By Armando Ibarra*
In the early 1980s, I attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School in San Bernardino.
My father, Eleuterio Ibarra, would drive me and my brother and sisters to school cause my mother, Maria, did not know how to drive. After school my father would be there to pick us up on the drive home. He would tell each one of us our chores at our ranch in the community of Muscoy.
In them years at our ranch, we had two hundred roosters, as well as three horses, ten cows, fifteen pigs, goats and sheep. It looked like Mexico, but we were in San Bernardino, California. My brother and I had to clean the animals’ pens, feed and water them. The yard had to be clean because my dad wouldn’t tolerate it dirty. It would take until well after 7:30 p.m. to finish. No time to play and be kids.
My dad is short and stocky and came from Los Altos of Jalisco, Mexico. His father taught him to work hard, earn an honest living and, in my grandfather’s words, “become a man.” But because of abuse at home, my father left when he was 13, weighing only 115 pounds and came to Tijuana with only the clothes he had on.
In Tijuana, he sang on buses and shined boots and some days he had no work and went hungry. He began to sneak into the arenas to watch the cockfights. Hundreds of people gathered to drink and bet. One day he met a man who took him home, fed him, and got him some clean clothes.
“My son died at your age in the arenas,” the man told my father. “I’m going to teach you everything about cockfighting so no one can hurt you.”
From this man, my father learned the sport from raising the birds from chicks.
By the time of the cockfight derby in Blythe I’m going to speak of, my Dad had been a gallero for 25 years. He raised beautiful birds – McCleans, Bushers, Kelsos and others – red, yellow, black and white – and trained them to fight and die.
At school, I wasn’t doing so great – always getting paddled by the nun who was our principal. I would get caught by the teachers playing dice or gambling on the kickball games at lunch recess.
Once a year the school would have a fundraiser, give the kids’ parents boxes of See’s candy bars. So I would bet the other kids that I could sell more than them. I have three sisters and one brother. My mother would get ten boxes – due to my sisters and brothers being lazy – and I would go out and sell them in our neighborhood. And win the bet.
These fundraisers would come around the time my father would be conditioning his birds. At least 20 at one time would be conditioned for the Derby in Blythe. Gamefighting was legal there in those days. My father took pride in his birds and was respected for his knowledge and skills.
My mother asked the school for twenty boxes of candy. She knew it was a big event and I would sell them all. Usually my father wouldn’t allow my mother or sisters at such events cause it’s no place for females. A lot of foul language and drunk dudes. Why he allowed them to go this time, you would have to ask him. But he did. My mother and sister, Dora, came with us to the Derby. We left the ranch two days in advance to give the birds time to settle into the new location and weather.
Hundreds of people came from all over to this Derby, some to fight their birds; others to gamble on it. No liquor was sold, but people brought their own. This tournament had 30 entrants, each paying $2500 and entering 13 birds apiece. The house matched the birds according to weight. Then they measured the knives to assure they were the correct length.
My father paid the entrance fee. We unloaded our birds. Then my father exercised them one at a time in the cockhouse. He made each bird walk up the table while he held it at a 45-degree angle. At 6 pm, we fed them a light meal, turning on the radio so they would settle in for the night. Then we headed to the hotel room where my mother and sister waited for us.
We went out to Denny’s for dinner. My father gave me $100. My father would give me money at such events knowing I liked to bet on the roosters.
“El Derby es por dos dias, hijo. Pidele a Dios que ganemos.” The Derby is for two days, son. Ask God to let us win.
I had a habit of betting older men. It was more fun to me as a kid. My father was a three-time winner of this Derby. Waking up at 4 a.m. we headed to the arena, then to our cockhouse to tend to our birds. Most of the morning we exercised them, then fed them. Then we went to breakfast.
At 2 p.m. we returned to the cockhouse. I started going around selling the candy and quickly sold eleven boxes. The day the Derby started, I sold the remaining boxes of candy. I gave my mother the money, which she put in her purse in the van.
The tournament went well for my father the first day. He lost only one fight out of seven. He was still in it. The fellow in front of him had won all seven fights. In the center arena, the referee called my dad and the other owner together. My dad held “Patitas” (Small Paws), our best bird, who weighed almost six pounds. They held their roosters near each other to get them in the fighting mood. Then the ref ran lemon over the razors on their claws.
Then the birds flew at each other, slashing in a fight for their lives. Again and again they went at each other, bleeding from their wounds. The referee moved the fight to a smaller, side arena to make room for the next fight. The birds attacked until finally Patitas won and the other died.
By the end of the day, I’d turned my candy money into $500 betting on our birds against older men – not bad for a kid my age.
My mother put my winnings and candy money away. That night was rough for my father. His adrenaline was running fast and sleep was hard. He was up most of the night. The pot was a little over $50,000 for the first place winner. I myself found it hard to sleep. I couldn’t wait for night to become morning, as I thought to myself, “I want to be like my dad, a respected and feared gallero.”
Morning arrived faster than I thought. Waking to the smell of coffee, I told my parents good morning and waited for Dora to get out of the shower. Dad and Mom had everything ready to go, because we weren’t returning to the hotel. After my shower, I got dressed.
“Ya, Apa, vamonos.”
“Hijo,” he said, as we were leaving our room, “no quiero que apuestes mucho. Los gallos no los miro bien. Me entiendes?”
The birds don’t look good. Don’t bet a lot.
They called the first match. It was again my dad’s favorite rooster, Patitas. At first he looked good, but soon he weakened and we lost the fight. I paid the men I bet. The next match, I took a yellow rooster for $100, as it was my father’s friend’s rooster. It lost. By the end of the Derby, I had lost my winnings from the previous day and all the candy sale money. I didn’t have enough to cover my losses, so I went into my mother’s purse and tried to write the man a check.
The man called my father over and told him what I tried to do. I told my father the man was a liar. My dad blew a fuse, paid the man while telling me to go sit in the van and not show my face. I obeyed my father. I knew the first chance he got he would whip my behind. Dora kept coming to the van to make fun of me. I wanted to ring her neck.
I stayed in the van until we loaded the birds who were still alive, then we left. Still, Dad or Mom hadn’t yelled at me or even looked at me. Dora kept antagonizing me the whole ride home. Damn, I wanted to hit her, but didn’t want to move a hair cause I knew my dad was really mad. At home, we unloaded the birds in silence. We finished unloading and went inside the house. I headed for the bathroom to take a bath because we didn’t have a showerhead. As I was walking out the bathroom, he called me over.
I sat next to my father and he did something that took my by surprise. Instead of whipping my behind, he spoke to me like a man.
“Hijo, mira. Cuando se apuesta, se paga como los hombres. Si no tienes, no apuestes porque un dia te puede costar la vida.”
Son, look. If you’re going to gamble, you have to pay when you lose, like a man. If you don’t have money, don’t bet, because it can cost you your life.
It wasn’t so much his words that taught the lesson. It was how he did it. He spoke to me as a friend. To this day, I don’t cheat when I gamble. Nor do I bet if I don’t have it to pay if I lose.
It was one of a million things my father taught me in life.
Today, I’m in prison, addicted to drugs at times, an ex-gang member. These are things I learned on my own, the ways of the street, without help from my father, Eleuterio Ibarra, who is a great man, father and friend.