Fun on the Fourth of July

Yes, there were fireworks in Mexico on the Fourth of July. Not for U.S. Independence Day, of course, but in the little Oaxaca Valley town of Teotitlán del Valle, where they were celebrating the town fiesta that always falls during the first week of July. Just happened to be July 4 this year.

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The fireworks castillo — the stationary pyrotechnics tower that would not be allowed in any U.S. venue governed by OSHA safety regulations – was really just a part of a whole week of activities that involved a calenda parade, multiple presentations of the Danza de la Pluma (the danced conquest of Mexico) and a street carnival eagerly anticipated in this town of 6,000 with no movie theatre, shopping mall, bowling alley, dance hall or other formal entertainment center.

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Having a bit of selective amnesia – I always forget the parts about logistically complicated transportation and the sad truth that I really don’t stay up late all that well – I suggested to a few girlfriends that we make an overnight outing out of it to go see the Danza and fireworks. Although our friend Michelle (who rents a fabulous large house on the outskirts of town) wasn’t actually in residence, we finagled an invitation from Jill, who’s renting from Michelle for the summer. House party, in place.

I actually remembered enough about the transportation to Michelle’s house (normally a four-part connection of walk-bus-bus-mototaxi) and arranged for Felipe, a local Teotitlán taxista, to come pick us up at my place in Oaxaca for door-to-door service – an almost ridiculously low fee of $12 for four of us and a 30-minute ride.

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Felipe didn’t show, but his brother Abraham did, which was fine. We dropped our stuff (a small backpack apiece, plus snacks and drinks) at the house and hung out for a bit on the terrace with its gorgeous view of Picachu, the town’s holy mountain. Then we walked the 15 minutes or so down the steep hill to town, where the little carnival took up the short streets by the church and market.

Besides pizza, hotcake and hamburger stands, there was just the one taco stand open to eat around 6 – and odd time for locals, who eat their main meal around 3 p.m. and a late-night snack sometime after 8. Not much had changed since I’d been there two years ago, though tacos were now $8 pesos instead of $6 for inflation, and we had to ask now 10-year-old Mauricio if he’d sing (see Holy Fireworks and a Singing Cowboy, published July 15, 2013). He did, minus the dancing with us ladies.

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Fireworks were billed to start at 10, so we headed back to the house for a while for another terrace sitting. Of course we should have known better, but we still went back to town around 9, mostly to avoid walking down the steep hill and rutted dirt road in the dark.

We hit the shooting galleries, two for air-rifles and one for balloon-darts, and I have to modestly say that I can still hit a target. Mauricio had been following us around after dinner, and we gave him alternate shots on the rifle ($20 pesos for 10 shots, or about $1.60 being too steep for a village kid).

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When I went four for four on the darts and won my choice of ceramic knickknack from the prize section, I let Mauricio pick it out and keep it. You’d have thought it was a car, he was so excited and surprised. I should have tried for another for his little sister, though.

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Someone had said they’d only seen one toro – the papier-maché bull head someone puts on and dances around under while its attached fireworks spit and spark – but that was also unreasonably optimistic. The crowd of a few hundred, mostly standing though some, like me, had brought stools to sit on, gamely watched – count ‘em – 13 toros, four angels and four turkeys as a prelude to the castillo.

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They got around to lighting that at 11:45, I think, since village time doesn’t observe Daylight Savings and is actually an hour off of city time. The poor castillo, which is supposed to have its parts all continuously lit from one section to another, kept fizzling and having to be relit.

There was a sparkling feather dancer and the final section spun out “Preciosa Sangre de Cristo” (Precious Blood of Christ), which is both the name of the church we were in front of and the week-long town fiesta. It didn’t actually fizzle out until right at 1 a.m., only three hours or so past my normal bedtime.

We’d asked Abraham to pick us up when the fireworks were over to avoid the uphill walk back to the house in the dark, but it was so ambiguous a time frame and so late that he didn’t show. So we five aging gringas packed it back up the hill with three flashlights and fortunately no one fell in a hole or was accosted by the street dogs that are part of a Mexican town landscape.

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The company was wonderful and we got a peaceful, though short, night’s sleep in Michelle’s fabulous house with breakfast in the morning before catching a collectivo back to the city around 1 p.m. We got to hear Mauricio sing and see the Danza de la Pluma (see Twelve Feather Dancers and a Virgin, published December 20, 2014 for more stories and history of the dance). I got to show off my shooting skills, sort of rare these days, and give Mauricio a carnival prize.

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But I’m going to try to remember when July rolls around next year that it’s really a predictable outcome: the Danza de la Pluma is an incredible show of strength and agility, but beautiful costumes aside, Spain is still going to conquer Mexico. The toros are going to go on way too long for my taste – although I truly do understand the townspeople wanting to get their money’s worth on a rare fiesta day. And as for the fireworks, I’ll just shrug and say, “I saw them last year.”

— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org

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