Sunday, October 11, 2009

Love a Parade?

San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is a place that loves to party. Seemingly spontaneous cultural performances in public places, skyrockets going off at all hours, police patrolling cobblestone streets in uniforms evoking the days of General Santana and the Alamo; such are everyday occurrences in this anachronistic Spanish colonial town, which in 2008 earned designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that, when the date of the town’s patron saint, the Arcangel San Miguel, rolls around on the calendar, SMA pulls out all the stops. What follows is a small sampling…

Walking across town to play tennis early Saturday morning, I had to thread my way through vendors setting up their stalls—pecans piled high on wobbly tables, alongside sweets, baked goods, and cheap plastic trinkets. By the time I made my way back a couple hours later, the fireworks workers (fireworkers?) were busy constructing steel frame castillos (towers), tying on rockets, and threading fuses. According to the local events calendar, activities and processions had been underway since 3AM (sorry, no firsthand reports on that), though skyrocketeers and the local league of amateur ballistics enthusiasts had been heralding the upcoming events for days..
We walked toward the centro late afternoon alongside a steady stream of other partygoers, streets crowded with creeping cars hoping to get lucky with a parking spot. As we neared the Jardin (central plaza) people plotzed onto sidewalks, waiting for the parade. We pressed on, drawn by drumming, until we intersected the action. Leading the charge were Mojigangas, giant paper mache dolls that played on themes ranging from bawdy to comical to diabolical; swinging, swaying, dancing. Following was an endless procession of dance troupes comprising folks of all ages, representing local neighborhoods and area communities, decked out in impressively finished costumes, colorfully reflecting an astonishing diversity of themes; accompanied by incessant drumming amplified by the narrow confines of the stone architecture. Each group had a theme: diverse indigenous tribes; conquistadors; remembrance of political injustice; cowboys and Indians; friars; viceroys; Aztec warriors decked with ankle rattles and amazing feather headdresses; beauty queens perched atop Chevy convertibles; demons patrolling from side to side scaring the bejezus out of little kids; and other acts which could only be described as full-on flights of fancy by small-town creatives with a flair for the ridiculous. (“What do you think of this fluorescent lime-green fabric? I got it cheap!” “It’ll go great with this bucket of pink paint I found behind the hardware store.” “Cool!” “I need more feathers!” “Are the beards on these masks too pointy?” “No, make them pointier!”)

Hours later, the parade thinned to a few face-painted stragglers, and the crowd shifted toward the open courtyard in front of the Parroquia (SMA’s iconic, baroquely intricate, sandstone cathedral landmark) to witness the voladores (human flyers)... 
(For more pics and a couple video clips of the dancers, go to

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Los Voladores (The Flyers)

The parade had thinned to a few face-painted stragglers, and the crowd shifted toward the open courtyard in front of the Parroquia. A steel column fitted with rungs had been erected center-plaza, towering a dozen stories above the crowd, with a crow’s nest affair perched on top. Four intrepid souls in traditional dress scaled the tower, each dragging a rope skyward. As these brave fellows wound their ropes onto a spindle drum, a fifth followed them to the top, toting drum and flute. All the while, Aztec warriors in feathered headdress and ankle rattles danced around the base of the column, accompanied by the incessant drumming. Attention was drawn skyward as the climbers fell backwards off their perches, ropes tied around their waists. The voladores swung wider and wider as the spindle paid out, gradually spiraling headfirst into the berattled Aztec warriors below, to the hysterical tones of the flautist who perched and posed atop the tower.
But even more theatrical moments awaited: next on our SMA Daze agenda was El Torero (bullfight). 
(For more pix of the flyers, plus a short video clip, go to

El Torero--Bullfight

We’d seen the placards around town for a couple weeks; having never before witnessed the spectacle, we decided to give it a go. The arena was a circular affair with concentric stepped concrete benches. All seats had a comparable view of the action, yet the high-status front row seats cost nearly double that of general admission, just two rows behind (which, at $25 each, struck us as pricey enough). Vendors made the rounds with cervezas and sodas and such delicacies as plastic tube-bags of potato chips soaked in lime juice and drenched with hot sauce. A brass orchestra at one end of the stands played all the Mexican folk favorites. As the matadors took to the ring in their colorful skintight costumes, the band struck up the iconic strains of the Corrida; the dolled-up machos fanning their purple capes and fawning to the admiring crowd.
A fellow marched around the ring with a blackboard inscribed with the breeding ranch, name, and weight of the first contestant, who promptly charged through the torile (bull chute) and into the ring. The assistant matadors had a go at taunting the toro, leaping to the safety of the barricades that dotted the perimeter, to the increasing frustration of the bull. A couple of lance-bearing fat guys rode in on blindfolded, mattress-corseted horses, and proceeded to prick the bull in his shoulder haunches, clearly pissing him off..
Then the star of the night, Ignacio Garibas, strode into the ring, all asparkle in his gold-sequined traje de luces, to cheers, whistles, and adoring cries, “Nacho! Nacho!” And so the fight was on. Nacho worked the bull admirably, eliciting “Olés!” from the crowd for his more dramatic passes. At one point the bull clearly nicked him, causing Nacho to retreat for a breather and a glass of water (and a few Advil?), while the junior matadors took turns annoying the bull. Nacho regained his composure and resumed center stage, stepping aside at one point as a couple of picadors stole into the ring, each baring a pair of colorfully plumed barbed pickets, which they deftly stuck into the bulls shoulder haunches, further enraging him. Nacho skillfully played the bull with more approaches, taunts, and flourishes; to more Olés from the crowd. Then it was time to trade purple cape for red cape and sword. More passes and posturing, including the iconic pose with arched back and sword dangling dramatically down the spine, just like in the posters. Finally, Nacho made his move, and in a single thrust, the bull went down. The roaring crowd took to their feet as one. A huge bouquet of roses appeared in Nacho’s arm. Ears were sawed off and Nacho hoisted them aloft with a flourish, parading around the ring. As he passed, hats and scarves were hurled his way (dutifully retrieved by junior matadors who reverently followed Nacho around the ring, tossing hats and such back from whence they came).
.The dead bull was hauled off on a horse-drawn litter and a janitorial crew swept onto the field with rakes to tidy things up, kind of like the between-sets scene on the clay courts of the French Open. Then the dude with the blackboard strode about with particulars on the next contestant. The gates of the torile were flung open, and… nothing. It took 10 minutes of coaxing, junior matadors waving capes and disappearing into the chute, before our reluctant toro finally sauntered out. Instead of being drawn to the flourishing capes, he noticeably shied away. They promptly called in the gordos on the padded horses, who mercilessly pricked his haunches, causing much bleeding but eliciting little display of emotion. Likewise the picadors and their plumed barbs; poor bull seemed more hurt and confused than enraged. Nacho strode onto the scene in his sparkly get-up, and did his best to elicit a few lunges from the toro, to a few half-hearted “Olés” from the crowd. Wisely, he called for the red cape and sword early on, thinking it best to put an end to this embarrassment. But the bull had other ideas, wandering away after being stabbed, sword falling out. Three times. Finally, with a fresh (presumably sharper) sword, the bull went down and the episode was over. No flowers. No ears.
There were five more bulls on the night’s docket. But we’d seen the good and the bad, and it was ugly enough. Besides, fresh entertainments awaited back at the Jardin...
(For more pics of the bullfight, and a video clip, go to


Fresh entertainments awaited back at the Jardin. So we took our leave from the bullfights. As we rounded the corner for a full view of the plaza, the first of the fireworks towers was ignited. We threaded our way through the crowd for a closer look, pinwheels sparking to life with glowing images of dolphins and angels. A rotating marquee sparkle-spelled “Bendicenos Sn Miguel” (bless us St. Mike) again and again as it spun around; smoke so thick, you could barely make out the words. 
Pinwheels and rockets fired and waned as the main fuse gradually worked its way to the top spinner, which sprayed sparks everywhere. Suddenly, it flared into warp drive, came unhinged from its pivot, and spun into space, to the cheers of the crowd. A second, even more dramatic castillo de cuetes (fireworks tower) was touched off. When that had played out, more traditional Disney-style fireworks filled the skies. No cordon of safety here! People wiped their eyes and brushed cinders out of their hair as the last flares faded and the crowd dispersed into the smoky haze, dimly illuminated by streetlamps. 
For more pics of night sparkles, go to