Richard Jernigan -> RE: Something a little lighter for Cinco de Mayo (May 7 2021 5:13:38)
Maximillan was executed on a hill outside of the city of Santiago de Queretaro. During the time from his capture until his execution he was held in a convent in the city.
We used to go to Queretaro with the kids after Christmas. The tradition originated on a car trip to Mexico City to pick up a couple of guitars ordered from Juan Pimentel. The instruments were available a few of days after they were promised, as usual. Pimentel had a large professional clientele in the city, and their needs had highest priority.
I went by the shop one morning. The final rubdown of the polish was in progress, done by a couple of Pimentel's assistants/relatives. In the afternoon, with the car packed, and with my wife and kids in it, we parked in front of the shop on the Calle Dr. Martinez del Rio. After another hour or so we were on our way home.
When it got dark we stopped at Queretaro. Having never stayed there before we drove around until we spotted a hotel in a promising location, on a square in front of the Cathedral. They had a big room with three beds and balconies overlooking the square, for a cheap price. The hotel was old, a little worn around the edges, but clean and neat. They recommended La Flor de Queretaro on the corner for supper. It was good, but the only dish I remember was my three-year old son's standard order in Mexico, steak and potatoes.
The next morning we arose after the sun was well up, had a leisurely breakfast, and sat around the room drinking coffee from the Thermos we had them fill at the cafe, snacking on pan dulce. Monterrey was the planned destination, with a night at the Ancira. Glancing out the French doors to the balcony I noticed something going on in the square outside. I went out to see about it.
Back inside I said to my wife, "There are people making fireworks in the square. It's New Years Eve, want to stay another night?"
"Oh yes, of course!" she answered.
In those days there were itinerant fireworks clans. Each one drove around the country from one fiesta to the next in a convoy of trucks laden with gunpowder, chemicals for colors and special effects, used cardboard boxes, sticks and timbers of different sizes, and bales of old newspapers. Arriving in advance, they made the fireworks on the spot, and put up various structures. The operation in the square looked to be a big one.
Also in the square there were food stalls under tents, and vending carts. At 1:30 the crowd for comida was thick, but down a side street there were open air stalls with seats available. The cook and her husband made a fuss over the kids in standard Mexican fashion, and recited a short menu. I didn't hear them mention the robust sandwiches that were on display. I asked for tortas.
"Los llamamos guajalotes [turkeys]," I was informed.
"Bien, cuatro guajalotes, por favor."
"Quisiera plumas? [Do you want feathers?]"
"Sí, plumas de todo tipo."
While the cooking went on, we were treated to the history of Maximiliano, his capture and confinement in the convent across the street, and his eventual execution.
Back at the hotel, after sundown a crowd began to fill the plaza. A reception line of sorts formed below our balconies. Turned out it was the Mayor, the Governor, their spouses and entourages standing with their backs to the hotel wall. A steady stream of people filed by. Handshakes and abrazos of various degrees of intimacy and duration were exchanged according to the rank and gender of the participants.
About 10 PM the fireworks started. In those days fireworks in Mexico were meant to be dangerous to the spectators. Castillos were lit off. They are like windmills, only the blades are propelled by rockets affixed to their tips. They spew great deluges of sparks in a vertical plane. Teenage boys in white T-shirts ran under them, then returned to their ciiques so the holes burnt into their shirts could be admired.
As time went on the incendiary intensity mounted. Bursting rockets filled the rectangle of night sky above the plaza, lighting the upturned faces of the crowd. A nearly continuous volley of explosions filled the air with a steady floor shaking roar.
Our four-year old daughter was out on the balcony with us, jumping up and down with joy and excitement. Our three-year old son asked his mother to hold him, but seemed confident after she picked him up.
There are three closely spaced plazas at Queretaro. A mysterious surge of the crowd headed out of our plaza into an adjacent one. Eventually people started coming back. I called down from the balcony to ask what was going on. A man explained that the giant Christmas tree in the next plaza had caught fire from sparks falling from the rockets, blazing spectacularly and letting the firemen join the fun.
Nearing a climax toward midnight, a contraption that had puzzled me was put into action. It looked like an oversized wagon wheel, set up vertically on its axle like a wheel would be. The axle was fixed to a stout timber frame. The rockets on the big wheel were lit off and it began to rotate, faster and faster. Two men hauled on a lever. The wheel turned on its side, then took off, flying up into the air. Everybody cheered. At an altitude of 40 or 50 feet the wheel began to fire rockets down into the crowd. Everybody cheered louder. The crowd surged, some trying to escape the descending fire, others trying to make sure that their clothes were scorched.
In what we mistook for the climax, a 40-foot high castillo with horizontal blades was set off. It produced a spectacular circle of flame and smoke, and a satisfying cascade of sparks for the crowd below.
After the castillo finally sputtered out, everything quieted for a moment. Then the real climax was revealed. The entire front of the cathedral lit up with white phosphorous so bright it was almost painful to look at. There were streams of brilliant light streaming from the highest points, covering the walls in white flames.
As our eyes adjusted to the glare, we could see that the bell tower was crowded with people. Under the anti-clerical Constitution of 1917 it was still illegal to appear on the street dressed as a priest. We learned later that the church and the city alternated paying for the fireworks. This year it was the church's turn, and they dressed in full regalia to take credit for it.
People were silenced at first then broke into the loudest cheer of the night. The brilliance continued for minutes, then began to dim a little. Nobody in the crowd moved. They seemed to expect something more. As the light dimmed further, a figure showered with sparks began to be seen lounging against the front of the church, calmly smoking a cigarette. It was the jefe of the fireworks makers. People began to clap and cheer. As the applause peaked he took off his hat and made a sweeping bow. His straw hat was in flames.
People began to crowd into the church for midnight mass. Our daughter watched in silence. As the last person left the plaza she turned to me. "They're just going home for supper," she said. "They'll be back in a little while."
We had to search the room for our son. We found him asleep where he had taken shelter under one of the beds.
The next year my parents asked to come to Mexico with us. They had been across the border many times, but never into the interior. We went to Guanajuato for some colonial achitectural splendor, then to Queretaro for the fireworks. Neither disappointed.
As we sat in the hotel room on New Year's Day, there was a stout knock on the door. It turned out to be my motorcycling buddy Willie McK and his wife Jean. They had been camping on the beach at Manzanillo, but knowing we would be in Queretaro, they decided to show up and find us for a New Year's ritual practiced in the South of the USA. They recognized our car parked on the street behind the hotel.
For good luck, you need to eat black-eyed peas on the first day of the year. They had the peas, a camp stove and a pot, but no dishes to serve the food on. Our daughter solved the problem by producing the doll's tea set she had received for Christmas and insisted on bringing to Mexico. Six adults and two kids scarfed down cow-peas from miniature dishes and spiced them up with leftover salsa saved from breakfast.
We returned every year for several years.
Images are resized automatically to a maximum width of 800px