Editor’s note: This is Part 4 in a continuing series by Amy Conroy. To read the other parts, go here.
I have never lived in such a celebratory environment in my life – the ‘fiesta culture’ here never stops! There are citywide parades and festivals all the time, fiestas and social gatherings for every reason, and childrens’ birthday parties that joyfully extend well past bedtimes. Fireworks are an everyday all-the-time occurrence, which is not easy to imagine until you are woken at 4:30 am by a neighborhood celebration that started the day before… at 4 am… los Locos. Our favorite parts are the differences, which I like to categorize: the hilarious, the ridiculous, and the sublimely perfect.
We’ve been here 10 weeks as I write and there have been, at least, 20 holidays in that time period. I kid you, not! There are so many that when my kids saw a row of taxi’s lined up, they jokingly asked if it was the “Dia de Los Taxis”? There seems to be a Day of Everything Else!
More recently, the various neighborhoods have been celebrating their particular Saint. Each section of the city has their own “block party”, but they’re not like Ozzie & Harriet’s. Groups dress up, and everybody wears masks, it really is difficult to see the person behind the costume. Some are more religious, spiritual, or historical than others; some involve more music, food, and pop culture (my kids saw a little boy not over 3 feet high with an Obama mask on that they loved!).
The thrill and fascination of such revelry is literally available every weekend, and while I cannot stop flinging myself into the middle of it for a quick twirl and dance with some fake Lucha Libre; my youngest has a love/hate affair with it all. One minute, she’s dancing; the next, she can’t get far enough away. It’s a contagious feeling and a social phenomenon. As in Mardi Gras or Carnival, it is nearly impossible to observe without feeling pulled to participate.
And that’s not even mentioning the birthday celebrations! We love the piñatas, the ‘Dale Dale’ song, and cascarones, but our favorite birthday tradition is a new one we’ve been introduced to: “mordidita! mordidita!” is chanted all around after the candles are blown out. It’s the prompt for the birthday person’s head to be smashed into the center of the cake by a loving party-goer who is perfectly positioned for the task. We were lucky enough to have been invited to the party by a very spirited mover-and-shaker who wasn’t waiting for the prod. Totally surprising us AND the whole party, the newest little 5-year-old on the block smashed his own face into his cake, filling it with frosting like a clown in a pie contest. It was awesome! Hilarious! And stunning. Immediately my 5-year-old declared, “I’m going to do that, too, when it’s my birthday!”
I love this culture. These people know how to celebrate life.
But the most ridiculous ‘tradition’ we’ve witnessed thus far was the highly anticipated blowing up of the Judas’. What? You haven’t heard of this before? Yes, it is a San Miguel tradition that pulls crowds by the hundreds into the middle of the Jardin, averaging nearly 99˚F, every Easter Day. Nothing like celebrating the rise of Christ by blowing up 30 larger than life-size piñatas in the center of town! Honestly, it was crazy! They string up approximately 30 huge paper mache persons (decorated with great political commentary), and then proceed to blow each one up to smithereens!
In disbelief I watched the first few and was informed that while they previously used M80’s, the ante had been upped. So, the city employee nonchalantly puffs a smoke and then ignites the next “victim” with his cigarette. BOOM! The crowd goes wild with hands over their ears, “ohwww!” and then bursts into hysterical, inappropriate laughter. It’s like one huge tension release! Greek tragedians would have loved the catharsis.
The minute all has been blown, everyone rushes to claim their very own broken limb, a souvenir of the day. The heads that are still dangling, take notice, are worth quite a bit more – and for those, you must pay. What?! So let me get this straight: people make paper mache “dolls” of public figures, blow them up with the lite of a cigarette, and then bystanders collect the body parts as souvenirs, and some people pay money for their souvenirs… all to celebrate Easter? It is wild, absolutely wild.
The Perfectly Sublime
Hilarity and ridiculousness aside, I have also encountered the ‘magic’ of this traditional culture. It’s here everyday, of course, in the little things.
One Friday at the start of Semana Santa in April, we were walking down the street with friends at dusk. It was crowded. I asked what the beautiful smell was, and somebody in the street told me it was perfume. I thought to myself: I really should shower more. About 100 yards ahead, we realized that the streets were crowded because people were cued up to enter into a large privately owned house. It was Viernes de Dolores and altars were abundant – this particular home had created an altar inside their luscious courtyard and opened their doors to the community. We lined up, dutifully, to see the Virgin. But the minute we stepped inside, I lost all sense of time and space.
Hundreds of people had walked over the traditional Saltillo tiles covered in mint stalks. The aroma that I had asked about previously was that of the mint being mashed by people in line to view the altar and receive gifts! The aroma wafted down blocks… It was incredible. I was transported. It altered the city. We circled around the atrium and fountain decorated with candles and flowers and carpets of colored seeds lining the passage.
Upon exiting the gorgeous altar and home, the hosts graciously offered everyone flowers and a paleta, as a symbol of the sweet tears of the Virgin Mary. It was an anthropologists’ dream to participate in such a rich tradition. My son actually said to me “Now I understand, mommy, I am so glad you took us to Mexico!” My heart floated, we laughed and I hugged my girlfriend. For a moment, I felt the world to be perfect.
When my first child marries someday (in the far off future!), I plan to line the aisle in mint stalks.