The Art of Fire
Ephemeral Folk Art at Its Best!
San Juan Nuevo, Michoacán
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.
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 towersliterally
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 competitionthe fireworks
olympics if you willof 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.
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
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
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
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
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.