Mr. Morales, who is technically in the business of raising poultry. “We have cockfights every weekend.”

Under pressure from animal rights groups, cockfighting is banned everywhere in the United States except Louisiana and New Mexico. But go to any part of the heavily Hispanic border region and you will see that cultural traditions going back centuries just don’t die by government edict.

This town halfway between Laredo and Brownsville is hardly a high-society haunt.

Broken furniture, hulks of cannibalized cars and piles of lumber sit next to dilapidated mobile homes and trailers that house recent and not-so-recent Mexican immigrants.

The literati of San Antonio, Beverly Hills, Calif., or Santa Fe, N.M., may prefer to spend their Sundays shuffling on the lacquered parquet of art museums, but this crusty town of ranchers and field hands has a different idea of a good time: a hearty drink, a card game and some flying feathers with blood.

It’s a culture clash that reverberates throughout the border region but is felt more acutely in neighboring New Mexico, where cockfighting is still mostly legal.

Groups such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, aided by their Hollywood allies, have been on the front lines of the battle against cockfighting for years.

Actress Rue McClanahan of “The Golden Girls” descended on Albuquerque, N.M., in late 2004 to lobby for a statewide ban. She told reporters that she found this type of entertainment “appalling.” Miss Anderson, who is parlaying her “Baywatch” fame into animal rights advocacy, sent a petition to the office of Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.

Such efforts have met with limited success. A statewide ban on cockfighting has been introduced in the New Mexico Legislature many times, but has always failed.

Like professional boxers, gamecocks fight inside fenced-off rings, are weighed before each bout and have referees. But organizers often attach to their legs razor-sharp spurs that make blood flow and frequently result in a fatal outcome for at least one of the birds.

For PETA and its Hollywood allies, this is barbarity.

For Ronald Barron, president of the New Mexico Game Fowl Association, and his crowd, this is part of a cultural heritage that has been around since long before New Mexico or Texas became part of the United States.

Haven’t they already taken away bullfights? Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, he reckons.

“We are protected by the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty,” Mr. Barron said. “It is supposed to protect our culture, our property and our religion.”

The 1848 accord ended the Mexican War, which resulted in Mexico ceding territory to the United States.

It does not address cockfighting specifically, legal analysts say, but it does have cultural protection provisions, which are open to interpretation.

Attacks on cockfighting rankle Mayor Richard Lucero of Espanola, a New Mexico town north of Santa Fe. His ancestors arrived with Spanish conquistadors in the late 16th century.

“They are trying to destroy the Spanish world,” he said. “Leave our culture alone.”

The mayor said constant pecking from PETA and others were driving the show into the hands of shadowy operators of ill repute.

The ban in the Rio Grande Valley appears to have had even less success than Prohibition.

There will be a cockfight in somebody’s barnyard this Sunday, Mr. Morales said, and another one the next weekend.

He is certain police will stay away, and for a good reason. “They’ll just have somebody else bring the gamecocks they raise,” he said with a chuckle.

Trade in gamecocks, which remains legal, is flourishing. An untrained bird, locals said, fetches about $60 throughout the region while a trained one goes for $100.

Some are sold to neighboring Mexico, and some are said to be shipped as far as Southern California.

If otherwise unremarkable, Rio Grande City has a famous citizen: U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, a former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“His mother still lives in the house where he was born about three blocks from here,” Mr. Morales said.

Asked whether the general was also into cockfighting, Mr. Morales said: “He hasn’t lived here in a long time, but he grew up in this culture.”

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