One thing that foreigners living in Mexico soon learn is that fireworks are a very important part of the culture, which may start or stop at just about anytime of the day or night. This is because their use is not limited to certain patriotic holidays, but are used in just about all community celebrations, especially patron saints’ days.
While certainly there are fireworks imported from China, there is still a vibrant tradition of local production. The center of this production was Mexico City, until a major warehouse which contained explosives (of what kind exactly is still disputed) caught fire, causing major damage and deaths in nearby residential areas.
This led to a ban on fireworks production and to a large extent, use, in Mexico City proper in the 1950s. This ban seriously disrupted the livelihood not only to families who produced fireworks, but also to those who produced cartonería (paper mache) as the most popular cartonería item was Judas Iscariot figures, created to be destroyed by the fireworks attached to them. (See the article on Leonardo Linares for more information.)
Fireworks use has returned to Mexico City, although perhaps not to the extent previously, as Judas “burnings” are still done only in certain events with special permission from authorities. But the firecrackers and small rockets are certain to wake up those who forget the local calendar of celebrations.
The making of these fireworks, however, has permanently been banned, and forced fireworks makers out… and primarily into neighboring Estado de México (lit. State of Mexico, commonly referred to as Edomex). Most are now produced in northern suburbs of the capital, with more in the Toluca Valley and some in communities scattered in other parts of the country.
The suburb of Tultepec, Edomex has the largest production and has proclaimed itself the capital of Mexican fireworks. It is home to the country’s main major fireworks market, as well as an entire section of the city which is dominated by small family-owned and operated workshops, La Saucera. Although fireworks making is regulated by federal authorities, especially those which explode, there are an estimated 500 artisans who work illegally in Edomex alone.
Most of what is produced is recognizable to non-Mexicans, firecrackers, rockets, sparklers (which can to be larger than anything permitted for personal use in the US), there are several ways of using them which are unique to the county.
The first is the aforementioned Judases. Although other countries have a ritual of burning Judas Iscariot in effigy, none put in the care in making the effigies like Mexico does, nor “burns” them by simply exploding them into pieces. With the decline of Judases in Mexico City, came the advent of “alebrijes” fantastic colorful creatures which were developed by Pedro Linares from Judases. In a perhaps unconscious homage to alebrijes’ origins, those made in Tultepec and nearby communities to be exploded the same way as Judases. While Judas burnings are no longer common, and no longer done by individuals (with the exception of the Linares family), the tradition survives at a number of community events, which are able to get the required permits.
A more common and more individual way of setting off fireworks is with the use of frames/figures called toritos, lit. “little bulls.” These range from small decorated frames made from reeds which can be worn or carried by an individual, to massive frames covered in cartonería paper mache on wheels. In both cases, the toritos are loaded with firecracker arrangements (which sometimes designed shoot out candy onto crowds) and are paraded onto the streets as part of religious festivals, especially for local patron saints. The exploding of fireworks onto these bulls is a kind of “sacrifice” meant to demonstrate gratitude to the saint or other figure for favors and protection received.
Castillos (“castles”) are similar, frames loaded with fireworks. However, these are meant to stay in one place, and can range in size from tabletop to heights of several stories. Because of this, frames can be made from a variety of materials, with the larger ones made of wood. The fireworks on these structures are generally meant to power moving parts such as wheels on the tower and visual effects most often to create a figure. There are two types. Those meant to be set off in the day and those for the night. The former generally have fireworks for propulsion, with the color and designs provided by crepe paper. The latter will have fireworks for both motion and visual effects.
Tultepec’s importance as a fireworks production and commercialization zone led it to become the site of the annual National Pyrotechnic Festival in 1989. The festival runs for ten days, with events dedicated to certain types of fireworks formations (toritos, castles, etc) along with cultural events such as concerts. The most important of the events is a Pamplona-style “running of the bulls” (really exploding toritos) in the city center. Second in importance is a competition of gigantic castillos at the nearby fairgrounds.
The event is held each year in the spring, with the 2015 version slated from March 7 to March 16. More information can be found at http://www.dondehayferia.com/feria-nacional-de-la-pirotecnia-tultepec-2015 and the official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Feria-Nacional-de-la-Pirotecnia-Tultepec-Oficial-329924503716746/?fref=nf (both in Spanish)
If you plan to attend the festival, especially the setting off the castillos, be sure to have an automobile or nearby lodging as various events ends long after public transportation stops running. Tultepec also has unpredictable weather, and March nights can get quite cold.