You hear the din of battle next to the church, the sound of rockets booming and you feel the ground shaking from five blocks away. Each Carnaval, in the tiny town of San Juan de la Vega Mexico, there is a re-enactment of a 400+ year old battle in honor of a local farmer named Juan aquino de la Vega – on the side of the people – a Robin Hood type person who robbed from the rich to give to the poor against the Viceroy and his men.
From the surrounding ranchos, hundreds of men and boys arrive on horseback carrying banners and flags, tipping and waving their cowboy hats. They are part of the procession which is held in honor of San Juan Bautista, the town’s patron saint and are here to participate in a blessing and prayer for the ensuing battle.
The parishoners follow, clasping photos of the saint to their chests entering the battlefield which lies adjacent to the church, immersing themselves in the minefield of boys and young men who are dressed as devils, jesters, clowns, cowyboys, campesinos, soldiers, revolutionaries, cross dressers, gang members or sporting t-shirts with full body images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They are taping explosive packets by the thousands to the ends of sledgehammers and detonating them on rocks and metal plates.
At noon, after prayers to San Juan, the crowd is pushed into a large circle. At each end a small canon is rolled into place. Men with toy guns, swords and plastic coke bottles for weapons, assemble to fight the battle and circle around, crouched low, raising up and down, awaiting the first canon blast. The canon goes off with a loud boom and swoosh. A big wad of rolled up burning paper lands in the middle of the circle next to a discarded plastic coke bottle and the fight begins. It’s an enactment though, and as you watch, you see that these men, however menacing they may seem, are doing a dance.
Back on the sledgehammer field, a train passes slowly by, whistle blowing the entire time as packets of fireworks explode under it’s wheels. We meet a group of young men who are dressed like gang members. They befriend us and ham it up for pictures. As they load charges onto their sledgehammers, Ron asks them what the largest charge they use looks like. They pile the packets on in a big show of bravado, then hand him the sledgehammer and begin dressing him for battle – loaning him sunglasses, a hat and neck scarf for his face. He refuses the extra packets of ammunition but says ok to the normal charge then grabs the sledgehammer and heads out to the field. Click on the photo above to see the video of parts of the day and Ron’s rite of passage and his thoughts afterward.
There is one more video in the works. It will be done in a day or two, showing the battlefield, the re-enactment of the battle, the procession, the pueblo of San Juan de la Vega, and local stories told by women of the community about this historic celebration.
I guess I should mention that the celebration for us is our ninth wedding anniversary. We really don’t like those typical out to dinner for lack of anything better to do celebrations, so this was perfect for us and an anniversary we will always remember. We had to go on the internet to figure out which anniversary the ninth is. It’s something like pottery or china. Not liking formal table settings, we took the bull in the china shop approach. We changed it to FIREWORKS because that’s what works for us!
If you missed the photo and video links, here they are: