It’s a brisk, moonless night. At the edge of the Ajijic plaza, an anxious group of villagers huddle shoulder to shoulder, casting expectant glances towards the star-studded sky. A sudden barrage of whistling, sputtering explosives rents the night air. The crowd takes a collective lunge backwards, letting out a gasp of wondrous surprise. A brilliant flash of multi-colored lights illuminates the mass of upturned faces.
A spaceship landing in our Mexican village? Well, no. Better than that, it’s el castillo, the dazzling pyrotechnic climax of the day’s fiesta celebration.
The castillo –castle–is a minor engineering marvel, a labor-intensive creation of our local rocket man, el cohetero . Starting with a sturdy center pole he crafts around it an intricate, maze-like structure with narrow strips of carrizo, a hardy local bamboo-related reed. To the basic framework he attaches carrizo wheels and other geometric shapes at different levels, each laced with the assorted fire crackers, fountains and rockets he has concocted in days past.
Once assembled, the castillo is set up in the middle of the street leading to the parish church, accommodated in a special space made by digging up a few good-sized cobblestones. It towers 20 to 30 feet skyward, a tangle of long fuses dangling from each layer.
As the fiesta fervor reaches its peak, somewhere between ten and eleven o’clock, the rocket man knowingly selects the first fuse, igniting it with the glowing stub of his cigarette– coheteros are inclined to be incorrigible smokers. With a sputter, then a bang, the happy conflagration begins. Rainbow-colored Catherine wheels wheeze and spin. Dazzling diamonds fulminate in pink, purple and green. Roman candles fizzle and seethe. Silvery fountains spill out a deluge of man-made stars.
Layer upon layer, the castillo drama unfolds, and with it the crush of celebrants laugh, hoot and applaud. Eager niños push and prod, squeezing between the grown-ups for a closer view. The most daring of them to dash out to jig and giggle among the tumbling sparks, covering their heads with tattered scraps of cardboard.
Suspense comes with the lighting of each new façade, for lurking within may be a barrage of buscapies, the speeding, helter-skelter foot-searchers that will scatter the crowd, setting off screams of fear and delight.
In contrast to sophisticated north of the border fireworks, whose beauty and precision is observed from a long, safe distance, Mexican pyrotechnics are crude, unpredictable and unnervingly close at hand. In one great sparkling package the castillo seems to embody all the intrinsic excitement of this land: color and noise bombarding the senses, a tantalizing brush with danger and the unexpected — above all, unbridled joie de vivre.
The rocket man’s finest artwork comes at the top of the castillo. Fiery hues outline figures that may allude to the gremio (guild) sponsoring the day’s pyrotechnics: a boat for fishermen, a guitar for musicians, flowers and butterflies for gardeners. The size and distinct design of each castillo is determined by the sponsors’ pocketbook and the cohetero’s creative whims. Like snowflakes, no two are ever alike.
The crowd shuffles restlessly as the last fuse is lit. There is a pause. An . . . ti . . . ci . . .pa. . .tion. Is this one a dud? Crackle, fizz, pop-pop-pop. No, it’s not! At the castillo’s apex, the corona (crown) comes ablaze, whirling round and round, faster and faster until, with a sudden exhilarating whoosh, it zooms off towards the stratosphere.
This captivating, dramatic climax is not the end of the story for the cohetero. Afterwards he may go on to light up a special display strung around the plaza, or ignite a deafening round of salvos in the atrium of the church. For certain our rocket man will be up before sunrise, shooting off dozens of cohetes de trueno (thunder rockets) to announce the dawning of a new fiesta day.
With a calendar chock full of religious festivities, the cohetero sets off hundreds, thousands of fireworks in the course of a year. He makes them all, too. His is a world of polvora (gunpowder) and other scary substances–and let’s not forget those cigarettes! Still, I have an inkling that the full-tilt glory of the castillo, and the collective catharsis it seems to bring about, makes it all worthwhile. In a land where, for the most part, life is hard, this man’s vocation is one that helps keep people smiling.
(This piece is dedicated to Jim Tuck, writer and thinker extraordinaire whose vehement opinions on cohetes I do not share. And to all the grumpy gringos who gripe about the cohetes disturbing their slumber.)