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Dodging rockets in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb

The author and mate /photographer Diana Ricci, at the entrance to their 100-year-old Apartment building in Oaxaca in 1996. Photography by Diana Ricci

Miracles are part of everyday life to the people of Oaxaca. Their ancient forbearers expected them. Their Catholic conquerors venerated them. Even today, when greeting someone who they have not seen for a long time, they will say "que milagro": what a miracle!

Most of the holidays that we celebrate here relate to some sort of miraculous occurrence, and the week-long celebration in honor of "El Señor de Los Rayos" is no exception. El Señor is, in fact, a wooden icon. A lifesize rendering of Christ on the cross of crucifixion. He currently resides in the Cathedral of Oaxaca. He was brought there after the church he inhabited was struck by lightning ("rayos" in Spanish) and burned to the ground. When the fire died out, there was El Señor, untouched by the conflagration. Truly, a miracle.

During his time of the year, the faithful line up and wait, sometimes for hours, for the privilege of kissing the feet of this miraculous icon, after which they are served horchata (or-CHA-ta: a drink made of rice) and pass outside the cathedral, where many of them set off bottle rockets and buster fireworks, symbols of the lightning and the thunder that accompanied the original event.

On the last night of his veneration, the Church puts on a fireworks display that is rivaled only by the Governor's Independence Day extravaganza. The finale is a forty-foot high "castillo" (cas-TEE-yo: castle), made of bamboo and laced with layers of flares, rockets, cherry bombs and other explodables. Only one match is used, and once lit the fire goes from one set to another in orderly, well-timed fashion. As an encore, there is a cascada (cas-CAD-a: waterfall) which falls over the front of the Cathedral in a white, glowing Niagara.

For an hour before the castillo is fired up, the crowd gets a chance to share in El Señor's karma: being proof from fire. One after another, men carrying wooden figures (a turkey, a horse, a bull, an altar) with fireworks-impregnated bamboo frames on top, dash into and out of the crowd as pinwheels spin, cherry bombs explode, and rockets take off. Not all of the rockets go up. Some go spinning off into the crowd.

Pamplona must be like this, when the bulls are run. The figures feint, and the crowd surges back. A rocket takes off sideways, but raises slightly, expiring harmlessly in the air, and the crowd sighs its relief. Another one lands in the crowd, and someone is assisted to the waiting ambulances for burn treatment. People bring their infant children, a practice which -- not quite willing to put my faith in "los manos de dios" (the hands of God) -- I find appalling.

We were well back from the main body of the crowd, but a rocket -so fast that we hardly had time to register it - smacked Teresa, a friend standing next to Diana, in the mouth. The woman standing next to her got the ricochet, and a severe burn on her arm. Teresa spent the rest of the evening holding ice to her fat lip. The woman headed for the ambulances. Fun can be dangerous business in Oaxaca. Next year, we will wait in one of the portales (por-TAL-ais: sidewalk cafes) down the street, until it is castillo time.

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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