The Art of Fire
                                Ephemeral Folk Art at Its Best!
                                                 San Juan Nuevo, Michoac

Without reservation, I can say that Mexico's national love for fireworks ranks right up there with tequila and mariachis.  But not just any fireworks.  We're talking towering exploding fireworks that blind, deafen and leave one speechless!  Follow me and please watch your step.

A display of this magnitude takes place every spring in ironically, San Juan Nuevo, Michoacán.  The irony is that the former San Juan Parangaricutiro was violently and suddenly swallowed by lava, ash and fire during the eruption of Paricutin in 1943, and all that remains is a lone church steeple rising above smoldering lava fields.  The surviving villagers promptly founded San Juan Nuevo, and today are bringing the fire to the church, so to speak.

ABOVE:  Towering castillos seemingly occupy the very sky itself in front of the church in San Juan Nuevo.

It is in San Juan Nuevo that we met Manuel Rivas, one of Mexico's foremost fireworks enthusiasts, quite by accident.  We were admiring the number and sheer size of castillos (fireworks towers—literally castles) under construction when Manuel walked up and excitedly began to "talk fireworks".

"Have you been to San Juan's display before?  Can you stay for both nights?".  Well no.  We were just coming by to see the church during the day...and, our apartment is all the way over in Pátzcuaro, our voices trailing off as Manuel's disappointment became evident.  Undeterred, he launched into the top ten reasons why we should return to San Juan Nuevo that night.  He reached into his wallet and handed me his card.

                               Manuel Rivas, THE FIREWORKS CHANNEL

It was him.  The "fireworks man" in the flesh.

"I was in Tultepec this year.  I am in Tultepec every year".  He was talking about the annual fireworks competition—the fireworks olympics if you will—of Mexico.  "It was nothing this year.  Rainy, and not so many castillos.  San Juan will be a hundred times better.  No, a thousand times better!  You would have to go to China to see something like this!".  He had our attention.

I had discovered The Fireworks Channel (web site) while researching Tultepec in February.  We couldn't make it, but I did not forget the man behind the web site, Manuel Rivas, and his singular quest to spread the art and glory of Mexican fireworks around the world.

ABOVE:  The fearless maestros erected the tall "castillo" towers, then scramble skyward in order to meticulously wire every inch with charges, fuses, and "the works" that would ignite in a carefully orchestrated fire-show tonight.

"Look at them work.  They are the best!".  We admired the maestros effortlessly crawling up and down the wobbley castillo super structures for a moment as Manuel continued to work on changing our minds about tonight.  "I work with them during the day and sleep with them on the ground at night.  I love it!  I am taking some of them to Malta to the big competition this year so Mexico will be represented.  We are some of the best pyrotechnicians in the world!".  OK.  He had us.  If he could get these guys to Malta, we could make it to San Juan Nuevo tonight.

Despite a very full day, we returned to San Juan Nuevo breaking the first rule of Mexican travel.  Never drive at night.  Never.  Especially down dark country roads.  In the vein of "we're all going down together", we made Rick's mom come with us.

Snaking through the hills on rutted dirt roads we couldn't help but wonder what in the heck had we gotten ourselves into.  We soon reached San Juan Nuevo which seemed so much further away at night.  We parked the car in a direction facilitating a fast exit and meandered towards the main plaza in front of the church where a polite crowd had gathered.

Things started slowly enough with a few rockets.  And the crowd was not especially large.  Just the locals.  Were we really in for an evening worthy of China?  Suddenly with a flourish, music boomed across the loud speakers and an announcer began bragging about tonight's events in an impressive baritone voice.  Perfectly timed for dramatic effect, first one castillo and then the next went up in a whoosh of sparks, each more dazzling than the prior.  Color, smoke and music filled the air, and a rain of sparks came down on the entire crowd with me running with camera in-hand attempting to escape serious injury.  It was so exciting in that "you could never do THIS in the States" sort of way.  And it was non-stop from there.

With rockets reverberating in our ears, we watched as each spectacular display unfurled...unfurled like licking flames taunting the facade of the church.  We were hypnotized.  Mesmerized.  And in complete awe.  It was loud.  It was artful.  It was beautiful.  It was EVERYTHING.

We lost track of time, but when it was all over stood speechless unable to process what we had just witnessed.  I finally managed to form the word, "Wow!", and then we couldn't shut up.  The best we had ever seen!  Ever!  In our entire lives!  In the entire world!  Viva Mexico!

We never saw Manuel that night.  He was in the trenches with the maestros he admired so much.  Given the chance, we would have smothered him with more than "un mil, mil gracias" for this experience.


As for next year, we cannot wait to return to be charred, blasted and regaled by the artistry of the pyrotechnic maestros of Mexico once again...and Manuel's unbridled enthusiasm for Mexican fireworks.  And yes.  Rick's mom is coming, too!

Written September 1, 2007.
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

After thoughts...
Manuel Rivas and the Mexican pyrotechnic team made it to Malta and Spain.  He is busy fund-raising in the name of fireworks, and continues his quest to document all the great displays in Mexico and around the world, showcasing the videos on The Fireworks Channel web site.  Manuel and I correspond as his busy schedule allows, and as promised, I did send him all of my photos from that spectacular night in San Juan Nuevo.