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,  Quinceañeras (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 Quinceañera. 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.......




Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Monarch Butterflies of Michoacan


by: Mary Dow Brine (1816-1913)


Creatures of golden, sunshiny weather,
Coquetting with blossoms for hours together!

Happiest ever when skies are blue,
And sunshine your merriest moments woo!

Bright-robed and beautiful, artless and gay,
Merrily idling the summer away.

Much ye remind me, butterflies bright,
Of a winsome maiden, with heart as light

And fickle as yours, as the days go by;
Fit for only a sunshiny sky!

Coquetting with hearts and love awhile,
Then off and away with a careless smile.

But when the summer at last has fled,
Butterflies' holiday, too, lies dead.

Butterflies are everywhere in Mexico, once you really start paying attention. During this time of year,  I often see them fluttering about in my garden lured by the colorful  lantana bushes. They appear as intricate tattoos on young women's torsos, and frequently play a starring role in local artwork.

I have been on many adventures in Mexico but few that have been as renewing as my latest trip to the beautiful state of Michoacan. Two weeks ago I left San Miguel de Allende, along with a contingent of twenty five adults and children, on a long anticipated pilgrimage to see the billions of monarch butterflies who make their winter home in the area's boreal forests. Monarch butterflies spend their summers in the United States but, have you ever wondered where they go in the fall when the cool winds descend and chilly winter is just around the corner? The Monarch butterfly is susceptible to the cold winters of the northern climes so in an act of self-preservation, they migrate south and hibernate every fall and winter. Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains  migrate 2500 miles on their tiny wings to the Oyamel fir trees of Mexico. Their flight to Mexico's forests can be compared to the annual migration of birds flying south for the winter.

The monarchs' winter vacation spot is a 60-square-mile area in Central Mexico's volcanic highlands.  This region is 129 miles west of Mexico City situated near the small former mining town of Angangueo in the state of Michoacán.

This charming, traditional colonial village, at an elevation of 8,400 feet, is composed of  winding cobblestone streets and quaint little white stucco homes with red-tiled roofs. The houses are adorned with terracotta  flower pots brimming with red and pink geraniums. Clotheslines are strung across rooftops, laden with brightly colored children's clothing flapping in the breezes.

This area's  geography is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and the Sierra de Angangueo. Some locations receive rain only in the summer and others all year round making for  luscious green vegetation. The area is mostly covered in forests of conifers with pines, oyamel and juniper as well as mixed forests of conifers with broad-leafed trees such as cedar. Much of the municipality is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

There is one main road in Angangueo, which is called both Nacional and Morelos. This road meanders its way up the canyon and ends at the Plaza de la Constitución. The main plaza is flanked by two churches, the parish of San Simón and the Inmaculada Concepcíon.

 The Inmaculada Concepción church was built by a single family, in pink stone in the Gothic style in an attempt to imitate Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.  When someone from my party inquired about the odd placement of two churches in such close proximity to each other, two local men, who were lounging in front of a large wrought-iron gazebo, informed us that "one church was for the rich folks and one for the poor."

One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was a visit to the ex-hacienda, Jesus Nazareno, located on the way into town.

 It's ageing, crumbling walls, strategically placed high on a hill, were quite picturesque, serving as a lasting reminder of a by-gone era.

 One of the most lovely features of the property was a beautifully maintained chapel with an intricate hand painted design on the ceiling. An old woman sat outside the chapel, selling the drink-pulque  to anyone with a spirit for adventure.Pulque is an alchoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. It is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for many centuries. It has the color of milk and has a somewhat off-putting consistency. Pulque is quite viscous with a sour, yeast-like taste. It looks a little like someone has just spit into a cup, if you ask me.

When our stomachs began to grumble, the entire group eagerly descended on a teeny, tiny restaurant on the main road into town.

 The proprietor, Wily, was very welcoming and ushered us to the back of the restaurant and right out the backdoor. Behind the restaurant, the owner was in the process of building  a new dining room. He and his staff set about quickly, gathering chairs and tables from far and wide in an effort to accommodate our large party in the half finished concrete structure. Lunch was tasty and reasonably fast. People devoured large sandwiches filled with chicken or beef milanese or plates of carne asada (grilled beef), served with rice and beans. Pitchers of home-made lemonade and beer were consumed with gusto.

Next, we hopped into our cars and began the steep ascent up the mountain in an effort to check out the site of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. My friend's 4-cyclinder vehicle struggled to make the the climb with five people and a pile of luggage in tow. The view through the pines of the surrounding mountains was absolutely breathtaking.

 When we reached the sanctuary staging area, we were greeted by a gaggle of little children selling a variety of touristy goods, things like tiny butterfly earrings, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, hand-embroidered tablecloths, napkins, table runners, and other items of that ilk. My favorite handicraft were some intricately hand-woven pine needle baskets. I met a woman who kindly offered to demonstrate how she made the baskets and her hands were deeply calloused from the process.

 Her daughters assisted her, fetching us every style that she made. Her youngest daughter was my favorite. She had a very dirty face, punctuated  with an extremely runny nose and blackberry stained mouth. She was just precious.

 Three little boys approached me, singing an unrecognizable ditty in hopes of wrangling some spare change. It worked, I succumbed without so much as a grumble.

There were a number of cook tents and shacks devoted to feeding the masses of people who descend on the sanctuary during the winter months. The ladies who worked there were cooking over archaic-looking wood burning stoves fitted with comals.

 They were selling blackberry atole,  hand-made blue corn quesadillas filled with huitlacoche or flor de calabaza, and roasted ears of tender white corn slathered in mayonnaise and cheese.

Atole is a traditional masa-based hot beverage common in Mexico. The drink typically includes masa (corn hominy flour), water, piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar), cinnamon, vanilla and optional chocolate or fruit. The mixture is blended and heated before serving. It is classic Mexican street food at its finest. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn and flor de calabaza are squash blossoms.

After spending a delightful evening of wine drinking and tale telling in front of a roaring fire, our  group  rose early the next morning and returned to El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary to begin the hour-long trek to see the butterflies.

The morning air that greeted us was quite chilly and we started out wearing multiple layers of sweaters and jackets. As soon as we began, I knew that I was in trouble. The air is thin at 8,989 feet  and I spotted a sign that stated that we were climbing to the height of 11,942 feet where the air gets even thinner. The beginning of the walk was not terrible as there were shallow steps that eased my discomfort. But these soon fell away to reveal a dirt path that endlessly snaked through the hills. You do have the option of hiring a horse for half the journey but, the horses don't go the distance and I certainly needed the exercise.

The signage along the way reminded me about the life cycle of the butterfly -the four stages—from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to the winged creature we are most familiar with. I considered the wonder of this  magical transformation and the even more astounding phenomenon of the butterfly's migratory cycle.

I climbed and then climbed some more and at some point I abandoned the group. I needed to resort to some self-talk to get me through the tougher parts. I had just spent the last two months on my living-room couch, side-lined by some health issues. The intensity of the climbing experience reminded me of an outward bound exercise. The steep ascent up the mountain  required a concentrated effort and a keen desire to see the promised spectacle.

More than once I was tempted to whine like a child and ask, "Are we there yet?" Towards the end of the trail I was more than a little winded. The terrain had gotten very steep and there was nothing to hold onto.  I had to resort to side stepping to lug my old carcass the last few feet to where the crowd had settled. I found the younger folks already perched on the hillside with cameras at the ready. Everyone was speaking in hushed whispers so as not to disturb the sleeping masses of butterflies that covered the towering trees. The  invigorating scent of pine needles wafted through the crisp morning air.

It took a while for the show to begin. As spectators, we watched with rapt attention as the morning sun began to filter through the canopy, hitting the tree branches that were sagging heavily under the cumulative weight of  thousands of butterflies. The Monarchs covered every square inch of the surrounding pine trees.

 They were clumped together in great masses with a weight so burdensome that the trees appeared to be covered with carpeting. Slowly, as the sun warmed their wings, the butterflies began to wake up from their slumber and began their flirtatious dance. One butterfly fluttered by, and then another and  then another. Soon, there were so many flitting about against the backdrop of the bright blue sky that it looked a bit like orange snowflakes dancing above our heads. The brilliant tangerine color of the butterflies blanketing the trees brought back fond memories of the autumn colors of the local maple trees back in my old stomping grounds in Western New York. If you listened very closely, the fluttering of thousands of  wings made a sound a bit like a soft rain hitting the trees.

A butterfly  came in for a landing on a nearby woman's back and people stopped and stared in disbelief, fascinated by its close proximity.

 The butterflies were soon everywhere, landing on people's heads, feet, and fingers. Children and adults alike giggled with pure delight. My thoughts wandered to stories of woodland faeries from my youth. I could imagine the origin of the tales, as the dancing monarchs possess such a magical quality.

Eventually, hunger got the better of me and I began the slow descent back to the car. By the time I reached the bottom, my legs felt like jello and shook just as much. This truly was a life changing experience and should be on everyone's bucket list.

Sadly, it has come to my attention that a great deal of deforestation has occurred  in this part of the world as a result of illegal logging in the protected preserve. I can only  hope that the Mexican government can get a handle on the practice or the worst case scenario could happen....the butterflies will have to find a new winter home and this beautiful marvel of nature will be just a distant memory.

Here's a link to a website that will explain the vital function of the oyamel forest in protecting the butterflies from freezing.