Last updateFri, 29 May 2015 4pm

Daring alchemists: thunderous funerals, soaring castles aflame with burning proverbs

The stuttery rains that have blown over the Cerrro de Santa Cruz some distance south of Guadalajara have been disappointing thus far (May 28). But campesinos there were so eager for the temporada de lluvias to begin, in any kind of way, that they celebrated extravagantly with a barrage of booking cohetes (skyrockets), a few pistol shots and not a little aguardiente — literally, firewater.

The Holy plowman

By then, they’d been setting off cohetes in their fields for some time. Some started the noisy ritual as early as May 12, the Day of San Isidro Labrador — the Holy plowman. The 12th is generally a big day for celebrating in much of the countryside for it also honors Nuestra Señora del Rosario, El Señor de la Ascencion, El Señor de la Misericordia, Jueves de Ascencion and Pentecost in various Jalisco agricultural villages. Then, of course, there is Corpus Cristi, marked by some twice: once on June 11, the old date of the religious celebration called Jueves de Corpus, followed by the “new” celebration date, June 14. Domingo de Corpus. In between comes San Antonio Day, June 13, when in much of highland Jalisco the temporada de lluvias traditionally is supposed to begin.

Though these are all Roman Catholic feast days, they also represent the primal impulse to honor the earth’s powers of fertility, an impulse still vitally alive in many rural communities and certainly among many campesino families.

Burials aren’t the same

And in such communities, not surprisingly, local coheteros (makers of skyrockets) are among the happiest, and busiest, celebrants. That’s because in many places their trade is in decline. 

“Not even the burials are the way they used to be anymore. Now in places like Guadalajara and some other large towns The dead are taken to the cemetery without even a single skyrocket being set off. Not even in cases when they’re angelitos (children under ten), which once was the tradition everywhere,” laments Jesus Diaz Gomez, a countryside cohetero.

He, his brother and two cousins — all of them in their 70s — carry on the family’s tradition of pyrotechnical production. Their grandfather, Lupe, taught them. Until the 1980s most fair sized country communities, especially if they are the cabeceras de municipio — county seats — had at least a couple of firework-making families. In the Guadalajara metropolitan zone, it’s estimated there are some 60 coheteros, who primarily serve businesses, churches, hotels, clubs and “official” institutions with their colorful, dangerous craft.

Chuy Diaz Gomez, 73, considers himself lucky, not only because business has been good, but because he has never had a severe accident. The fact that, “if you’re not very, very careful, the cohetes you’re making will light up your own farewell,” makes for great caution. But even with a lot of care, he says, “there’s always a chance an accident can happen. There are always matches and cigarettes, or an electrical spark around somewhere. Or you forget something at the wrong moment.”

Toritos and castles

Besides sky rockets, he makes toritos, buscapies and castillos. A torito, made of fire-proofed papier mache shaped like the top half of a small bull, is carried to cover the head and back of a hunched runner. As he zigzags across a crowded fiesta plaza, it spouts Roman-candle-like sparklers and/or buscapies, which are small torpedos, that spin through the air, and along the ground to explode loudly. Buscapies are impressive, for they often seem to follow one individual, no matter how the person dodges. And they’re forceful. At a pueblo saint’s day fiesta some years ago, a buscapie hurtled across a church yard and buried itself in the wooden church door, inches away from the head of my sister-in-law. A young woman much traveled in the developing world, she found this occurrence cause for laughter.

Please login or subscribe to view the complete article.