27 June 2005

Moving in the fresa circles

CBC Online published one of my pieces for its expat files. My essay takes an amusing look at Guadalajara's snobs - commonly known as fresas (strawberries in Spanish). I'm probably a little too naco (tacky) for these people

21 June 2005

Cockfighting is a bloodthirsty but lucrative business in Mexico

Story by : David Agren

A conservatively dressed gallero (rooster owner), wearing clean Levi's, a white collared shirt and white tennis shoes carried one of his prized fighting birds into the round ring. He caressed the rooster as he waited, even kissing it gently on the head. An official then tied a curved razorblade to the rooster's foot with red string, identifying the bird by colour -- like a boxer. Once fastened, the referee squeezed a lemon over the glistening blade, ensuring any foreign substances were cleaned away. Finally, the gallero unleashed his rooster into a fight for its life.

The rooster in the green corner pounced first, however, mortally slashing its opponent's leg. Less than a minute later, the white-necked rooster from the red corner lay dying in the ring. With the rooster unable to stand, the referee declared the fight over the moment battered bird's head touched the dirt floor. A boy, probably no older than ten, scooped up the carcass, carrying it from the ring upside down. A caretaker later swept up the feathers and blood-soaked dirt.

The scene played out 14 times that night at the palenque de gallos (cockfighting ring), a stuffy building on the fairgrounds in Tlaquepaque. The cockfights usually go before some sort of entertainment. In Tlaquepaque, it preceded a nine-piece mariachi band dressed in garish avocado green costumes. Besides Mexico, which usually only sanctions the events during large fairs, Louisiana and New Mexico remain the only jurisdictions in North America where cockfighting is legal.

"This is a very cool pastime," said Jose Vila Lorente, a stockbroker from neighbouring Guadalajara, who brought business associates visiting from Mexico City to the palenque.

Tough might better describe the event and the atmosphere, attended mostly by beer-swilling men wearing cowboy hats, who wagered large sums of money. The high rollers all sat ringside -- drinking imported liquor and flashing high-denomination bank notes - placing bets with corredores (bookmakers). The minimum bet: 1,500 pesos. Less-affluent fans sat on narrow seats further up from the ring, making side bets among themselves. A Pepsi vendor flashed a 200-peso note, but found few takers in our direction.

"People with money come here," said Jesus Grimaldo, a security guard who attends the cockfights when visiting from California. "I only come to watch."

But even he couldn't resist betting on No. 4 during the inter-match roulette.

"Sometimes I win," he said, making an excuse for his repeated bad luck.

Vila, on the hand, came to bet big, pooling his wagers with a buddy. He kept picking red, but for reasons he couldn't fully explain. He offered some tips though on what type of rooster to bet on.

"When you look, the legs are the first place," he said, pointing at a rooster on a leash, being led around the ring by its handler. "Look at the legs, if they're tall, that's an advantage."

Another advantage is a muscular appearance (he didn't explain how he ascertains that).

"If there's a lot of fat, then no."

Galleros raise hundreds of roosters, training each one like a prizefighter. A good rooster can sell for hundreds of dollars -- only to be reduced to a heap of feathers in mere seconds by an equally vicious opponent.

"A rooster is like an athlete ... (like) a boxer," said Jose Arceo, a cab driver who occasionally attends the cockfights. According to Arceo, the roosters "exercise," working out under the gallero's watchful eye.

Galleros also develop a reputation. The event program in Tlaquepaque listed four galleros who entered their roosters in the high-stakes showdowns. At the larger fairs, they compete for 100,000-peso jackpots.

Although not a popular diversion for urban Mexicans, cockfighting still permeates the culture. Taking a cue from the roosters, many tough guys dub themselves "gallo." Basically, guys who have huevos (literally translated: eggs, but colloquial for testicles).

"It's really macho," Grimaldo explained. "(Those guys) fight easy. If someone doesn't respect them: (the gallos) fight them."

As the night wore on, the roulette wheel never stopped on No. 4.

"I lost 650 pesos," Grimaldo complained. "Sixty-five dollars is too much for me."

The last match lasted less than five seconds with one rooster slashing its opponent's throat. When the losing gallero casually dangled his dying bird upside down, blood rapidly gushed out.

After pocketing several large bets (his share of the winning wagers) Vila surprisingly acknowledged, "For me, (cockfighting) is cruel.

"But in Canada, [they] kill seals."

A version of this ran in the Ottawa Citizen.

11 June 2005

Villagers unruffled by volcano's discharges

The nearby Volcan de Fuego, which is threatening to erupt at any moment, hardly scares Maximi Ramirez, a lifelong resident of La Yerbabuena, Colima, a rustic pueblo just eight kilometers from the fire-spewing peak. But the rumored intentions of the state government to relocate the local population worry him a lot more than the prospect of being swept away by a fast flowing stream of molten lava.

"(The fear) isn't so much of the volcano," the father of six explained in his small open-air convenience store, on a calm evening, cooled by a gentle breeze and the elevation. "It's the economic interests that want to take our land."

Despite frequent small eruptions over the past six years and living so close to the volcano, Ramirez and the hamlet's other residents refuse to leave. Small farmers, growing beans, corn and coffee in the regions rich volcanic soil, expressed similar sentiments, never fully abandoning their small farms, despite repeated evacuation orders. A steady stream of curious tourists, armed with cameras and binoculars, have also ventured up the region's narrow twisting roads, which often lack shoulders, guardrails and proper pavement, to view the volcano's intermittent bursts.

The Colima Volcano ranks as one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. It has had six major eruptions since the Spanish settled in the area in the 1500s. Located in an active seismic zone, a large earthquake rocked the state capital in 2003, claiming more than 20 lives, and a tsunami washed over Cuyutlan in 1932. The last big eruption occurred in 1913.

The most recent volcanic activity began on May 23, with the largest eruption in more than 20 years. The 12,533-foot volcano blew its top again on May 30 and last Sunday morning as well, producing a "spectacle" that many curious locals crawled out of bed to witness.
"It woke me up, but I wasn't scared," said Vicente Guzman Cueves, a La Yerbabuena resident sporting long hair, a mustache and gotee and wearing green and blue robes like Jesus Christ -- who Guzman said sent him to the mountain town. "I was curious."

"It's something normal," said Antonio Alonzo Oseguela, the hamlet's representative in the regional government based in Comala. He added that most of the 38 inhabitants are "accustomed" to the loud bursts.

The blasts, though, frightened at least one soldier stationed in the town in case of an emergency. He acknowledged the fear, but said little else during a break from an informal soccer game between teams of competing soldiers on a basketball court, citing Mexican military rules, which forbid members to speak with the media.

During a previous eruption in 2002, the military fled La Yerbabuena, leaving without any members of the civilian population except a local man who transported a group of soldiers out of the volcano zone in a pickup truck. The soldiers later returned, a move that angered many in hamlet.

"There's no reason for (the soldiers) to be here," Alonzo Oseguela said, citing article 729 of the Mexican constitution, which says soldiers are to remain in their barracks during peacetime.

"We're struggling now because they're occupying a community place," he said in reference to the community hall, which the military uses as a temporary headquarters.

Along with wanting the military out, Alonzo Oseguela said, "We're struggling to survive," a reference to suspicions the state government has ulterior motives for the community and surrounding countryside once La Yerbabuena's residents leave.

Ecotourism is gaining popularity in Colima and many tourists visit the area for daytrips and camping excursions. A former hacienda and coffee plantation in nearby San Antonio is now a five-star Aman resort, charging its guests room rates of more than 1,000 dollars per night. Alonzo Oseguela also suggested the town could become part of the nearby volcano research center.

Back down the narrow, bumpy road connecting La Yerbabuena with San Antonio, the operators of a RV park and private fishing hole said it was business as usual, despite the volcanic activity. The owner of a small convenience store on the road up to the volcano from Colima reported a surge in sales after the latest small eruption.

Meanwhile, across the border in Jalisco, Civil Protection authorities evacuated 48 people from Juan Barragan, an ejido just 7.8 kilometers from the volcano, on Monday morning, housing the displaced residents at a temporary shelter in nearby San Marcos.
Still, most of the residents returned to their farms during the day to feed their animals and sow corn before the rainy season commenced. When the military served lunch last Wednesday, consisting of beef stew, rice, beans and agua fresca, only children -- taking a break from a nearby tent-school -- and several elderly women attended.

Over the meal, several women reminisced about previous volcanic activity, but no one expressed any trepidation about returning.

"Some people live by the beach," said Maria Vega, who has been evacuated six times since 1998, in a reference to the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia. "It's the same danger. We're accustomed to it."

Published in the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.