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.

For the most part, the town's men are unimpressed by the smaller toritos, unless they ignite the surrounding trees (which happens often enough). No, the men wait in the open square for the larger bulls — the bulls that soon begin charging through in a fire wall of vivid explosions. For most of the men, the goal is not to escape these sparking menaces, but to use them to test their prowess and piety.

The men close in on a bull, feeling the sparks fly off of the rattan hull and praying for the protection of San Juan. Rockets hiss through the air and foot finders peel off in every direction, filling the grounds with squirrelly tails of light. Knowing that foot finders follow no set trajectory, the men pogo. This betters the odds of dodging the ground-hugging foot finders, just in case San Juan is looking the other way. [page]

But otherwise, being hit or missed by fireworks is, very literally, up to divine providence.

Impenetrable clouds of gun smoke hang in the air, sporadic fires flare up in the trees, screaming women run to and fro, and bombas explode less than six inches away from my feet, but I am aware of scrupulous patterns in the chaos. As in real bullfighting, a rhythm must be established to properly “tease the bull.” Those who don't find the rhythm naturally — i.e., those who don't step close enough to entice the toritos before scampering away — are corralled by “helpful” men who link arms with them, and push forward.

When the fireworks eventually find a living target, the resulting burn is considered a blessing in the eyes of the participants. Children surround the newly anointed hero, touching his wounds. Men with fireworks scars show them to ladies they fancy. A man with a smoldering scalp and blood running down his face and neck accepts bandages, then re-enters the fray, the scent of San Juan's fiery blessing still lingering in his nostrils. Only in the case of eye injury do the few paramedics on hand send anyone to the emergency room, which is 40 minutes away.

The two “unofficial” days of the pyrotechnics festival do not include sleep. Around midnight, after the toritos have expired, people retire to their homes, where rockets and colorful star-spangled shells are fired from rooftops until early morning. At 4:30 a.m., the women carry a figurine of San Juan through the streets of Tultepec in a twinkling procession of multicolored sparklers, then retire him to the great church overlooking the town square.

At dawn, those pyros not sleeping off late-night libations arrive at the square with thousands of dollars' worth of rockets that they pass out freely to anyone who wants to light them. Bottles are passed, cigars are lit, and the mind-numbing explosions begin. Handlers work up a sweat keeping up with demand, as the rocket launchers hit their stride. Rocket. Cigar. Discharge. Release. Explosion. Within a half an hour, the air is thick with a new layer of falling debris and carcinogenic smoke. It's not yet 7 a.m.

By 9 a.m., many of the town's pyros are seated under huge canopies outside the home of Don Salvadore, one of Tultepec's maestros pirotecnicos and this year's festival host. Great plates of meat are passed, as are abundant bottles of brandy and rum. Two 12-piece mariachi bands provide entertainment throughout the meaty five-course meal, which gives way to boisterous dancing on well-packed dirt floors under the tents. Soon enough, it's time for siesta, or flesh-and-blood bullfighting at the Plaza de Toros Portatil, and then the midday meal.

At nightfall, the nearly sated populace stumbles back to the town center, where 10 intricately detailed 80-foot towers, or castillos, stand, having been erected under the blaze of the afternoon sun. Twenty-foot-long fuses dangle from the rattan shells of the towers, which are covered with fireworks wheels and massive salute rockets. Canastillas baladoras, large thick-rimmed wheels that lift off and spin through the air burning and exploding, adorn the top of each tower. Someone lights a paloma — that is, a half-stick of dynamite wrapped in newspaper — and tosses it into the crowd. Eight-inch shells, shot from a large cannon near the bandstand, begin bursting in the air in arrays of gold, green, and red — and the first castillo is set alight.

It is a portrait of San Juan, emblazoned in red across the tower front. The wheels on the tower spin, and San Juan turns a silver so bright it burns the eyes. The baladora at the top of the tower reads “United in Peace” before it lifts off, spins through the air, and lands in blazing glory on the church roof.

“This is why I moved here,” says Sharon Sunda, a 52-year-old, wild-haired pyro who relocated to Tultepec from Minnesota so that she could design and test firecrackers at her leisure. “Back home, no one could ever see lance work like that, because the crowd would have to be kept too far away.”

Lance work — that is, the details depicted on the tower fronts with fireworks — is, arguably, the most visually interesting aspect of the festival. Lance work has the Virgen de Guadalupe turn into Mickey Mouse, and the wings of Pegasus flap. Lance work is what makes the pyros in Tultepec maestros, but displaying it properly is entirely dependent on a crowd's willingness to be intimate with the danger.

For example, when the second castillo's fuse burns out before all the wheels ignite, a young man eagerly climbs into the center of the cyclone, scaling the rattan frame of the tower and relighting the fuse, amid a shower of sparks and explosions that rain down on the crowd just below. This relighting of fuses is a common occurrence.

Even with burning debris falling from 80 feet in the air and rockets peeling off in every direction, the crowd is absolutely fearless. Earplugs and safety goggles are considered nearly sacrilegious. (In fact, a group of San Franciscans who attended the festival wearing goggles two years ago are still talked about with clucking tongues.) The only visible safety precaution: When the next tower is lit, the crowd standing directly under it moves back a few feet. Actually, though, it is unclear whether the movement is aimed at safety, or getting a better view.

The heat of the initial blasts from the tower singes my eyebrows. The shrieking of burning accelerant is loud enough to abolish thought. And standing directly in front of a monstrous spinning wheel that is nearly blinding in brilliance and size, looking into a hot center of multicolored flowers and expanding angel wings, feeling the glowing ashes light on my seared face like weightless down, and watching as the baladora lifts a burning crucifix high into the night sky may be the most compelling Christian experience this agnostic could ever have, and it could have never happened in the United States of America. [page]

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By Silke Tudor

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