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How to Survive Mexican Fireworks Displays :: Teotitlan, Mexico

By: Nick H-J

Last night I had the chance to attend a display of fireworks in the small village of Teotilan in Oaxaca.  It was an event that will remain with me for the rest of my life.  If you are not clear on the fundamental underlying differences between U.S. and Mexican culture (with regard to personal safety and liability insurance at least), attending one of these events will give you something of a crash course.

The fireworks were to celebrate the Danza de Las Plumas which is a series of dance performances that are part of the week long celebration of La Sangre Preciosa.  The intertwining of Native and Spanish cultures that occurred as the Spaniards supplanted the indigenous Mayan and Aztec religions with Catholicism is a fascinating thing and has left an incredibly rich and unusual culture in it’s wake.  The dancing and costumes were very impressive and the spirit of the onlookers was rousing.  The jubilant crowd however, wasn’t half as awe inspiring as the display that took place as they started setting the village square on fire and blowing things up.

When I think of fireworks in the U.S. I think of looking up towards the heavens from a comfortable lawn chair as the night sky is used as a canvas to paint a piece of colorful, glittering, noisy artwork for the eyes of a gathered crowd.

This event was more like watching a boxing match going on around you while standing in the ring, or perhaps watching a rodeo from the vantage point of a rodeo clown.  In other words, it was great.  This was audience-involved fireworks.  If you were there, you were involved, or you were on fire.  It began with guys running through the crowd wildly swinging large bamboo frames over their heads as though they were on fire.  Perhaps because they were on fire.  These frames (shaped like bulls) whistled and screamed like bottle rockets as hundreds of fire crackers went off like machine guns. They showered everyone in their path with burning bits of paper and chunks of charred bamboo as they blew themselves apart with wonderful colors and deafening booms.

Meanwhile another set of young men wearing what appeared to be giant paper mache cones over the top half of their body jumped, bobbed, weaved and ran around just as madly.  The cones they wore looked something like huge pawn pieces from a chess board that had human legs sticking out from under them.  Instead of the little balls that adorn the top of the chess pawn, these cones had a set of twisted, pointy, chaotic looking antlers on them that resembled something vaguely sinister out of Edward Scissorhands.  The antlers were lit ablaze and they began to spray fountains of sparks, throw large colored flames, and yes, even fire huge bottle rockets out of them.  The men wearing these interesting, if rather unsafe looking outfits, behaved just as one might expect someone to behave who has thirty pounds of pyrotechnic glee exploding just above their heads while wearing something that rendered them completely unable to see anything more than the ground directly at their feet.  They ran around like crazy, bobbing and weaving and trying not to fall down.  This made for interesting and very unpredictable trajectories for the bottle rockets taking flight from their horns.  The end of each of these cone displays was marked by a final blast from their antlers that sounded much like the report of a .357 Magnum when you fire it without wearing any hearing protection.

The main attraction was a three story tower of scaffolding resembling something between a giant child’s pinwheel and a medieval rampart-storming device.  The tower was covered in bamboo wheels and all manner of wicks, paper and explosives.  It was held erect by nylon ropes that extended out to the corners of the square we were all standing in.  Which was of course the square in front of a huge beautiful church.

Perhaps I should pause here to give you some context  in which to put all this.  We were in front of the most immaculate and most splendid building in the town.  It was absolutely white.  It is five stories high.  It has incredibly ornate and intricate cornices on it’s towers, which house wonderful ancient bells.  We were there in front of it where everything in sight was being covered in showers of burning embers and the smoke was getting thick enough that I was considering wetting my handkerchief to breath through.

As this tower burst into colored fire and spinning pictures and exploded one section at a time the entire area was showered in burning debris (including the highly flammable nylon ropes).  The crescendo happened (after the huge burning edifice of a crucified Jesus appeared on the tower) as the top section of the tower detached and launches itself (not altogether looking like it was meant to do this) into the sky where it exploded into flaming chunks that rained down on the crowd.

This was of course all accompanied by an eighteen piece band including brass, wind, and percussion sections.

As the last chunks of the top of the tower were plummeting to the ground, rockets that looked like basketball sized crowns started shooting up from the corners of the square behind us.  They spun faster and faster on the metal stands on which they were sitting on until they lifted off and went rocketing up into the air where they disappear into a bang and a huge plume of glitter.  Well, most of them did that.  Some of them fell off their stands as they were building up speed for take off and instead went rocketing across the square, straight through the crowd and blew up in the rose bushes directly to my left.

The very last thing to go off was a huge necklace of flares that had been strung across the front of the church.  It burned incredibly brightly leaving small fires burning in the crevices of the ornate facade of this immaculately white and completely radiant 16th century catholic church.  Which now has large black burn marks all across it’s front and fires burning in it’s eaves.  These people are serious about their fireworks.

As I watched all this unfold and as I ducked and squatted to avoid the various burning projectiles being deployed (I would guess they were being deployed by a 14 year old kid wearing a wetted sombrero and drinking a bottle of mescal while lighting everything with burning cigarette), I was struck with the realization that this would never happen in America.  It would never happen in America because there would have been droves of lawyers filing scads of law suites against everyone as soon as the event was over.  I don’t have anything in particular against lawyers, in fact I know quite a few that I like, but all in all I don’t think I know any lawyers that are as much fun as Mexican fireworks.  Perhaps our choice of lawyers over Mexican fireworks is something we should do some serious thinking about as a nation.


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One Comment

  1. marvelous piece, my man. you’re an excellent travel writer – painting a rich background, posing thoughtful questions, and making me laugh. i especially liked ‘you’re either involved with the fireworks, or you’re on fire” and ‘i like lawyers, just not as much as mexican fireworks.’ this almost made me laugh as much as your naked river pose in Chelle’s superbly edited costa rica cliff diving segment.

    1. mikel on November 17th, 2009 at 8:21 pm

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