Night Crawler

The Rocket Also Rises
As night falls, the dusty air in Tultepec, Mexico, begins to cool. The city's arid hues of brown and beige are transposed into cooling shades of blue. Strings of electric light bulbs hiss into life, illuminating the canopies of festival booths that have sprung up in the town center. Carnival rides begin their rattling, stomach-twisting contortions and an overamplified barker takes his first and only breath of the night before launching into another tchotchke-selling tirade.

This is the unofficial 10th day of the National Pyrotechnics Festival in Tultepec, a town of 40,000 about half an hour out of Mexico City. The dirt-track town offers little in the way of modern toiletry and no hotels, but it does contain nearly 5,000 "pyros" -- people engaged in the manufacture of fireworks -- making this community the largest center for exhibition explosives on the American continent.

Over the last 10 years Tultepec has turned its religious celebration of San Juan -- the patron saint of sick people, burn victims, and fireworks -- into a brilliant spectacle that is anything but a spectator experience. News of religious exhilaration, missing fingers, seared eyeballs, burning towers, breathtaking displays, and huge explosions has caused a handful of brave pyrotechnic zealots from U.S. "pyroclubs" to join the crowd of 60,000 under the stars of Tultepec. But even the firsthand accounts of Stuart Magrum -- editor of the Concord-based zine Twisted Times -- couldn't prepare Night Crawler for a Tultepec holiday.

Fireworks are an intrinsic part of all Mexican religious festivals and, in Mexico, festivals can last as long as a month. So even though most Mexican fireworks, including those manufactured in Tultepec, are too overcharged to export (a midsize firecracker could easily take off a few fingers, if not your hand), there is no shortage of demand for them. And the National Pyrotechnics Festival may be the most demanding of all the fiestas.

During the first nine days of the festival -- which, officially, comprise the entire celebration -- people from all over Mexico are invited to the Tultepec Fireworks Camp, an area a half-mile from the town center, where outsiders offer their own pyrotechnic creations to San Juan. These displays are dazzling and inventive, as might be expected in a country where toddlers are accustomed to handling the small, loud blancos commonly enjoyed by elated 12-year-olds in the States. But it is the last two days of the festival -- the unofficial days -- that hold the most promise for the people of Tultepec, and the few American pyros who make annual pilgrimages there.

"There are no rules here," says Phil Sandmeyer, a pyro from Kansas City who helped orchestrate the massive fireworks display that accompanied the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese rule last year. "There is no schedule. No law. You never know what's going to happen when. If you see a man carrying a bundle of fireworks, you just follow him. And things blow up."

As darkness deepens, the town square swells with people. Women with very small infants stake out a safe sightline under the roof of a raised pavilion in the center of the festival marketplace. Young couples nibble on cotton candy and meat-filled tacos, their faces flushed with anticipation. The toritos -- portable rattan structures, shaped like charging bulls and covered with wheels made of fireworks -- are lined up on the surrounding boulevards. Some of them are small enough to be easily carried by one man; others are monstrous constructions that must be supported on poles by 20 men or more.

On the stage near the square, a 12-piece mariachi band wails into the night. A young man with a huge bundle of fireworks casually slung over his shoulder pushes his way into the center of the town square and begins lighting large bottle rockets from a cigarette burning between his teeth. He holds each rocket elegantly between two fingers, lingering as sparks pour over his hand until the rocket pulls away of its own volition. The man does not wait to hear the resulting blast. Already another rocket is lit in hand.

Someone in the crowd appoints himself "handler," passing out bottle rockets as fast as they can be lit. The air above the square fills with pungent smoke, and the deafening explosions forge an inescapable canopy of sound. Burning willow sticks -- the spines of rockets -- fall from the sky like phosphorescent hail. No one so much as blinks as faces turn skyward.

Suddenly, there is screaming, followed by flashes of light and rapid explosions from within the maze of booths that fills half of the town square. Children pour out of their "safety zone," wild-eyed and howling, running from men who chase them with exploding toritos. Bottle rockets and the more colorful salutes, which leave trails of red and green stars, soar off the imitation bulls with a thunderous roar.

More insidious fireworks -- "foot finders" -- shoot off the toritos' spinning wheels, swirl along the ground, and search out pant legs and bare ankles. Old women slip into the relative safety of narrow gaps formed by the booth walls. There, they wait arm in arm, giggling like schoolgirls with wide-open faces and eager eyes, until a torito and the screaming children have passed.

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