Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Are There So Many Saints In Mexico? or The Mexican Fascination with Pyrotechnics

When I hear the following words…..bombas,  cuetes, fuegos artificiales,  bottle rockets, fireworks, or pyrotechnics, I immediately think of my Mexican neighbors. None of my previous life experiences had prepared me for the Mexican obsession with things that “go boom.”  Everyone who moves to Mexico goes through  some form of culture shock…… particular cross to bear appears to be connected to the Mexican tradition of shooting off fireworks to celebrate any and all occasions. No life event or ceremony is complete without the firing of rockets and  the noisy commotion that goes along with it. The Mexican people purchase pyrotechnics to celebrate the birth of a child, christenings, anniversaries, weddings,  QuinceaƱeras (a fifteen year old girl's
coming of age), all Patron Saints connected to Catholicism, Mexico's Day of Independence (the biggest day for fireworks sales in Mexico), Christmas, New Years Eve, and one of the noisiest events, La Alborada  (the Dawn). More on this event to follow…… Incidentally, for Mexico’s recent Bicentennial Celebration,  held in the mainsquare in Mexico City, over 2,400 shells were ignited to commemorate Father Miguel  Hidalgo’s call for independence from Spain.

My first nerve-wracking encounter with this strange proclivity came suddenly while vacationing in San Miguel. I was attending a lecture in the local library one afternoon. In the middle of the talk, four thunderous claps resounded in rapid succession, interrupting the proceedings. The noise was so deafening that one American woman ducked down, seeking cover, as people of a certain generation were taught to do during an air-raid. She mistakenly assumed that it was gunshots she was hearing, revealing the fear that American newscasters have dutifully instilled in the minds of all visiting Americans…. " that Mexico is a very dangerous place.” The amused speaker giggled and assured her that it was safe to get up off the floor; it was simply some fireworks on the street.

Shortly after moving to San Miguel de Allende, I became acutely aware that for every Saint's feast day ( and there are a lot of saints!), someone in the neighborhood finds it imperative to  set off a series of fireworks at the ungodly hour of 6 A.M. The incessant ringing of church bells follows. The fireworks awaken the roosters next door and all hell breaks loose.

Mexico has a long history of fireworks manufacturing, dating back to revolutionary times. In the northern suburb of Mexico City there is a town that is famous for its fireworks. Tultepec refers to itself as the "Pyrotechnics Capital" of Mexico. Most of the city’s 6000 residents earn their living from fireworks, working in small factories that produce everything from firecrackers to 12-inch shells for fireworks extravaganzas. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of government interference with the manufacturing process.  In addition, illegal fireworks production is commonplace. As a result of some overzealous amateurs, there are a lot of people in Mexico who are missing a digit or two and in some cases an arm. Bottle rockets have been  known to have rather unreliable fuses.

According to various news reports, on March 16th of this year, a truck loaded with fireworks exploded during a religious procession in a rural village in central Mexico, killing at least 13 people and injuring a total of 154. The blast  was ignited when a rocket malfunctioned and hit a truck, igniting the fireworks it carried.

I am sorry to report that human remains and burned clothing were spread around a 100-yard area, including nearby rooftops. Ironically, the victims were marching in an annual procession in honor of Jesus Christ, the patron of Tepactepec.

Last year, a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of a house in her neighborhood that had mysteriously exploded. After Mexican authorities investigated, it was revealed that the home was the site of a backyard chemist who had been dabbling in fireworks manufacture.

Mexican firework production includes a variety of explosive products including rocas (rocks, a  powerful firecracker), vampiros (vampires), patas de mula (mule hoofs) , bombas (large rockets) as well as frames with pyrotechnics called castillos (castles), toritos (little bulls), canastillas (little baskets) as well as Judas figurines. Every Easter Sunday, following days of solemn processions, the people of San Miguel de Allende string up paper mache effigies of Judas as well as various caricatures of local politicians that have disappointed the populace. The figures are stuffed with explosives and ultimately are gleefully blown to smithereens.

 Some people might refer to this act as poetic justice.

Check out Berkely Roberts video of this event


 Castillos are large wooden, metal, or bamboo frames covered with dazzling flares. They are constructed to honor patron saints or Mexico’s heroes of Independence.

 Toritos are smaller frames fashioned in the shape of a bull, designed to be worn or carried by a person as they are set afire.

 The “lucky” wearer traditionally chases terrified bystanders. A version of the torito is designed to release candy when ignited, having the questionable effect of encouraging children to run towards it, rather than away from it.
The most unique product is called a “piromusical” a series of fireworks synchronized to recorded music and lights.

                                                   Photo Credit: Thomas Prior

                                           Photo Credit: Thomas Prior
An excellent example of my continuing culture shock occurred a few years ago. I attended a Mexican wedding that was being held in a banquet hall. At some point in the evening, the house lights were lowered. The guests quietly waited in nervous anticipation.  Much to my surprise, fireworks had been attached to the floor and were rigged to explode at a particularly poignant moment during the ceremony. No one was prepared for what happened next. The rockets shot up, bounced off the ceiling, and back down to the tile floor, igniting the bride’s train. The groom was seen acting as unpaid firefighter, stamping out the blaze with his shiny patent leather dress shoes.

Recently, I witnessed a more successful attempt at indoor pyrotechnics at my maid’s daughter’s QuinceaƱera. Rosita wore a fabulous hoop dress reminiscent of Gone with the Wind and was attended by several handsome young men dressed in shimmering, silver, shark-skin suits, as the picture indicates.

They performed a series of synchronized dance routines reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, culminating in a burst of dazzling pyrotechnics.


As mentioned earlier, one of the most dramatic fireworks exhibitions occurs every year in San Miguel at the end of September. The event is referred to as La Alborada. La Alborada is a special occasion that marks the beginning of the celebration to honor St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of our fair city. Lasting more than eight hours, processions begin in some of the older neighborhoods in the city. In the various communities, people start gathering at 10pm, and until 2:00 in the morning, they feast on traditional food and listen to music. At approximately 3am, a procession made up of mojigangas (giant dancing puppet figures), musicians, and big wooden stars on poles, jauntily decorated with colored paper, leave the neighborhoods and begin the trek towards the center of the city.

                                                 Photo Credit: Michael Amici


When the processions reach the central town square, the launching of fireworks begins around 4 A.M. and continues for two full hours.

                                            Photo Credit: Michael Amici

 I am afraid that I have only had the courage to watch this spectacle from the safety of my terrace, far from the crush of the citizenry. I have heard people’s eye-witness accounts of individuals being hit by flaming bottle rockets and stray embers. This is quite understandable given the display is directly overhead. Part of the frenzied show includes the shooting of thousands of bottle rockets by approximately ten young men placed strategically behind the churchyard fence. The rockets are hurled in the direction of the bystanders.

                                           Photo Credit: Michael Amici

 Part of the fun involves scurrying around to avoid being hit by one of the flaming rockets.

The more savvy citizens come prepared for battle, shielding themselves with cardboard boxes and umbrellas.  An unknowing friend wore a chiffon blouse to her first Alborada and returned with a few holes she hadn’t planned on.

 If you are considering a visit, it might be advisable to wear some flame-retardant clothing. While this event is not for the faint of heart, my thrill seeking husband swears that it is a great time and shouldn't be missed.

Here is a link to a very professional video  by Miguel Fernandez capturing  some of the festivities associated with the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, shot here in San Miguel.......