For foreigners visiting Guatemala, you need to leave the country every six months and get your passport stamped. For most, that means crossing the Mexican border and coming back the next day. Over the weekend, Hilary and I made our first border crossing to Cuauhtémoc, a small town buried in the gumdrop mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. After a hard sleep on a rickety mattress at the Arcoiris, we crossed back into Guatemala, got our stamp without any hassle, and met up with Fredy and the family to spend the rest of the weekend at the Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria. The festival was in Jacaltenango, a richly Mayan city that rests on a high mountain slope and looks down on the plains of Mexico sitting just across the border. On Saturday night, before the festivities began, Hilary and I found a quaint and friendly restaurant hidden in the alleys of the bustling market center and sat down for a plate of nachos. Five unbelievable hours later, that quaint restaurant didn’t exist.
As we left the crowded market, we made our way back to our host’s home, navigating an ongoing parade in the darkness of the dim one-way streets. Just as we arrived at the house, the family was preparing to join the parade with their marimba players and their two “Torocitos.”
A “Torocito” is a wooden construction, formed like a miniature tent, that is carried by parade-goers as they dance through the streets and represents the sacrifice of a bull to the virgin Mary. Each Torocito is adorned with the figure of a bull’s face on its front, and the entire tent-like body is fully covered by an intricate system of dormant fireworks.
Jubilant coffee farmers carry their heavy marimbas through the city for two hours , switching between who gets to carry and who gets to play. The Torocitos follow behind, twirling and dancing their roman-candle hides for the cheering families that fill the wrought-iron balconies. Hilary and I each took a turn carrying the bulls, trying our hardest to dance with the cumbersome apparatus weighing heavy on our gringo shoulders. The parade ended at the historic white cathedral, where the entire town park was filled with proud Guatemalans shouting prayers of thanks to Mother Mary. Shadowy faces of curious children poke out of the tops of the manicured trees and great-grandmothers in their Mayan dresses smile to see such life burning in the city. The Priest said a few words over the crowd, which was obviously restless with anticipation, and asked parents to remove their children from the park shrubbery. Just as he finished his last refrain of a Catholic prayer, a rumble silenced the crowd and demanded the people’s attention.
Standing 30 feet high on opposite ends of the park were two steel-rod constructions. Each of them boasted intricate design and impeccable symmetry. The rumble that won the people’s interest were two great red eruptions at the bottom of the first edifice, the explosive start of a great web of paper fuses. The 3-story metal golems, to my dismay, but to the wonderment of the majority, were enrobed in fireworks.
The firework display was very beautiful, but impressively dangerous. Each tower sprayed embers at the crowd, a dense mass of people that stood only five feet away from its summit. The crowd laughed with anxious fear as the sparks rained from the sky and mortars were tossed into the city streets. During the middle of the second tower’s display, a whizzer-type firecracker took a wrong turn out of the platform and caught itself in an as-yet-unexploded part of the contraption. The whizzer’s propulsion shook the metal safety hazard, and its burners tripped a fuse that wasn’t on cue. A wheel started spinning with flaming sparklers and shot a fireball into a crowded group of unsuspecting onlookers. Concerned teenagers stamped out the fiery intruder, which was intent on setting a trio of grandmothers ablaze. People in the crowd ducked and began to run, but realized that being caught in a stampede was maybe more dangerous that enduring the rain of ember. The pillars of fire finally finished their onslaught, and the crowd took their cue to clear the town square and make way for the night’s most terrible spectacle- The Burning of the Bulls.
Young men tied bandanas around their faces and pulled their hoods over greased black hair. The town park, for the first time all day, sat empty, but a thousand onlookers huddled around the fences and park monuments for the main event of the evening. At 12:00 midnight, the first bull stepped to the edge of the park. The mountains sat darkly over the silent village and even the streetlights glinted in anticipation. From across the park, you could hear the phosphorous of the first match slide across the side of the box, and we stopped breathing as the small blaze crept to the fuse. Fire met paper, and the first Torocito took off. The wooden bull danced violently through the square, spitting roman candles in every direction and dropping sparklers to singe frantic ankles. Hundreds of young boys, hiding behind their sweat-soaked bandanas, chased the spitting bull around the park in the most chaotic stampede of juvenile aggression. The boys howled towards the crescent moon while they dodged flaming grenades and shook the fire from their bodies. They grabbed the frame of the bull and tried to confuse the runner, a young man trapped in a dark wooden triangle and deafened by the explosions of gunpowder, who crashed fearlessly into the horde of maddened sons. Once the first bull’s ammunition ran dry, another runner was ready at the park’s edge to take its place. The madness continued for 25 bulls, each one growing ever more daring, each one searching for the exposed flesh of a young Guatemalan to singe its brand.
I had no bandana and no hood, but I joined the mass as cautiously as I could with a parascoping camera in the air the whole time. Each video looks like a warzone or a fiery zombie apocalypse with swarms of contorted bodies swirling around the flaming bulls, twisting, jumping, gnashing, and cackling. Waves of terror and valor splashed across boy’s faces as my lens captured only rippling shadows encircling the bucking cannon animal. I walked away from the pit of runners unscorched, but completely awestruck by the madness of the event. It is a celebration wholly unique in the entire world.
When I left, a few bulls were still in line for their turn to terrorize, but at 1:00 in the morning with a 9-hour car ride the next day, I was ready to lay down. The house we stayed at had three levels, and Hilary and I were on the very top. I exited the last flight of stairs and walked out onto the roof of the house, where our room overlooked the mountain slopes and I walked to the edge to see if I could spot the lights of cars driving along the Mexican flatland. When I arrived at the edge of the roof, I wasn’t greeted by the headlights of cars in another country. I was met by a pillar of smoke and a tower of flame, 200-feet away from our front door, that was burning the center of Jacaltenango to the ground.
No one is sure where the spark came from. It may have been a dancing bull, or it could have been a child’s sparkler. It may have been grandmother with a candle praying to Mary, or it could have been a chicken-fryer that got too hot. Whatever it was, it spread fast and burned violently. It started in the crowded market, and it set everyone inside the claustrophobic alleys to a rapid exodus. Screams of Guatemalans echoed against the mountains and terror ran like ocean current against short adobe houses. I grabbed a friend from the house and ran outside to see what we could do. A woman burst from her home and screamed that they needed water. I ran back into the house and grabbed a small pot, filled it as fast I could, and told Fredy’s son to fill as many as he could find. When I reached the street again, I started running, but I didn’t know where to go. If I went into the wrong alley, I could block people trying to run out. Not knowing the maze of the market, I could easily trap myself in a spot I couldn’t find my way out of. Two people saw me with my pan and told me not to go. They said firemen were on their way and my small pot of water didn’t matter; my measly drops wouldn’t help anything. Without a great argument, I slumped back into the house, ashamed that I was too weak to help and too gringo to know a better solution. I went back up to the roof and saw the fire growing. Everyone from the celebration in the town park had formed lines around the inferno, tossing buckets, pans, and bowls of water and sand into the blaze as fast as they could. By that time, all the family was on the roof watching. I asked the owner of the house if there was anything I could do. He told me no, that there were enough people down there already, then he turned back to look at his own city, burning with no end in sight. He breathed heavy, pursed his lips, and tightened his shoulders. He looked at me again and told me grab a bucket. I imagine he was thinking we weren’t going to take pictures while his friends’ livelihoods were in danger. He grabbed a trashcan and put it out on the street. I ran a paint-bucket from the clothes-washing water reservoir at the back of the house to fill the trash can, bringing fresh gallons as fast as I could as members of the community used our front door as a filling station. Every Jacalteco within miles was either pouring water, running it, or throwing it at the unflinching fire. Thirty minutes after it had started, the firemen still hadn’t arrived. As there was no fire station in Jacaltenango, firefighters were on their way from a nearby village. I sloshed water all over the house as I prayed as hard as I have in a long time, and Hilary did the same from the rooftop. The firetruck siren never rang, but people kept filling from the trash can. I saw 80-year-old women make three trips from our door with buckets of water to be part of the fight. Guatemalans are strong. An hour after the fire started, thanks to a lot of sweat, many buckets, and a city loud with prayer, the town cheered. The fire was out.
The night ended much later, after I had dried myself off and shared stories of the event with the family around the kitchen table. They cut off the power to the city, so we sat around a candle and drank Cuba Libres to help our nerves. It turns out Fredy had led the effort to put out the fire, organizing the bandana-clad boys into water-passing lines and assigning them to strategic spots around the blaze. The restaurant where Hilary and I shared nachos only a few hours before was now a pile of ashes. Though it started in the worst place possible, a crowded market full of drunk people filled with grease fryers, not a single person was injured. I laid down to sleep at 5:00 on Sunday morning, thanking God for His mercy and His strength, and for the amazing example of community that saved a city from flames. My nine-hour car ride back to Chimaltenango the next day was made more comfortable by my exhaustion and my gratitude to be safe after Mexico, after the bulls, and after the burning.