The San Andres Festival

Once upon a time, San Andres Totoltepec was independent of Mexico City. Straddling the slopes of the Xitla volcano, San Andres watched as the city spread wider and wider, engulfing the countryside till at last there was no space left to be a border between the implacable city and the town. The church of San Andres, once at the heart of the town, now became just another node in the city’s campaign to rid the surroundings borders and regions. Everything must be the City, the City alone must prevail.
Now, the slopes of the volcano are yet another small feature of the City. Mexico City has subsumed the land, and the loyalty of the inhabitants is slowly shifting from the little town that they were all part of to the giant city that barely notices them.
And then, every year, the patron saint of San Andres, the saint with the crossed cross, reminds these citizens of their true allegiance. On the 29th of November, or on an auspicious date set by the Church, San Andres comes alive with the memory of an older time, a time when the land and it’s people wore their origin with pride. But the preparations for the fiesta of San Andres start early. Since it is a celebration of the patron saint, it implies, no- it behooves all the people to be involved in someway or the other. Some merely donate money to pay for celebrations: often at 2 am in the morning of the Day of the Dead, when teams of people fire rockets into the sky in front of their house, as a glimpse, a foretaste of what to expect when the day finally arrives. The preparations start at least three months in advance, and it is not trivial: there are musicians to entice down to San Andres, there are the people who elaborate the fireworks, there are the dancers and the stall keepers and the children’s fairs and the flower sellers…
And then, the day finally arrives. There has been a steady uptick of excitement all month long leading up to the day, with occasional rockets firing their message of smoke and light and BANG into the hazy sky above the City. Unable to be patient anymore, the rockets trace their inevitable trajectories, and the City barely twitches at this new noise. People start arriving at the Church of San Andres, the epicenter of the festivities, but we wait it out. We are waiting for midnight, which is when the Castilla will be set in motion. Assisted by the cool soft fire of tequila, and in a conversation punctuated by rockets exploding in white puffs, we wait, till at last we can wait no more and we head down the hill to join the throng. This is the first time that I have ventured into the heart of the town. We walk across a bridge over the highway, a highway that was once a path to Cuernavaca and now is still a path to Cuernavaca, only much bigger. The rockets are whistling their way to a fiery death above us. As we head deeper and deeper into the town, the crowds grow. We are late: people have been assembling for ages, piling into the courtyard of the church. There are so many people gathered that we consider it lucky that we are able to stand just in front of the entrance, lucky that we can see the great skeleton of the Castilla, because that is what we came to see. It’s just about to begin, and I barely pay any attention to all the stalls and the streetside vendors with their little hot pans with biscuits or the corn vendors with large friendly faces. We position ourselves carefully and wait. Occasional rockets. Large bangs and an outpouring of light, oh so close, the flaming debris. More rockets, they alternate a bit to prevent any tedium, and to make sure that we look up despite the straining neck.
And then, just as I start wondering if we’ve somehow arrived too soon, the Castilla erupts into action. Till now, we stood waiting in front of this immense scaffolding, a skeletal structure of a castle. We can barely see it in the dim gloom of the church courtyard; the yellow light of the sodium lamps of the street don’t reach the Castilla. I could merely see the outline, I could make out vague shapes. But the fire changed everything. The bottom section of the Castilla burst into a burning revolving pattern, a spinning wheel powered by rockets affixed to the sides of the circle. Inside the circle, a fiery representation, patterns of fire that gently deftly twisted and morphed from one to another as the gunpowder spent its energy. The wheel spun and spun, turning only by the burning of its attendant rockets. Finally it sputtered, and the pattern vanished point by point, pixel by pixel, and soon the straggling points of light subsided into the darkness. A moment of darkness, that lasted only a moment, as rockets took to the air launched in succession, exploding in tandem, little globules of glowing green orbs shedding drops of flame and bangs, and other rockets creating a incandescent globe of light around the church, while we waited for the hidden fuse fire to creep along the Castilla. And then, after a suitable pause to prepare us for the next marvel, another section of the Castilla came alive. No spinning wheels this time, instead, a quadrilateral display of furious fireworks, hissing and sputtering, a series of parallelograms within a rectangle, that gently swung in and out changing shapes and patterns as the flames etched their floral patterns across the dark and across our eyes.The moments passed like this, each new section of the Castilla burnt in its turn, and each section drew a symbol in fire- a bell, a host, a cross, a crown- till it by bit each section of the Castilla had sent its message. More spinning wheels, whirling in tandem, alternating in direction and switching their messages in tune with the demands of the rockets.
And then, a climax. The entire front of the Castilla burst forth in an immense depiction of the Saint Andrews himself, brandishing his cross. As we watched, he morphed into a crucified Christ and then, of course, a virgin Guadalupe. Words asking for the Saint’s continued patronage beseeched us in flame. Surely that was the last one? But no, as soon as the pinpricks of light disappeared, the spinning wheels started again: this time at the highest point of the Castilla and on the sides, spinning wheels that brought forth various faces, peacocks and more symbols. I’m not sure if they intended it thus, but the wind was blowing strongly across the Castilla, and when the next set of fireworks were set off, a veritable torrent of flaming rain swept into the courtyard. The entire courtyard was awash with light and fire, and surely the enthralled throng below were dodging the odd speck of fire, but most of us watched in awe at the torrent of flame.
The show is over, but already the men are clambering up the now silent Castilla. There will be another one tomorrow and another one the night after, and there is much to be done.


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