A little context to the Tultepec fireworks disaster

Last week a disaster in Tultepec, State of Mexico made international headlines. On December 20, 2016, during the busy Christmas season, fire and explosions ripped through the San Pablito fireworks market, just north of Mexico City. Latest news reports indicate at least 35 dead and about 60 injured.

This is not the first time there has been a major mishap related to fireworks in Mexico. In fact, Tultepec’s status as “Mexico’s fireworks capital” and the existance of the San Pablito market is due to previous disasters related to the important role fireworks play in Mexican culture.

427px-fireworksvirgindoc2Although they are use for secular celebrations such as Independence Day and New Year’s, the majority are set off for religious reasons. It would be nearly unthinkable to celebrate a patron saint’s day, no matter how local, without them, and large celebrations (such as the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe)  can mean rockets and more going off all night. One use of fireworks, the “burning” of Judas Iscariot effigies on Holy Saturday, is strongly controlled by local governments, but this is the one exception to the fact that fireworks use is widely diffused among the general populace… and often set off with little to no regard as to who is nearby. This is a testament to Mexico’s resistance to the nanny-state mentality so pervasive in the Western world.

Upper left: a “castillo” (castle) frame, Lower left: sign for the 2012 Fireworks Festival and Right: “bulls” laden with fireworks set off in a crowd

This does not mean that the government has a completely hands-off approach. While Tultepec has been making fireworks for 200 years or so, the industry burgeoned in the mid-20th century. In 1957, there was a major explosion at the La Merced Market in Mexico City, which at the time was a major distribution center for fireworks. Officially, the fireworks were blamed for the disaster but there are those who still believe that military munitions were also there. The explosions leveled much of the market and inflicted severe damage to the surrounding area. Shortly after, city authorities forbade the manufacture and wholesaling of fireworks in Mexico City proper. To this day, sales of fireworks in the city is minimal.

There are two areas in Tultepec dedicated to fireworks, with production concentrated in the La Saucera area and the marketing in San Pablito. Fireworks manufacture remains almost exclusively done by small family-owned businesses, with generations learning the craft through apprenticeship rather than formal training. While there are regulations in the production and selling processes, there is lax enforcement and many families in Tultepec and beyond conduct their business irregularly. Another issue is that Mexican fireworks tend to be more powerful than Chinese-made ones and most do not meet the safety standards for export to the United States.

Previously, the same San Pablito market had a major explosion in 2006. This most recent incident is embarrassing to authorities as only a few years ago the State of Mexico declared the market to be the safest in Latin America. This accident leveled the entire market. Cause of the disaster is not yet known and a number of bodies have yet to be identified. There is no doubt that new regulations will be introduced in the coming months and years, but it would be very surprising if this will lead to any wholesale changes in how the business is conducted.

Update: Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to rebuild the market.

Featured image is from the Publimetro newspaper. All other photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia

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