Marge wakes up at 3:15 am. We got in late the night before after a four hour bus ride from Mexico City, where it had been pouring. So, exhausted, and my internal organs still trying to hold off the forces of Montezuma, who the previous night had slipped through my outer digestive defenses in the guise of a delicious, but deadly, clam. Once inside, the vengeful Aztec had launched a surprise attack at several weak points along my alimentary canal. So I hide under the covers, listening vainly for the sound of rain that might mean that La Alborada — 4 am fireworks highlight of this year’s Fiesta de San Miguel might be canceled.
Foolish Gringo! They rarely cancel festivals anywhere in Mexico – and never in San Miguel de Allende. Well, almost never: in 1789, the Spanish authorities actually did cancel a few, declaring that industry and piety were suffering “an excess of fiestas.” Twenty-one years later, the Mexicans revolted against Spanish rule. I can’t say that the anti-fiesta crackdown caused the Mexican War of Independence, but one of the four initial leaders of the revolt (the Spanish hung their severed heads from the tallest building in Guanajuato) was after all a Sanmigueleño. Anyway, at 3:20 am waiting for Marge to rouse me out of bed, I’m thinking that the Spanish may have had a point.
Rain or shine – and it mostly shines here – festivals are part of daily life. Indeed, every day of the two weeks we’d been here, we could see a parade or hear one someplace nearby in the city. Every one is different. Last week, we encountered one that had – besides the requisite dancers in feathers and animal skins, several mariachi bands, the phalanx of school children in white starched shirts, the “mojigangas”, huge wobbling papier-mâché figures 15 feet tall, and people dressed in outlandish costumes on stilts just as high – in addition to that, in a wooden cage hauled by eight sweating men, a live fully grown mountain lion.
Finally, her patience exhausted, Marge jerks me out of bed, and, assuring myself that I’m tougher than any Aztec king who allowed himself to be swindled out of his empire by the fast-talking Cortez, I sleepily follow her over the two cobbled-stoned streets that separate our house from the Plaza Principal of San Miguel — ground-zero of Mexican fiesta culture.
The Plaza fronts on La Parroquia, the San Miguel landmark church whose façade was redesigned in 1880 by a local stone mason, inspired by post cards of European cathedrals. It is part gothic, part Gaudi, and part Disney. It does not awe. But in its quirky way it’s quite elegant and beautiful; and in a few short days you fall in love with it.
Anyway, when we arrive, the plaza, the Jardin (what they call the town’s principal park, right across the street from la Parroquia), and the streets leading to it are several thousand Mexicans, sprinkled with a few gringos (many fewer than in former years, but that’s another story). Firecrackers are popping all over, mariachi fills the air, and people are waving and shouting various patriotic and religious greetings to the cold night air.
The night is part of the annual two and half day (in this case, “day” is not the absence of “night”; it is a 24 hour concept) celebration of the feast of San Miguel – St Michael the Archangel, defender of the faith. Some of you might remember from Paradise Lost, that St. M led the forces of God against the revolt of the Fallen Angels, led by our old friend Lucifer, AKA Mephistopheles, el Diablo, etc.. This event at the ungodly hour of 4 am reenacts, through fireworks, the epic battle for control of Heaven.
This version of the centuries old festival was actually begun by unionized Mexican textile workers, who had come to San Miguel in the early 1920’s to work in the local mill — Fabrica Aurora. (La Aborada, like Aurora, is one of the many Spanish names for “dawn”.) At that time, San Miguel was a desolate town – its former glory as a key city in the silver trade had all but disappeared. No roads into the city – only a train. And so little in the way of culture, that the Aurora workers had to send for mariachi bands from other towns. But the event was instantly popular, and the local priests decided to coopt it into it their celebration, too (the church has not survived for 2,000 years for nothing). Of course, the priests expected workers to continue to pay for it. Indeed, one report is that: “the factory administrators created a fund into which the textile workers would make weekly contributions from their salaries to pay for the expenses, which included the music and the fireworks.” How remarkable this universal generosity of bosses creating funds into which their workers contribute.
As luck – we think – has it, there is some space in the crowd around the statue of a 18th century friar just to the right hand corner of the church, and up a few steps — outside the iron fence that surrounds the open courtyard before entrance to La Parroquia. There is even some space to sit down on the stone wall that circles the statue. We sit, happy to have such a great spot to view the show. About 15 minutes before the hour, the crowd cheers and a team of young men in white sweatshirts and white bandanas over their faces emerge from the church. They bring up boxes and boxes of what turns out to be the principal fireworks of the night, cohetes (Spanish for rockets) — long wooden sticks, lashed with plastic cylinders of explosive powder. which have some weight on the front end so they can be tossed
The church bells begin to ring and the people around us suddenly jump up and run into the side street. The crowd that had filled the plaza moves back, leaving a large empty space in front of the gates at the church’s entrance. A few people – the brave and the ignorant (us) remain around the statue of the friar. Through the bars, we can see the young men lining up in several rows. One row of them takes the cohetes from the boxes. They hand them to those in front who ignite the fuses with lighters and then throw them 80 to 100 feet into the air – at the crowd.
The fuses hiss and the rockets arch into the night with a high-pitched scream — spitting yellow and red sparks. Their first cylinder of powder blows up in ear-splitting bursts of multicolored flame, and the second stage of the rickety rockets then zigzag crazily downward – at least half of them bursting on the ground – or a person. In the plaza, groups of young men run among the fireworks with their head covered uncovered, ducking and challenging the fiery debris falling all over.
We stay around the statue. Then the rockets come our way and we run across the street to watch from the historic Allende House on the other side. But soon the relentless screeching missiles start exploding around us there as well. The people behind us are backed tight as Tokyo subway riders and we can only press back while remaining in the forward edge of the crowd.
At any given moment there are 50 rockets in the air and 30 – 40 smashing into the street or the crowd. Soon the air is filled with choking smoke.
Then, way above the town – representing the Fallen Angel artillery we assume– coming from several blocks north opposite the church and across the Jardin, a new set of bigger shrieking rockets, their long gold tails snaking up into the sky, explode high in the air in red, green and orange — with ground quaking thunder.
By now the whole world is full of thick smoky haze, blurred light and ear-blasting noise. I’ve put up the hood of my windbreaker and have my fingers in my ears We huddle against the crowd behind us, just out of reach of most of the rockets, although occasionally one comes very close and bursts at our feet. One hot rocket shard hits Marge’s pant leg and leaves a red bruise, but doesn’t burn her jeans. They are after all just fireworks, but you wouldn’t want to catch one on any part of your skin – certainly not your face.
The scene transfixes. Yet my attention is increasingly diverted to the intensified military campaign going on inside my stomach. Montezuma has breached my advanced pepto-bismalic defenses, and is beginning to outflank the liters of ghastly electrolyte drinks that Marge made me swallow in an effort to reinforce my intestinal tract.
I’m wondering when will La Alborada end, and allow me to go home and deal with my internal struggle? No way we could force ourselves through the crowd in back of us. Surely this barrage of fireworks cannot possibly last more then 15 minutes, I think, gazing hopefully at the clock on the tower of the church next to La Parroquia .
Then it’s 4:16.. and 4:17 and 4:18… By now the smoke is choking us, and the rockets come closer. The young masked archangels in sweatshirts seem to be getting stronger and are laughing in unseemly diabolical glee as they shift their bombardment around the square. The rockets from the other side of town create a booming echo off the stonewalls, and we look up at flower pots hanging precariously from the balcony’s above us. I think of the death of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Marge is crouching behind me, tugging at my sleeve to move back into the crowd every time a rocket blows up near us. But I know that at the first sign that I am ready to flee, she will force me back. With her implacable tourist sense of duty, she goes hard on deserters.
So the epic struggle for the gates of heaven continues. St Michael’s legions pour on the cohetes. The Devil’s own Weapons of Mass Percussion replying with their own explosions high over the Jardin..
At the same time my internal struggle gets fiercer. The malevolent Aztec has now breached the fortifications of my upper intestine, creating havoc and disorder within its normally peaceful walls. Pain begins to emerge in the region of my pancreas as Montezuma’s shock troops lay waste the countryside. My legs wobble.
This must stop by 4:30 I say to myself. But it’s 4:31 by the clock tower. Then an agonizing 4:32…4:33 and still the fireworks explode in the dusty yellow-brown smog that envelopes us. At every slight lull I console myself that it is coming to an end, only to have hopes smashed by the relentless young men in the white bandanas, now not even a blur in the fireworks fog. The screaming rockets seem to get louder and the explosions high in the sky more earthshaking – or worse, shaking the flower pots above us.
Finally, I hear the first clanging of a church bell from some place out there in the hellish smog. Lucifer’s cohetes have ceased. The rocket launchers in the front of the church slow down. The tower clock says 4:45. A crowd moves forward, loosens up, begins to disperse over the plaza. The rocket attack is over, the church bells pick up their tempo and clang in the glorious news –like the bells of St Petersburg at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 – of victory for St. Michael, for God and good, and for me released to run home to the bathroom.
But not yet, Gringo. “Look” says Marge – emerging from her bunker behind my jacket. “They’re going to set off the Castillos!”
“Great” I groan. By now, Montezuma divisions are at the gates of my sacred gastro-intestinal precincts. My Imodium guards are giving way. The cramps – signaling the impending rout are moving down my legs.
But La Aborada will not be denied. Sure enough, Los Castillos (castles) – 40 foot rickety structures of rods and sticks that look like they are lashed together with cord from which hang bamboo pinwheels loaded with – you guessed it – even more explosives. So for the next 15 minutes we watch our old friends the guys in white sweatshirts light the individual fuses and get the sparking pinwheels whirling in red and green and yellow ferocity, spinning off sparks into the crowd while the flower of Mexican youth dance underneath the burning mess. Then, strung on the several entrance gates to the church, more massive fireworks explode and set the iron gates aflame with crosses and various other taunts to the now defeated Lucifer. The air is filled with triumphant cacophony of mariachi, church bells and pyrotechnical hiss and roar.
My lower intestines – and my dignity — are at the point of surrender, when the ring at the top of the Castillos is lit. It shrieks and whirls around spitting huge sparks. Suddenly, it lifts off like a spinning space ship and floats high above the crowd. Then with a whine, it falls drops into a group of children, and everything is suddenly silent but for the slow tolling of the bells.
A dozen children might have been killed by that thing for all I know, but at that moment I couldn’t care less. I somehow slip and push myself past a thousand happy contented Mexicans, and stumble down the dark cobblestone street to our house while Montezuma stabs and slashes at my bowels. Fumbling keys and shouldering myself inside, I rushed to my own holy sanctuary and there, using the last weapon at my disposal, I flush the wretched Aztec out of my system.
Finally, exhausted I crawl into bed. The first streaks of dawn are in the sky. The bells of La Parroquia are clanging away, boasting of the great victory of Good over Evil, while I quietly and gratefully celebrate the survival of my dignity, barely, in the great Gastrointestinal War.
(NOTE ON THE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OF “MONTEZUMA’S REVENGE.”
On a visit to Mexico during his presidency, Jimmy Carter mentioned at a luncheon with the Mexican president that he had been afflicted with “Montezuma’s Revenge.” He was immediately criticized as having uttered an insensitive racist remark, or at the very least having slurred the honor of Mexican cuisine. But two Mexican friends used the phrase as they expressed condescending condolences to me and I’ve been assured that so long as the Gringo uses it with humor, it is politically acceptable. So, let me assure you that the above was written in the spirit of good fellowship and complete dedication to Mexican-American solidarity. Although it didn’t actually seem so funny at the time).
October 1, 2007