Chests puffed, faces crimson, two roosters glared at each other from glass pens. The arena was packed with men in pressed shirts, gobbling fried chicken and throwing their hands overhead. "Four hundred! Five hundred!" they yelled in Spanish, placing bets on the roosters. Outside, shops were empty and business was slow, but here in San Juan's cockfighting club, workers were in high demand.
Puerto Rico's economy has tanked. The territory is $72 billion in debt, unemployment has reached 12.2 percent, and the poverty rate is 45 percent—triple the poverty rate in the United States. But as businesses shutter, the cockfighting industry stays strong, employing countless workers around the island.
Cockfighting, which is legal in Puerto Rico and considered the island's "national sport," generates about $100 million annually on the island from bets, entrance tickets, food, and other expenses, according to a National Parks Service report. There are about 200,000 fighting birds each year, and each requires breeding, feeding, medical care, and training. More than 1.2 million people worked in the industry in 2003, the latest year for which numbers are available. Industry insiders I spoke with estimated that the number of workers had remained consistent, but they noted that many cockfighting businesses had gone underground, avoiding government regulations and taxes.
In San Juan, at the Cockfighting Club of Puerto Rico, members assured me the sport was hotter than ever. One recent Saturday afternoon, the club held 40 back-to-back matches, filing the stadium.
"This is our culture—people won't give it up," Efrain Rodriguez, president of the Cockfighting Club of Puerto Rico, told me in Spanish in the club's downstairs bar one recent Saturday afternoon. "When I was born, my parents put a rooster in my hands."
Rodriguez, who owns "700 or 800 roosters," explained that the industry continues thriving, despite the poor economy, because wealthy men pay for membership to the cockfighting clubs and for the roosters to be raised and trained. The San Juan club has 46 members—mostly lawyers, doctors, and businessmen—who get front-row seats to the fights three times a week, entrance into a special VIP room, and other perks. Each member has hundreds of roosters.
The cockfighting workers I spoke to agreed they've lucked out by entering the field, since each one has a special role.
Caring for the roosters, both before and after the fight, is the most involved task. An entire room in the Cockfighting Club of Puerto Rico is dedicated to nursing the victors after battle.
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"I've worked some other jobs, but this is more stable," said Carlos Perez, who has worked on and off at the club for decades. As we spoke, he held a rooster beneath a faucet and sprayed it with hydrogen peroxide. "My friends are getting kicked out of work, but here there's always something to do—you can train the fighters, you can care for them."
Beside Perez, a new employee gave a battered bird the full treatment—peeling open its bloodshot eyes to squirt them with antibiotic drops, then petting its belly and prying open its beak to push in banana mush.
"I used to be a house painter, but I love these birds," the employee, Edwin Ramos, told me. He said this work also paid about 20 percent more than his previous job.
Even the waitresses told me they'd remained loyal to the club, since the customers—"men with money and tourists"—pay bigger tips here than at typical bars or restaurants.
"We always earn more here, and only have to work three days a week," Yesenia Hill, a 41-year-old waitress with dark bangs and tight jeans, told me. "I've been here since I was 18."
Rodriguez and other members of the San Juan club say their attendance has not faltered despite the island's economic crisis. But Puerto Rico's official Cockfighting Commission has voiced concerns that government-regulated clubs are actually seeing a downturn in business. The commission receives taxes and fees from 87 government-regulated clubs, but the president told the Associated Press in 2012 that more fights were going underground to evade extra costs. The commission did not return multiple calls requesting comment on the current situation.
Underground fights may concern the government, but for folks in the industry, all that matters is that the cockfights continue. Some residents grew worried after Congress passed a farm bill in 2014 that made cockfight attendance punishable with a $10,000 fine, but Puerto Rico has not enforced the legislation as the sport is legal on the island.
In the rural village Nagaubo, lined with vacant homes and abandoned farms, one plot of land bustles with 300 cocks and their steadfast caretakers.
"You have to train them like boxers," Wito Velazquez, the farm owner, told me while cutting a rooster's feathers in his lap. Velazquez, who started training roosters at age 13, said he was already teaching his six-year-old daughter the practice.
"People always have money for fights—it's a culture," he said.
Beside him, Wilfredo Burgo, a middle-aged man in an oversized black T-shirt, also snipped feathers. "It's like taking care of a baby," he told me, glancing up. "You take care of it from the egg. But you get used to it when they die."
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